“Was COP26 a success?” is the wrong question
Early Friday morning, I found myself, smartphone in hand, poring through UN style guides and twitter hot-takes in an attempt to learn whether swapping ‘urge’ for ‘request’ strengthened or weakened ambition in the draft COP26 agreement text.
I’d just returned from Glasgow, having visited the conference twice to talk about zero carbon food systems and how to decarbonise steel this decade. Maybe it was the frenetic feel of the blue zone, the last minuteness of a Covid COP or the long train rides, but I was in minor despair that fossil fuels had escaped symbolic condemnation: COPs encourage a certain kind of madness by exegesis. Faced with conflicting interpretations, it felt easy to fall back on the question of whether Glasgow would be a success.
But this is the wrong question to ask. The world doesn’t succeed or fail in one negotiation. The right questions to ask are: how fast are we making progress and how will we translate words signed in Glasgow into real economy change.
How fast are we making progress?
By the middle of week two, the debate was about whether the electrifying claim that Glasgow put the world on track to a temperature rise of 1.8oC, or whether Climate Action Tracker’s more sanguine view that pledges add up to 2.4oC was more accurate. For climate ‘tipping points’, that half degree makes a huge difference.
Both numbers, it turns out, are defensible. The lower 1.8oC figure imagines world leaders do what they’ve pledged to do, not just now but – in the case of India, whose new pledges are a huge step forward – every year for the next 50. The higher, and more pessimistic, 2.4 oC looks instead at what the world has said it will do this decade: the timeframe that leaders making pledges in Glasgow might reasonably influence. Both are improvements on the 2.7oC pathway that the UN calculated before Glasgow. Both are progress; 2.4oC is more plausible than 1.8oC, but neither is enough.
That is why returning in 2022 (not 2025) with new and strengthened nationally determined contributions or NDCs (formal pledges for emissions reductions) is the most important decision in the formal Glasgow Climate Pact. The pace of technology change and rise of social concern has long outpaced the leisurely five year cadence of the Paris Agreement’s ‘ratchet’ mechanism.
Returning to make new pledges next year creates agency: I come away from Glasgow with a sense of determination that the world is lowering the trajectory of future warming (not optimism that we will lower warming in the future). Aristotle said that virtue is formed by doing: it is not a one-off act but a habit. Let us then make an annual habit of ratcheting our emissions down and ratcheting our ambition up.
How will the real economy change?
The second major shift in Glasgow comes alongside the formal COP process. Its predecessor, the Paris agreement, was an act of hope: nobody knew how much we’d pay to decarbonise, or whether we could keep temperature rise to well below 2oC, or 1.5oC. The six years since Paris have seen this hope translated into action.
An accidental alliance of the US and Germany (creating demand) and China (subsidising supply) made solar cheap for the entire world. UK policy makers, alongside German and Danish companies, did the same for offshore wind. Through most of the world the cheapest power is now the cleanest: that is why India can promise that half its electricity will be renewable by 2030, why China can end overseas coal finance and why the UK is phasing out coal power by 2025 and all fossil power by 2035. We now know net zero is cheap and that 1.5oC is (barely) within reach.
The UK COP26 presidency innovated by driving sectoral change alongside country pledges in Glasgow. The UK wanted deals on coal, cash, cars, and trees and the first week of the conference was dominated by big announcements on these. The EU and USA brought a methane pledge and a steel deal.
These deserve critical scrutiny but linking sectoral action to the COP process aligns a UN forum that is essential – not least because it gives equal voice to all countries, rich or poor – with coalitions of the willing, who are most able to out manoeuvre climate blockers.
What the six sectoral deals amounted to
Coal – pretty positive: the coal agreements over the past month didn’t lead to an all-encompassing phase out as many had hoped. But China’s decision to end overseas financing kills the opportunity for coal expansion. Already, two thirds of future coal in Asia is now unlikely to go ahead. Alongside this, the new Just Energy Transition Partnership, which will finance South Africa’s coal exit, could be rolled out in other developing countries.
Cars – in the slow lane: this should have been an easy win. Key European and US markets and most major automakers have fossil car phase out dates. But China, Germany, Toyota and Volkswagen declined to sign up to a Glasgow side deal. The real action will be in the market and spurred by national policy: Tesla outsold Audi, BMW, and Mercedes combined in Germany in September, and the UK led the way on policy with a a ban on new fossil HGVs by 2040.
Cash – more greenwash than greenbacks: the eye catching $130 trillion Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) headline fell apart almost on the same day it launched, accused of questionable accounting, no action before 2030, and the lack of a hard commitment to net zero (whoops).
Trees – the big win: that Brazil and Indonesia agreed to “halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030” is quite a coup, and the largest side deal contributor to Glasgow’s temperature outcome. Of course, pledges are just words, but £14 billion in public and private pledges is a lot of finance to back these pledges. The UK would be wise to use its presidency year to capitalise on this success. Meanwhile, at home we need to lower demand for the products that cause deforestation, including by implementing the recommendations of the National Food Strategy.
Methane – keeping 1.5 alive: it’s not possible to keep temperature rises to below 1.5oC without cutting methane rapidly, and the Global Methane Pledge could lower warming by 0.2oC. This is a game changer.
Steel – the start of a clean trade regime: the US and EU agreed a clean steel tariff deal about a month before COP26, which is the first time carbon clearly featured in trade. It’s a blueprint for bilateral, WTO-delay avoiding clean trade deals – one that a Global Britain might copy.
My inbox on Saturday night, just after the formal closure of COP, is filling up with quotes about the supposed success or failure of COP26. No, it has not delivered a 1.5oC world. No, it has not done enough to finance a just transition for the poorest. Yes, it is too weak on fossil fuels. But it has moved the dial a long way. Over the next year, the UK presidency can set up COP27 to move the dial further. Like virtue, success is a habit: I sensed in Glasgow that the world has determined that this is one virtuous habit it will keep.
[Image: COP26 World Leaders Summit Day 2 courtesy of No 10 via Flickr]