The stakes were high going into the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, as were the levels of cynicism and hope.
The meeting, a critical follow-up to the 2015 Paris Agreement, came at a time when the brutal, painful impacts of global warming are more obvious than ever: climate-intensified floods, fires, and heat waves affected millions worldwide this year. Those disasters emphasized the importance of immediate, drastic actions to fix the underlying problem and help people adapt to changes already locked in.
Activists, researchers, the climate-concerned, negotiators—all hoped the session could accelerate action to address the growing crisis. But as the meeting edges toward its conclusion, the results are decidedly mixed.
“You want to acknowledge that we are progressing,” says Sameera Savarala, a climate policy expert at the United Nations Development Programme. “But it’s not enough, and it’s not nearly fast enough.”
The major themes that emerged from the two-week talks all reflect this reality. As negotiators adjust the final texts—crucial documents that have to be accepted by all 197 parties to the Paris Agreement—the details may shift. But the bottom line isn’t likely to shift dramatically.
Can we still “keep 1.5 alive?”
The central issue is whether there are real plans to keep promises made to hold the temperature rise to a tolerable level.
In the weeks leading up to the meeting, the conference leader, Alok Sharma of the United Kingdom, stressed one major goal: to “keep 1.5 alive.” He wanted world leaders to make new commitments to emissions reductions that, if fulfilled, would keep the planet from warming past 1.5ºC (2.7ºF). That’s the more ambitious of two thresholds identified in the Paris Agreement, beyond which the frequency and intensity of heat waves, storms, and other climate risks greatly increase. Already, the world has warmed 1.1ºC.
Though some progress was made, the 1.5ºC goal is far from reach.
Ahead of the meeting, many countries updated their Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs, plans that outlined their goals for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. If accomplished, those plans would lead to planetary warming of about 2.7C (4.9ºF) by the end of the century, far above even the less ambitious 2ºC goal adopted in Paris.
During the meeting, world leaders announced a flurry of initiatives, pledges, and plans to get to net-zero emissions, some more credible and meaningful than others. India, the world’s third largest greenhouse-gas emitter, said it would hit net-zero by 2070—a long way off—but presented an ambitious plan to get half its energy from renewable sources by 2030.
More than 100 countries signed a pledge to cut emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, 30 percent by 2030, which could reduce warming by 0.2ºC in the coming decades (though some analyses suggest it could have less impact).
More than 130 countries promised to end deforestation by 2030, preserving rich forest carbon sinks and biodiversity strongholds.
And a group of more than 40 countries—the U.S., China, and India notably absent— vowed to phase out coal; another coalition said it would stop financing international coal power plant development; a small alliance announced it would begin to phase out fossil fuel production. Other promises, on electric vehicles and more, also emerged.
If all of the specific net-zero commitments and new long-term targets announced turned into reality, global temperature rise could be held to 1.8ºC (3.2ºF), according to independent analysts from the Climate Action Tracker (CAT) organization. But that is an enormous “if,” says Niklas Höhne, a climate policy expert at the Germany-based New Climate Institute and one of the analysts on the CAT report.
“Are these credible targets? No, not yet,” he says. Although countries are providing useful visions, “not a single country has short-term policies in place to put them on track toward such a net zero target.” In fact, according to current policies, countries are on track to emit twice as much by 2030 as they should to keep below 1.5ºC.
The pledges and promises are almost all good in theory, says Kaveh Guilanpour, a climate policy expert and former climate negotiator now at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. But he says, “it’s more important to measure ambition by the policies that are actually on the table.”
When the CAT analysis incorporates only the NDCs that have actual plans for 2030, it shows the planet is still on track to warm by 2.4ºC by 2100.
“We had to be the reality check, the cold shower,” says Maria Jose de Villafranca Casas, a climate policy analyst at the New Climate Institute who worked on the CAT analysis. “It’s important we not celebrate before it is time to celebrate.”
Finance and fairness
Some countries experiencing many of the worst impacts of climate change, like low-lying Tuvalu in the Pacific or hurricane-battered Antigua and Barbuda in the Caribbean, have contributed the least to carbon pollution. So, they say, those more at fault need to take on more of the costs of fixing the problem and helping less developed countries adapt.
After the contentious 2009 Copenhagen climate meeting, developing countries extracted a promise from wealthier nations like the U.S., which is responsible for nearly one quarter of all historical emissions: Those countries would contribute $100 billion annually to help developing nations. Even that amount is far from enough, says Harjeet Singh, a global climate expert at the Climate Action Network. At this point, the OECD estimates trillions a year are required to fund a green transition and appropriate adaptations to a hotter world.
But even that preliminary $100 billion a year promise has not been fulfilled, leaving a deep well of mistrust; only $80 billion was delivered in 2019, the most recent year for which there are solid numbers. The full $100 billion per year is not expected to be reached until 2023.
In Glasgow, representatives from developing countries pushed hard to ensure that the missing cash would materialize—and to devise a plan for growing the pot after 2025, when the current promises end. In addition, they asked that at least 50 percent of the money be tagged specifically for adaptation to floods, heat waves, and other inevitable climate pressures. (Today, only a quarter of all climate finance flows toward adaptation efforts.) African countries suggested contributions of more than $1 trillion by 2030; India asked for at least $1 trillion for itself alone.
“We need to move toward a framework where all development finance needs to be focused on climate resilience,” says Taylor Dimsdale, a climate policy analyst at E3G, a European think tank. “This is an important start. But really, we need to change the entire system so any investment, public or private, humanitarian aid, disaster-risk funding—all of it is what you might call climate-proof.”
During the meeting, countries pledged $351 million toward an adaptation fund, more than twice what organizers had hoped to get. A fund for the least developed countries was set at $270 million.
“This is in the millions. And we’re talking billions, trillions” that are needed, says Helen Mountford, a climate policy expert at the World Resources Institute. Further negotiations are getting punted to next year’s meeting in Egypt.
Even more contentious, coalitions of highly vulnerable countries have forced conversations on “loss and damage.” Climate impacts are leaving some places and communities unsalvageable, they say, and that loss must be compensated—a kind of climate reparations. “The situation has become desperate,” says Singh. "[Developed countries] ruined the planet and now they need to be paying developing countries and supporting the transition.”
Though the subject received a full day of negotiations, little progress was made, says Mountford. “The U.S. and pretty much all the other developed countries have been silent on it,” she says. More substantive discussion will likely also be put off until next year's COP in Egypt.
Some frustrated countries are looking for other ways to get climate justice. Tuvalu and Antigua and Barbuda announced at the meeting that they plan to seek damages from wealthy countries in an international court.
Hammering out the rules
This meeting was also supposed to solidify some crucial aspects of the Paris Agreement: rules about how countries report their progress, so they can be held accountable, and rules about how to set up a global carbon market that proponents say will channel more money toward emissions reductions and adaptation.
Here, too, success has been elusive. On the carbon market, activists and negotiators from some developing countries have said they prefer no decision to a bad one, leaving open the possibility that the issue will stay unresolved.
Also still uncertain is a critical question about timing. In the Paris Agreement, countries decided to revise their NDCs every five years. As climate change accelerates, some say that timeline is too long. They’re advocating more frequent check-ins to ratchet up ambitions; specifically, they hope to get at least one round of new targets by the end of next year.
The wrangling over rules echoes the larger pattern at the meeting, says Mountford: “slow progress” underlain with real anguish. The stakes for many countries are impossibly high; for some, their entire existence depends on success at this and other COPs. These meetings are the best chance they get to confront representatives from the developed countries that are responsible for the bulk of the dangers they now face.
“Everything here is just so interlinked,” says Savarala.