Last week, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, wrapped up in Glasgow, Scotland. Global leaders gathered to strengthen their commitments to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement adopted at COP21 in 2015.
Now that COP26 is over, the real work can begin.
In the run-up to COP26, the conference was portrayed as our last real chance to limit global warming to below two degrees Celsius. So what happened, and how do we move forward from here? We’ve rounded up everything you need to know from COP26.
The basics: We have another agreement
Representatives from nearly 200 countries signed the Glasgow Climate Pact, an agreement that could limit global warming to below two degrees Celsius. That’s higher than the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal in the Paris Agreement, but the Glasgow Climate Pact gives more weight to how we’re going to limit global warming and make good on some of the commitments in the Paris Agreement.
Countries agree that we need to take drastic action to reduce carbon emissions. The Glasgow Climate Pact sets a goal of cutting emissions 45% by 2030 and reaching net-zero (where the amount of carbon removed from the atmosphere matches the amount of carbon emitted) by 2050. Countries are going to strengthen their emission reduction goals by the end of next year. As part of the pact, wealthy countries have also promised to double the amount of money (from 2019 levels) they give to help developing countries adapt to climate change.
What’s good from COP26
A lot of good came out of COP26. There’s an agreement, first of all, and it’s actually more ambitious than many people anticipated. If all the countries that signed the pledge actually follow through and curb their emissions drastically, we could limit warming to 1.8 degrees Celsius, which is a big improvement from the projected 2.7 degrees Celsius of warming that would have resulted from weaker commitments before COP26. So we are making progress.
Countries and groups made a lot of other important pledges at COP26, too, including:
- A global treaty to cut methane emissions 30% by 2030: While methane doesn’t linger in the atmosphere as long as carbon dioxide does, it’s many times more potent in terms of contributing to warming.
- A pledge to stop deforestation by 2030: More than 100 countries, representing some 85% of the world’s forests, signed this pledge.
- Money to support Indigenous Peoples and local communities in protecting biodiversity: This is big news — even though Indigenous Peoples and local communities manage about 80% of the planet’s biodiversity, they receive less than 1% of the funding to prevent deforestation.
- Big financial pledges: The Global Energy Alliance for People and the Planet committed $10.5 billion to help developing countries transition from fossil fuels, and the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero made a huge pledge of $130 trillion in private capital to support the transition to clean energy.
- An overdue callout for fossil fuels: File this under surprising but true — the Glasgow Climate Pact marks the first COP agreement that mentions fossil fuels, especially coal. And that’s not all. A number of countries pledged to stop funding fossil fuel projects abroad by the end of 2022. More than 40 countries will phase out coal-generated power in the next couple decades. Seven countries helped launch the Beyond Oil and Gas Initiative, pledging to stop new fossil fuel exploration and production within their own borders.
If countries can live up to all those commitments, that’s huge progress.
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What’s disappointing from COP26
Despite all the strides forward, the Glasgow Climate Pact just doesn’t go far enough or fast enough. Any way you look at the various global warming projections, we’re falling short of the goal set in the Paris Agreement to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. And we’ll only limit warming to 1.8 degrees Celsius in the most optimistic scenario, if all the countries that pledged even informally to go net-zero by 2050 actually do that. But there’s typically a gap between what countries say they’re going to do and what they actually do. So more realistically, we’re probably looking at something closer to 2.4 degrees Celsius of warming.
Climate justice didn’t fare very well at the conference, either. Wealthy countries refused to help compensate developing countries for climate disasters, even though developing countries contribute the least to climate change but suffer the most from its effects. Scotland, the tiny host nation for COP26, was the only country to give money to a compensation fund for poorer nations suffering from the climate crisis. And wealthy countries still haven’t met the current goal of providing $100 billion per year to help developing countries cut their carbon emissions and recover from climate disasters.
The controversy over coal provides a good case study for why climate justice is so important. In a last-minute change, India weakened the agreement’s language about phasing out coal-fired power. Instead of a “phase out,” the agreement now calls for a “phase down.” While that’s disappointing, it’s also a good reminder that not all countries are starting from the same place when it comes to the clean energy transition. India relies on coal for 70% of its power, and there’s no clear path forward to change that in a country that is still developing and lacks easy access to many of the energy alternatives that developed countries have used to move away from coal. Not all countries can follow the same path or act on the same timeline. That’s important to remember as we set global goals. And India did commit to reach net-zero emissions by 2070, which is a big step.
What’s important to remember
It’s easy to get caught up in the perceived success and failures of COP26. But there are two key things to remember about the bigger picture.
First, the UN doesn’t actually have the authority to enforce the Glasgow Climate Pact. It’s totally voluntary — whether countries meet their targets or not is up to their domestic policies. As David Roberts explains in his newsletter, COP isn’t really about creating a binding new agreement that’s going to solve all our problems. Instead, it shines a light on what individual nations are doing and creates some peer pressure to do better. In that sense, COP26 has been a big success.
Second, we don’t have to wait for national governments to act. In fact, they’ll probably be the slowest movers. The private sector and civic groups are already making big moves. We’re part of that. Our new platform provides energy innovators with the data and tools they need to improve our energy system and decarbonize the power grid. Progress is happening — just look for tech companies, civic groups, and coalitions to lead the way.
Now that COP26 is over, the real work can begin. Participants have returned home, where they’ll start doing the work to turn the promises they made in Glasgow into policies. We all have a role to play in making sure they follow through on their commitments. One easy way to do that is to tell your representatives that you support the transition to renewable energy. Another is to join a local solar farm to help clean up your power supply.