The COP26 UN climate talks in Glasgow have finally finished, and the gavel has come down on the Glasgow Climate Pact, which was agreed to by all 197 countries.
If the 2015 Paris Agreement provided a framework for countries to tackle climate change, then Glasgow has been the first major test of that high-water mark of global diplomacy.
So what have we learned from two weeks of world leaders’ statements, massive protests and side deals on coal, stopping fossil fuel finance and deforestation, as well as the final signed Glasgow Climate Pact?
From phasing out coal to carbon market loopholes, here’s what you need to know:
1: There was progress on cutting emissions, but nowhere near enough
The Glasgow Climate Pact is incremental progress, and it’s not the breakthrough moment needed to curb the worst impacts of climate change. The UK government, which was host and therefore president of COP26, wanted to “keep 1.5°C alive”, the strongest goal of the Paris Agreement. But at best, the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C is on life support — it has a pulse but it’s nearly dead.
Before COP26, the world was on track for 2.7°C of warming, based on commitments by countries and expectation of changes in technology. Announcements at COP26, including new pledges to cut emissions this decade by some key countries, have reduced this to a best estimate of 2.4°C.
The goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C is on life support — it has a pulse but it’s nearly dead.
More countries announced long-term net zero goals at COP26, and one of the most important was India’s pledge to reach net zero emissions by 2070. Critically, the country said it would get off to a quick start with a massive expansion of renewable energy in the next ten years so that it accounts for 50% of its total usage, reducing its emissions in 2030 by 1 billion tonnes (from a current total of around 2.5 billion).
Still, a world warming by 2.4°C is clearly very far from 1.5°C. Rather than showing the sharp cuts necessary to be on the 1.5°C trajectory the Paris pact called for, global emissions look likely to flatline this decade.
2: Still, the door is open for further cuts in the near future
The final text of the Glasgow Pact notes that current national climate plans — nationally determined contributions (NDCs), in climate change jargon — are far from what’s needed for 1.5°C of warming. It also requests that the countries come back next year with newly updated plans.
Under the Paris Agreement, new climate plans are needed every five years, which is why Glasgow — held five years after Paris plus a delay due to COVID — was seen as such an important meeting. But instead of waiting another five years, new climate plans next year could keep 1.5°C on life support for another 12 months and give campaigners and activists another year to shift government climate policies. It also opens the door to requesting further NDC updates from 2022 on to help ratchet up ambition this decade.
Although the Glasgow pact calls for only a “phase down” and not a “phase out” of coal, this is the first time fossil fuels have been mentioned in a UN climate talks declaration.
The Glasgow Climate Pact also states that the use of unabated coal should be phased down, as well as subsidies for fossil fuels. This wording is weaker than the initial proposals, with final text calling for only a “phase down” and not a “phase out” of coal — due to a last-second intervention by India — and calling out “inefficient” subsidies.
But this is the first time fossil fuels have been mentioned in a UN climate talks declaration (in the past, Saudi Arabia and others have stripped out this language). Acknowledging that use of coal and other fossil fuels need to be rapidly reduced to tackle the climate emergency is an important shift. The taboo of talking about the end of fossil fuels has finally been broken.
3: Rich countries continued to ignore their historical responsibilities
Developing countries called for funding from other countries to pay for “loss and damage”, such as the costs imposed by sea level rise and by cyclones and other storms. Small island states and climate-vulnerable countries say the historical emissions of major polluters have caused these impacts and therefore such funding is needed.
Developed countries, led by the US and EU , resisted taking any liability for these losses and damages. They vetoed the creation of a new “Glasgow Loss and Damage Facility” — a way of supporting vulnerable nations — despite it being called for by most countries.
4: Loopholes in carbon market rules remain and could be exploited by the fossil fuel industry and others
Carbon markets are a potential lifeline for fossil fuel companies, allowing them to claim “carbon offsets” and carry on business as (nearly) usual. Yes, a tortuous series of negotiations over article 6 of the Paris Agreement on market and non-market approaches to trading carbon was finally agreed at Glasgow. But even though the worst and biggest loopholes were closed, there is still scope for countries and companies to game the system.
Two things are clear: Powerful countries are moving too slowly, and they’ve made the political decision to not support major cuts in emissions or funding to help income-poor countries adapt to a warmer planet.
Outside the COP process, we need much clearer and stricter rules regarding carbon offsets. Otherwise, we can expect a series of exposés into carbon offsetting to be published by media outlets and NGOs, with new attempts emerging to try and close the remaining loopholes.
5: Thank climate activists for any progress — their next moves will be decisive
Two things are clear: Powerful countries are moving too slowly, and they’ve made the political decision to not support a major cuts in greenhouse gas emissions or funding to help income-poor countries adapt to a warmer planet.
But they are being pushed hard by their populations and particularly by climate campaigners and activists. Indeed, at COP26, we saw huge protests — with the youth Fridays for Future march and the Saturday Global Day of Action massively exceeding their expected numbers. (In the above photo are just two of more than 100,000 protesters who took to the streets in Glasgow.)
So the next steps of the activists and the climate movement matter. In the UK, those will be trying to stop the government from granting a license to exploit the new Cambo oil field off the north coast of Scotland.
Expect more action to focus on the financing of fossil fuel projects, as activists try to cut emissions by starving the industry of capital. Without citizen movements pushing countries and companies to act, we won’t curb climate change and protect our precious planet.
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