COP26: What actually happened?

With COP26 concluding over the weekend, we can see that a lot of progress has been made. More than 120 world leaders gathered, and around 40,000 people attended the conference between 31st October and 13th November.

Before COP26 began, it was clear it would be the most important COP since the Paris Agreement. As I reflect over the past two weeks, there have been many items discussed as delegates and leaders produced dozens of speeches outlining the progress of our global response to the climate emergency. Not every pivotal discussion in the summit can be captured in one single blog; five key outcomes stood out to me.

Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs)

At COP21 in 2015, the Paris Agreement committed to reducing emissions to limit global warming to well below 2°C  and ideally to 1.5°C  above preindustrial levels.

Under the Paris Agreement, these commitments are revised every five years to ‘ratchet up’ ambition, hence, the importance of COP26 (the 5th COP post Paris). Prior to COP26 the UNFCCC’s NDC Synthesis Report concluded that our current ambition was off track and not heading towards the Paris targets, with global GHG emissions anticipated to increase by 14% in 2030 compared to 2010 and the latest IPCC findings showing that unless actions are taken immediately, temperatures may rise to 2.7°C  by the end of the century.

The increased intent and ratcheting of ambition have been highlighted, with key countries announcing new pledges, including India who delivered a new promise of net zero by 2070, and China‘s announcement to reach carbon neutrality by 2060. Recent analysis from the IEA has calculated a shifting of trajectory to 1.8°C  if all commitments are met.

Whilst this is still not enough, one of the key achievements of this summit has been a speeding up of the timeline for climate action; countries have been asked to come back in a year (rather than the Paris five yearly commitment) with more ambitious plans for cutting emissions.

Complementary announcements

Even though the desired 1.5°C  goal remains out of reach with current commitments, COP26 saw many new major announcements which complement the NDCs. Some of the most important ones include:

  • More than 100 world leaders have promised to end and reverse deforestation by 2030,
  • The Global Coal to Clean Power Transition Statement was announced where more than 190 parties, including China and Poland have agreed to transition from unabated coal power generation to clean power.
  • The Global Methane Pledge was announced at COP26 and launched by the United States. The pledge commits signatories to reducing their overall methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030, compared with 2020 levels.

While not necessarily translating into direct emission reduction pledges, these announcements form the foundations required to continue increasing and enhancing ambition moving forward.

Finalisation of the “Article 6” rules on the international use of carbon offsets

After six extra years of negotiation following COP21, the last piece of the Paris Agreement has been finalised.  The clarity and transparency that these rules provide will enable countries wanting to cooperate internationally to achieve their NDCs quicker and cheaper.

New International Sustainability related Financial Disclosure Standards

The establishment of a new body (the ISSB) to develop globally consistent sustainability and climate-related financial disclosure standards will increase the ability of investors to assess these attributes for the companies they invest in.  This will enable them to better direct their capital towards organisations who are grabbing the enormous opportunities arising from the transformation to a decarbonised economy as well as those organisations that will be more resilient to this future.

Climate Finance

The 2009 COP in Copenhagen saw the creation of a Climate Finance pledge to provide US$100 billion a year to developing nations by 2020 to help them adapt to climate change and mitigate the impacts of severe weather changes. In 2021 this pledge had not been met with only $80 billion provided.   Unfortunately, the failure to deliver on this commitment has continued to fuel mistrust amongst the countries and slowed down overall progress.

However, COP26 did generate many, arguably larger announcements related to climate finance:

  • The governments of South Africa, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, along with the European Union, have announced a new ambitious long-term Just Energy Transition Partnership. This partnership has an initial commitment of $8.5bn to support South Africa’s decarbonisation.
  • The Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) announced that this financial sector alliance of over 450 firms could deliver over $100 trillion of capital to transforming the economy to net zero.
  • 114 world leaders committed to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030. The pledge is backed by $12bn in public and $7.2bn in private funding.

What is next

As with anything, these broad and sweeping commitments are currently just words on paper. Without action, these commitments will not materialise, and their full impact will not be felt. I am hopeful, that with the heightened sense of accountability and scrutiny we will see these important announcements continue to drive emissions reductions.

COP26 in Glasgow has clearly maintained and increased the momentum since Paris, even though we are still not on a satisfactory pathway to 1.5°C .  What COP26 has done is reset the expectations for the rest of the decade.  The final text from COP26, now known as the Glasgow Climate Pact, also clearly sets out what is actually required in the medium term to meet 1.5°C:  a 45 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 (based on 2010).

How will you and your organisation rate against these benchmarks when the reckoning is done?

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