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After two weeks of intense negotiations, including a leaders’ summit attended by 120 presidents and prime ministers, the main outcome of the UN climate conference COP26 was a decision that countries should try again at COP27 in 2022.
However, cynicism about the achievements of the conference is misplaced (if understandable). That is because deciding that countries must strengthen their commitments by next year was the most COP26 could have agreed.
It is true that global greenhouse gas emissions have risen continuously throughout the thirty years in which these annual UN climate conferences have taken place. But the right question to ask about the UN climate process is not whether emissions have fallen since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was first signed in 1992. It is what would have happened if there had been no international treaties and talks at all.
The Paris Climate Agreement
Almost all participating nations had come to Glasgow having already announced their pledges, after agreeing them with some difficulty in their domestic political systems. Having agreed and announced new targets and policies at home, no country was going to revise them at an international meeting. Indeed, despite pre-conference expectations, there was no place on the COP26 agenda for them even to do so.
In 1992, the US had refused to ratify the Kyoto protocol because China was excluded from the obligation to reduce emissions, an omission which the US Senate believed would put the American economy at a competitive disadvantage. For the first time, the 2015 Paris Agreement required that every country in the world had to tackle its emissions, and to do so in pursuit of a specific temperature goal—limiting global heating to ‘well below’ 2°C, with an aspiration to keep it to 1.5°C. But it also had a huge flaw. Unsurprisingly, the NDCs submitted by countries alongside the agreement did not add up to the agreed aggregate goal. This became known as the ‘emissions gap’
By COP26 many countries, including the US, the EU, China and India, had significantly improved the emissions reduction pledges for 2030 they had made in Paris. But together, they still added up to a global emissions pathway leading to heating of much more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels. The most COP26 could do was to acknowledge that the global reduction in emissions was not good enough, and to instruct countries to strengthen them again over the next year.
The role of international climate negotiations
After 30 years of the UNFCCC and of annual COPs, almost all countries have either reduced their absolute emissions (in the developed world) or slowed their rise (in the emerging economies). Not by enough, as the IPCC makes clear; but this is not a record of complete inaction.
The key effect of an international climate treaty and big global ‘moments’ like COP26 is that they internationalise what would otherwise be national policy responses to a global problem. An international treaty also overcomes the problem of varying political circumstances and timetables. There are only a few countries in which climate change is a major political issue. But by forcing all countries to act simultaneously, not just when it is domestically propitious to do so, the UN climate process has created much larger collective action. And in doing so, it has built global scale for emissions-reducing technologies. It is no coincidence that the cost of solar power has fallen around 90 per cent since Copenhagen in 2009, and wind power up to 60 per cent.
The ‘real economy’
UNFCCC negotiations are almost entirely about goals and rules, rather than dealing with the ‘real economy’ where those emissions actually occur. But this too began to change at COP26.
Most notably, the Glasgow Climate Pact is the first time that a COP decision has mentioned the need to reduce the use of fossil fuels. A series of ambitious sectoral ‘side agreements’ took many by surprise – for example, countries, companies and financial institutions most involved in trading forest products such as timber, pulp and palm oil, committed to eliminate from their supply chains those from deforested areas. Finally, forty countries signed up to a ‘Breakthrough Agenda’ to coordinate the global introduction of clean technologies, starting with zero-carbon electricity, electric vehicles, green steel, hydrogen and sustainable farming
Despite criticism, many of these agreements provided more concrete manifestations of the conference goals than anything negotiated in the main hall. And when analysed for their potential impact on global emissions, it was found that they had the potential to cut the emissions gap by a not insignificant nine per cent.
We still do not know how humanity's war with its own climate will end. But we can be sure that even a moderately happy ending—with global heating slowed sufficiently to prevent the very worst ravages for which we are currently on course—will require every possible ally acting to achieve it, and those determined to continue acting against it to be vanquished. COP26 may yet prove the moment when such an outcome became plausible.