The above tweet wasn’t exactly the epitaph we hoped to see from the United Nations secretary-general at the end of COP26. But it’s also not terribly surprising. Though we argued a case for optimism leading into this year’s summit, we knew there would be challenges and we were careful not to get too ahead of ourselves. We went into this with idealism but were faced with the complex collision of science and politics.
For anyone looking for a refresher, we previously outlined the key issues we wanted to see action on a few weeks ago and, as promised, we’ve kept a close eye on them over the last few weeks to track their progress. Let’s take a look at how these important matters were (and weren’t) addressed at COP26, and where we go from here in solving climate change.
Let’s start with the good, shall we?
One of the key goals of the summit was to ensure enough action is taken to secure global net zero by mid-century to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Research by the University of Melbourne found positive progress on this front: if commitments by India (the world’s third biggest emitter) and other key nations are fulfilled, “temperatures would probably rise by about 1.9 degrees above pre-industrial levels”. By no means is that a win to sit back and celebrate on – the world still has a way to go to ensure that limit is not exceeded. But as the Guardian reported, it’s “the first time the combined pledges and probable emissions paths of more than 190 countries had given a better than 50 per cent chance of limiting warming to below 2C”.
Described as one of the summit’s big wins, world leaders have finally agreed to a historic deal to halt and reverse global deforestation over the next decade. Labelled the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forest and Land Use, the agreement saw support from most of the major forest nations (it was even backed by China’s president, Xi Jinping, and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro) and was strengthened by a pledge of $19.2 billion from international governments and the private sector.
For context, a similar declaration made in 2014 to end deforestation by 2030 has thus far failed to reach targets. But with added political support, more financial incentives and the greater inclusion of indigienous communities, the COP26 pledge feels more promising. The positive environmental impacts for ending deforestation could be huge: land clearing accounts for almost a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.
For the first time, India set an emissions target, pledging to reach net zero by 2070. Though much of COP26’s focus was rightfully on reaching net zero by 2030 or 2050, there is still significance to a pledge like this. India is an emerging and developing country with a massive population that is currently largely dependent on fossil fuels, so it sees 2070 as its most realistic roadmap. For the more immediate future, prime minister Narendra Modi says India will get 50 per cent of its electricity from renewables by 2030.
The US led the way on this pledge, with president Joe Biden announcing plans to cut global methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030. It was joined by more than 90 nations, representing over two-thirds of the global economy. Of course, there were some noticeable (and unsurprising) absentees when it came time to sign this dotted line: China, India, Russia and Australia did not make the same commitments to cut their methane emissions. Methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that is 80 times more potent at warming than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, has accounted for 30 per cent of all global warming since pre-industrial times.
In the lead-up to COP26, we highlighted the importance of increasing climate finance to poorer and developing countries. We also pointed out that the 2009 goal for wealthy countries to contribute US$100 billion a year by 2020 had not been reached. COP26 saw a welcome push in the right direction on this front. The Climate Finance Delivery Plan compiled by the German and Canadian governments found that more than US$100 billion would be provided from 2023 to 2025. By 2025, the amount flowing to developing countries should reach US$117 billion. This money is essential to help those countries transition to clean energy and adapt to climate change.
Moving away from coal is crucial to staying within 1.5 degrees and COP26 saw over 40 countries agree to phase out coal-fired power. This is huge news as coal is the dirtiest form of fossil fuel. Among the biggest coal-using countries, Canada, Poland, South Korea, Ukraine, Indonesia and Vietnam were some of the nations that agreed to phase out their use of coal for electricity generation. Disappointingly (but again, not surprisingly), leading coal-dependent economies like Australia, China, India and the US did not take part.
After reading that, you might be wondering where all the bad news is. While we were pleased to see action on certain fronts, overall, COP26 did not deliver as much as we hoped. Here’s why.
Greenpeace’s executive director, Jennifer Morgan, said the plans made at COP26 have failed to meet the urgency of the situation. Speaking to the ABC, she said: “This draft deal is not a plan to solve the climate crisis, it’s an agreement that we’ll all cross our fingers and hope for the best…it’s a polite request that countries maybe, possibly, do more next year. Well, that’s not good enough and the negotiators shouldn’t even think about leaving this city until they’ve agreed a deal that meets the moment.”
Climate and environmental activist Greta Thunberg tweeted: “2,4°C if all govts met the 2030 targets, 2,7°C with current policies. These NDCs are based on flawed and underreported numbers. And this is IF leaders meet their promises, which judging by their track record is not very likely…”.
Environmental activist and Guardian columnist George Monbiot was less restrained when he summed up this year’s summit: “I’m on my way home from #COP26, full of frustration and fury after reading the draft declaration. The world’s most powerful governments propose to do more to defend the fossil fuel industry than to defend life on Earth.” For Monbiot (and many other citizens and environmentalists) what we needed at the conference was a decision to burn no more fossil fuels after 2030 – which didn’t happen.
This wasn’t unexpected but it’s nonetheless disheartening given that these countries are some of the largest polluters in the world, and the actions of their governments are central to hitting 1.5 degrees targets. Their absence from negotiations was criticised by former US president Barack Obama, who said during an address at the summit: “It was particularly discouraging to see the leaders of two of the world’s largest emitters, China and Russia, decline to even attend the proceedings, and their national plans reflect what appears to be a dangerous lack of urgency.”
In noting the countries leading on climate change issues, he also reflected that “we can’t afford to have anyone on the sidelines”. Given the fact that climate change is not a single nation’s issue to solve, we happen to agree. But it was never going to be easy to get 200 world leaders with competing political interests to leave the conference on the same page.
Due to factors such as cost, visa issues, Covid restrictions and limited access to vaccines, only three out of 14 highly threatened Pacific island states were able to send delegates to COP26. This was the smallest ever representation of the Pacific Islands at a COP – which isn’t great given their extreme vulnerability to climate change. Adding insult to injury is the fact that the fossil fuel industry sent 503 delegates to represent its interests at COP26. An outrageous fact in itself, and one that also means it was more represented than any actual country. There is nothing comforting about the thought of a conference aimed at saving humanity and the planet being infiltrated by lobbyists from the most polluting and environmentally detrimental industries in the world.
Instead of trying to regain any kind of dignity on a world stage, Australia’s prime minister continued to cling to fossil fuel interests at COP26, going as far as hosting a prominent oil and gas producing company at its pavilion. As mentioned, Australia refused to join other countries pledging to reduce emissions of methane by 30 per cent by 2030. The Guardian also reported that the “Australian government’s policy response to the climate crisis was ranked last in an assessment of 60 countries released at the global climate summit in Glasgow”. It’s a big blow to the future of our planet first and foremost, but also to the majority of Australians who want to see the government step up and take more action on climate change. While we can laugh at the barrage of ScoMo-related memes, deep down we are embarrassed by the government’s lack of ambition and action, and the continual centring of vested fossil fuel interests.
As with all the conferences and agreements that have come before, there’s a lot of talk, but these often amount to empty promises. We’ve highlighted several instances where targets have not been met and countries have failed the pledges they signed up for. COP26 has only just wrapped up and it feels like history is repeating. For example, despite the fact Indonesia signed the deforestation pledge alongside more than 100 countries, critics have called the commitment “contradictory to what is being done by state officials in Indonesia”. There are also equal concerns about the murkiness surrounding calls to cut fossil fuel financing. Reporting shows that many of the signatories to the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero remain among the world’s top backers of fossil fuels. According to the Guardian, “Some have even issued new financing to companies expanding fossil fuel infrastructure since signing up with the GFANZ.” Banks signing up to net zero pledges while financing fossil fuels is laughably hypocritical.
Even the Glasgow climate pact shows signs of wriggle room for those that signed it last weekend. Countries agreed that existing 2030 goals fall short in solving the climate crisis and they should be re-examined and strengthened at COP27 in Egypt. But as the Guardian points out, the pact only “requests” that countries “revisit and strengthen” their 2030 targets to meet those outlined in the Paris Agreement and includes an airy notion that this should take into account “different national circumstances”. All of which is open to interpretation and doesn’t bind any single nation to action or ratification.
It’s understandable that many feel let down by COP26. We’ve long moved past a time where a little action feels better than nothing – we desperately need strong and substantial efforts to meet the critical challenges of the climate crisis in the next decade. As ordinary citizens, we’re often left feeling paralysed by these conferences and wondering what we can do.
The answer is a lot more than you think. For starters, if your government or political representative didn’t deliver at COP26 or failed to meet the urgency of the situation in the same way that others did, then vote them out. We discussed some ways you can participate in political processes outside of the ballot box here too.
At a frustrating time like this it also pays to remember that every time you spend money or support a brand or organisation, you are also casting a vote. Your dollars matter: they can help environmentally detrimental businesses continue destroying the environment, or they can help drive dollars towards those accounting for their carbon emissions and impact on the planet, and driving the uptake of renewable energy. If you haven’t guessed it already, we’re pretty passionate about the power of consumer behaviour to move the dial on climate change and, in this instance, continue driving action in light of COP26’s failings.