What happened at COP26? And what next?

The short answers to these questions are simple: in the face of escalating climate breakdown, COP26 did little to shift our trajectory away from catastrophe, away from business-as-usual and towards curbing fossil fuel use. Rich countries have refused to step up and meet their obligations to those who have least to cause the climate crisis.

In the words of Greta Thunberg, more “blah, blah, blah”.

And as for what comes next, of course we go on fighting to keep the chance of staying beneath 1.5C alive.

The long version? After two weeks with a flurry of announcements, greenwash, struggles over seemingly minor details of text, and anger from civl society massed on the streets of Glasgow, it’s worth unpacking some of the details of what was really agreed, or not. How does the jargon translate into real world outcomes, literally of life and death? In these details we can see beneath the media spin and glossy announcements the brutal realities of power, money, and neocolonialism.

1.5C ‘on life support’

As the window of opportunity is closing to stay within 1.5C heating and avoid the worst climate catastrophe, where are we left as COP26 ends?

Under the Paris climate deal, nations had to submit updated voluntary commitments to climate action (known as nationally determined contributions or NDCs) before the talks. Unsurprisingly, these are generally lacking in substance or urgency. Many lack clear deliver plans and delay meaningful change until after 2030. Climate Action Tracker’s useful analysis finds that even with all new pledges for 2030, we will still emit roughly twice as much in 2030 as required for 1.5C.

They estimate if all current pledges for emissions cuts by 2030 are met, this gives only a 50% chance of staying below 2.4C.

Of course 1.5C itself is no ‘safe level’. Many areas have already experienced devastating wildfires, floods, hurricanes and heatwaves at 1.1C. These, in combination with longer-term impacts such as drought, disproportionately affect countries who have done least to cause the problem and have fewest resources to deal with them.

One of the most important outcomes of COP26 is the wording in the ‘Glasgow climate pact’ (the final text which all countries agreed to at the end of the negotiations), which “requests” that countries “revisit and strengthen” their targets by the end of 2022 “as necessary to align with the Paris Agreement temperature goal…taking into account different national circumstances”.

This is vital given the alarming gap between where we are and where we need to be. Under the Paris deal, countries were only expected to update their pledges every five years. Holding governments to this will be a huge task for the international climate movement before COP27 in Egypt next year. Immediately after signing up to this wording, the Australian government put out a statement refusing to alter their 2030 target over the next year. Slow hand clap.

Debts to the Global South remain unpaid

Developing countries came into COP26 with a clear demand - payment of desperately needed funding. In Copenhagen in 2009, rich countries promised to transfer $100 billion a year to developing countries by 2020 to help them adapt to climate impacts and to cut emissions. 

But this promise was not met. The latest figures, from 2019 show the total sum falling $20 billion short. Even worse, Oxfam’s analysis from 2017-18 from showed only a fifth of funding was given as grants, with most of the rest only provided as loans, frequently at unfavourable rates. Much so-called ‘climate finance’ is therefore geared towards generating profit, and may be actually be increasing countries’ debt burdens  

Even starting COP26, there was very little trust that rich countries would make good this failure. It should also be remembered that these negotiations took place during a pandemic where the gross global inequity of vaccine distribution between rich and poor countries earned the term ‘vaccine apartheid’ , and demonstrated again the willingness to sacrifice lives in the Global South.

There was indeed no commitment at COP26 to deliver $100bn a year before 2023. Wealthy countries also resisted the demand that they make this up by providing more than that in 2024 and 2025. They also refused calls for transparency and a clear definition of “climate finance” - in the words of the finance lead for the Alliance of Small Island States, for climate finance to be “predictable, accessible, grants-based and most importantly significantly scaled up”.

In a powerful speech (which you can watch in full here), Mia Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados, reminded world leaders that in comparision to the failure on climate funding, $9 trillion had been generated by governments in quantitative easing over the past 18 months of the pandemic.

Developing countries already face $70 billion a year costs of climate adaptation alone, and this is expected to rise to $140-300 billion by 2030, but just a quarter of climate finance provided has been for adaptation. The final text of the Glasgow pact urged developed countries to "urgently and significantly scale up" funds provided for adaptation to climate change, and to at least double adaptation funding from 2019 levels by 2025, which would take it to $40 billion, still much less than is needed.

Loss and damage

Financial assistance to make poorer countries more resilient to climate shocks and to enable them to develop without reliance on fossil fuels is urgently needed. But some climate impacts that are so catastrophic that they cannot be prepared for or adapted to.

One of the key demands put forward at COP26 by the G77 and China (a global majority bloc which their negotiators pointed out covered 6 of every 7 people on earth) was for a new financing facility to compensate for loss and damage. This has long been resisted by richer countries who are responsible for the majority of historic carbon emissions, fearing it will end in international courts making them liable for trillions of dollars. 

Unsurprisingly, this proposal was swiftly deleted from the negotiating text, replaced with a ‘dialogue’ to be set up on loss and damage which would last until 2024. Rich nations, including the US and EU representatives were denounced for hypocrisy as they offered warm words of solidarity and urgency in public speeches while behind closed doors blocking meaningful steps on loss and damage finance as well as other demands from those worst affected by the climate crisis.

Kicking the fossil fuel habit (or not)

It may seem extraordinary that before this year the role of fossil fuels in causing climate change has never been mentioned in a COP outcome text. In fact this simply demonstrates the control exerted by the industry and its government allies over the negotiations. This year, Global Witness found 503 delegates linked to the fossil fuel industry, more than any single country’s delegation

In Glasgow, the initial draft text called upon parties "to accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels”. This was then weakened to “...accelerating efforts towards the phase-out of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, recognizing the need for support towards a just transition;”

Global fossil fuel subsidies are at least $600 billion every year. Since no one seemed to have a definition of what ‘inefficient’ fossil fuel subsidies might be, you don't need to be a cynic to predict that governments are likely to judge all their own fossil fuel subsidies to be ‘efficient’ and therefore outside the scope of the agreement.

Unabated coal power' is code for coal power without carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. But the potential for carbon capture to actually make a significant dent in coal emissions is highly doubtful. As the text was being written, news emerged of yet another carbon capture project failing to perform as predicted

However the media attention was not on these gaping loopholes, but on India’s dramatic last minute intervention to change the wording from ‘phase out’  to ‘phase down’. This followed a push from China and India to weaken the text in a last minute meeting between representatives of the four biggest polluters - the US, China, India, and the EU, and Alok Sharma from the UK government.  

Rejecting this amendment would have meant reopening the entire text for renegotiation, so the change was accepted, with much anger from countries who felt they had been sidelined. Fiji’s Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum said, “What we would like to express is not just our astonishment but our immense disappointment at the manner in which this has been introduced.”

India's intervention makes them easily positioned as the public scapegoat for the weak outcome, avoiding scrutiny of other countries' role. There is no need to be an advocate for Narendra Modi or India's coal mining expansion, to recognise that the story of COP26 is far from that simple. Earlier in the negotiations, India had called for the text to say that all fossil fuels must be phased down in an equitable manner. This would include not just coal (the fuel of choice for many poorer countries) but also oil and gas (the choice for many wealthier countries). 

Of course, the inclusion of oil and gas would not be acceptable to powerful interests, notably the US and EU. Although staying under 1.5C depends on there being no new fossil fuel development, including oil and gas, the fossil fuel juggernaut continues unchecked. During COP26 a draft list was leaked of EU cross-border projects eligible for fast-track permits and public funding. It included 30 major gas developments worth some €13bn. Meanwhile, with Biden’s executive order temporarily pausing new federal oil and gas leases having been struck down by a judge last June, the largest offshore oil and gas lease sale in U.S. history took place just after COP26. And in the UK, the Cambo oil field, thought to contain 800 million barrels of oil, is set to get the green light.

Carbon trading - a licence for polluters

High stakes negotiations were also taking place in Glasgow over ‘Article 6’, the last part of the 'Paris rulebook' to be finalised. It deals with carbon trading. The important thing to remember about carbon trading / offsetting is that it does not in itself cut emissions, it simply moves them around, as polluters pay for emissions cuts elsewhere. It is possible to set rules that cause some reduction in emissions by getting polluters to buy more ‘carbon credits’ than they use, cancelling some of them. But there are many examples of carbon offsetting failing. The claimed emissions reductions from projects turn out to be non-existent, exaggerated or delayed. So Article 6 has the potential to significantly undermine the entire Paris agreement. To make it even worse, offsetting projects can lead to land grabs and human rights abuses.

Agreement was finally reached in Paris, and while some of the worst proposed loopholes were closed, the overall outcome is worrying. The risk of widespread double counting of emissions cuts (by the purchaser and the country where they happen) was avoided. This, as well as the use of highly dodgy ‘avoided deforestation’ credits were both ruled out. Indigenous people also won a commitment to an independent grievance process for disputes around carbon offsetting projects.

However, the system will allow old Kyoto Protocol credits from 2013 onwards to be carried over into the new system. As this system lacked proper scrutiny of credits, this risks flooding the market with 300 million cheap ‘zombie’ credits which provide no climate benefit. There are also question marks about whether 

Attempts by developing countries to set a high rate of cancellation of credits (essential if the system were to actually drive emissions reductions) were blocked. Just  2% of credits will be automatically cancelled and another 5% paid into a fund to help developing countries adapt to climate change. For credits sold directly between two countries there will be no obligation to cancel any at all (more explanation on how this works here). 

This is not just about the details though, but about attempting to tackle the climate crisis through a system based on the commodification of carbon and nature. Past experience shows that the outcomes of this, by its nature, will be heavily weighted towards benefiting financial traders and enabling continued pollution through offsets, rather than genuine emissions cuts or benefiting local communities.

A blitz of announcements: ‘Government by press release’

As COP26 president, the UK government scheduled a range of announcements, particularly during the first week. Some commenters felt the formal process was in danger of “drowning in announcement blitz” and that Boris Johnson was bringing his trademark ‘Government by press release’ to management of a UN climate summit. 

Critics included Mohamed Adow from Power Shift Africa who argued that this endangered the essential focus on negotiated decisions which countries can scrutinise and be held accounted for.

Other commentators celebrated the potential for these initiatives to mobilise more action on climate change. Climate Action Tracker was cautious, however, finding the announcements only made a small contribution to narrowing the gap to 1.5C. 

Not all the initiatives are as impressive as the initial press release implied. Below, we review some of the most significant developments.

Protecting forests

The Glasgow Declaration on Forests and Land Use was signed by 100 countries representing 85% of the globe’s forested land, it pledges to end or reduce deforestation by 2030, and has attracted $14 billion in public and private pledges of funding. 

It would have been a surprise to many to see Brazilian President, Jair Bolsonaro, on the list of signatories, given his disastrous push to open up the Amazon to increased deforestation. But Greenpeace Brazil executive director, Carolina Pasquali, pointed out, “There’s a very good reason Bolsonaro felt comfortable signing on to this new deal. It allows another decade of forest destruction and isn’t binding.” 

Those who were unimpressed reminded us that this is not the first declaration on forests. The 2014 New York Declaration for Forests promised to reduce deforestation by 50% by 2020 and end it by 2030. Since then, deforestation has only risen, contributing what the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates as 23% of total carbon emissions

Other experts were quick to point out a loophole in the Declaration. It focuses primarily on ‘deforestation,’ however under UN definitions, land is not technically deforested if it is not developed into other commercial uses, or if it’s converted to monoculture tree plantations. This term also largely excludes logging for biomass because trees are assumed to be eventually regrown. Which is very convenient for signatories Canada, the US and Russia, the world’s leading producers of wood pellets for export, as well as the UK and the largest EU nations, each of which are major consumers of biomass for burning, half of which comes from native forests. Again a pattern can be seen where the activities of richer countries, the Global North, escape scrutiny and regulation.

A $1.5bn fund will also be established to protect the world's second largest tropical rainforest, in the Congo Basin. A moratorium on new logging concessions was lifted by the DRC government in July, and campaigners are concerned that the offer of new money will not be contingent on the ban being reinstated.

In a separate and encouraging development, more than 30 of the world's biggest financial companies have promised to end investment in activities linked to deforestation by 2025, with a focus on agricultural commodities - palm oil, soy, beef and leather, pulp and paper. The campaign for divestment from fossil fuels has mad huge progress, this may encourage further campaigning to cut the flow of finance and trade which supports deforestation. 

Methane alliance

An alliance was launched to attempt to cut emissions of the greenhouse gas methane by 30 percent by 2030, with over 100 countries signing up. 

Methane, which is 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, is leaking from gas pipelines, oil wells, fossil fuel processing plants and landfills all over the world, as well as being produced by livestock. Around 60% of methane emissions are produced by human activities, and human-caused methane is estimated to be responsible for at least 25% of today's global warming.

There are no individual targets for members of the new alliance, so there is little transparency or detail on how this reductionis meant to be achieved.

Attempts to cut fossil fuel use (Part 2)

Coal initiatives: A UK government press release announced the “end of coal was in sight” with "190 countries and organisations" agreeing to end coal. Understanding who had signed up to what required some untangling, since there it included different initiatives with varying levels of ambition. Some countries signing up don't burn coal anyway but had signed up in ‘solidarity’. Poland did not help the confusion by pledging to phase out coal in the 2030s then immediately backtracking and saying it still intended to be burning coal until 2049. 

Absent from the list are some of the world’s biggest coal-dependent countries, including Australia, India, China and the US. But there were some steps forward. Vietnam committed to ending coal in the 2040s and Indonesia trailed the possibility of bringing its coal phase out forward from the 2050s to 2040 with international financial assistance. Ukraine announced a 2035 coal exit, putting pressure on Poland and Germany. To find out more about countries' coal commitments there is a useful analysis by Ember  

Ending international funding for fossil fuel development: statement committing countries and institutions to halt all financing for fossil fuel development overseas and divert the spending to green energy was signed by the UK, US, Canada and Germany, along with institutions such as the European Investment Bank and East African Development Bank. Other countries such as Germany, Spain and the Netherlands also signed up later.

Before COP26 Japan and South Korea, followed by China, already pledged to end funding for coal overseas. If these and other countries and institutions were persuaded to halt overseas fossil fuel funding, shifting to renewables, it would make a huge difference. And, even more importantly, halting subsidies and support for fossil fuel development at home...

Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance: With very few countries supporting, this alliance of countries committing to end oil and gas extraction could be seen as a small step, but it was refreshing to see commitments that actually felt appropriate to the existential climate threat. Launched by Denmark and Costa Rica, with France, Ireland, Portugal, and Sweden joined the alliance, along with Greenland, Quebec and Wales. Together, the core coalition accounts for 0.2% of global oil production, up to 0.8% if New Zealand and California, which don’t comply with the full membership criteria are included, along with Italy which declared itself “a friend” of the group. 

South Africa 'Just Energy Transition Partnership': A ‘groundbreaking’ deal was negotiated by South Africa with France, Germany, the UK, the US and the EU for an $8.5 billion package of grants and concessional finance over 3-5 years to accelerate the retirement of coal plants, including support to reskill coal workers and social protection measures. While coverage in Climate Home News focuses on the fund's role in building up South Africa's renewables capacity, another report points out that the country may be set to massively expand gas production. One to watch.

Private finance claims fail to impress

Of all the announcements, the quickest to fall apart was Mark Carney’s grand statement that investors worth $130 trillion would put climate at the heart of their investing to help the net zero transition. It sounded too good to be true and it was. These funders would only need to allocate a small percentage of their investments to actual net-zero activity, had no hard commitment to net zero and members would be free to continue investing in fossil fuels.

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres had clearly had enough of this kind of thing. He announced he would be launching a group of experts to propose clear standards to measure and analyse net-zero commitments from the private sector.

The most exclusionary COP ever - but civil society made their voices heard

In the run up to COP26, Global South delegates and activist faced huge barriers which prevented many from being able to come. 

In the first week, civil society observers found not just long queues to get in but that they were barred from the actual negotiating rooms for the opening plenaries and leaders summit.

Youth climate activist Alexandria Villesenor spoke of her frustration on Twitter, "At COP25 in Madrid, I entered negotiating spaces and observed, which is what being a "NGO Observer" is all about. Here, at #COP26 I haven't been able to observe at all. I feel lost, like I'm here as an ornament or to tell reporters what gives me hope over and over and over..."

Outside, protests were widespread, in particular for the Climate Strike on Friday 5th November and the Global Day of Action on Saturday 6th, when an estimated 25,000 and 100,000 people, respectively, took to the streets of Glasgow, demanding action (photos and video from Saturday's march). There were also around a hundred other protests around the UK and many more worldwide, calling for climate justice and highlighting specific struggles, for example protests against aviation greenwash. There was a strong theme of worker solidarity with climate activists, with youth climate strikers joining with striking cleansing workers in Glasgow and a significant trade union presence on demonstrations in other major cities.

What now?

Climate scientist Peter Kalmus summed it up:

“Unless COP26’s failure is recognized as failure, there is no way to learn from it. Allowing global leaders to feel that what happened in Glasgow was acceptable — and spinning it as some sort of success — would be a disastrous mistake. It would give them further license to pander to the fossil fuel industry and fail again next year.”

We need to target our own government. Most immediately about the proposed Cambo oil field and Cumbria coal mine - we cannot go straight from hosting COP26 to opening up major fossil fuel projects, the quickest way to put 1.5C out of reach. And these are not the only proposed fossil fuel sites in the UK (see for example this important test case for Horse Hill in Surrey).

Local campaigning, both negative, against immediate threats like this, and positive, making the case for climate jobs, for better public transport and clean air, will continue to be vital, fighting from the ground up and connecting to everyday concerns to engage more people.

But if COP26 taught us anything it is that this is a global movement and we need to connect in solidarity with those across the world who are on the front line of climate change, exploitative fossil fuel extraction, and, with increasing likelihood, land grabs for carbon offsetting.

To keep your spirits and determination up, Rebecca Solnit suggests ways to confront the climate crisis without losing hope.

Together, let's keep fighting for real climate justice.


Further reading on COP26 outcomes - Carbon Brief has more policy detail here

Photo credit: COP26 on Flickr