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COP26: Was it a Success or a Cop-Out?

On Nov. 13, the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference – also known as COP26 –  came to an end with mixed results. The two-week conference held in Glasgow, Scotland had two main goals: coordinate international efforts to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and provide countries an opportunity to update their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) per the Paris Agreement. Some have called the progress made at COP26 a success that “keeps 1.5 alive,” while critics argue the conference was a complete failure. Will the agreements made at COP26 be enough to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C? The short answer is no — but was it realistic to expect a two-week UN conference to solve climate change?

The primary agreement to emerge from the conference was the Glasgow Climate Pact . Most notably, the agreement calls for a phasedown of coal power and a phase-out of “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies that artificially lower the costs of coal, natural gas and oil. Although this was the first time that leaders have agreed to reducing coal consumption, the agreement uses vague language and lacks a definitive timeline for the phasedown. Likewise, this was the first COP agreement to acknowledge that vulnerable countries will experience “loss and damage” from climate change. However, the agreement failed to create a fund to help these countries pay for damages or adaptation projects, which is what vulnerable countries were advocating for. Because world leaders failed to agree on funding for vulnerable countries and could not commit to stronger emissions reductions, the Glasgow Climate Agreement set the date for COP27 to take place in 2022, rather than 2025 as originally planned, suggesting that even world leaders found the Glasgow Pact inadequate in addressing climate change.

During COP26, there were also several smaller bilateral and multilateral meetings that led to international agreements. These included a commitment to end deforestation by 2030 and the Global Methane Pledge to reduce methane pollution by 30 percent by 2030. In addition, the United States and China – the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters – announced a joint declaration promising to work together to address clean energy, decarbonization, and methane pollution. Of course, there is some debate over whether or not the U.S. and China can meaningfully cooperate on climate change, especially since China refused to sign the Global Methane Pledge.

Despite these agreements and updated NDCs, Earth is still projected to warm more than 1.5 degrees C by the year 2100. If all pre-COP26 NDCs are met, the planet is expected to be 2.4 degrees C warmer. When all of the new environmental agreements and updated NDCs are considered, experts still expect 2.3 degrees of warming. In other words, COP26 pledges only shave off 0.1 degree C of projected global warming. Even in a best-case scenario, in which all of COP26 NDCs are met and countries meet their alleged net-zero goals, warming is still projected to be around 1.8 degrees C.

The fact is that climate change remains one of the most complicated international issues the world has faced. One of the most significant problems is that when countries come to an agreement and make a pledge there is no guarantee that those commitments will be met. International bodies, like the UN, have very limited oversight and enforcement powers. If a country fails to meet their pledge, they will face relatively mild consequences, if any. Furthermore, some countries believe that until the US and China take serious climate action, their own contributions will be pointless and may put them at an economic disadvantage. Add in the powerful fossil fuel interest groups and sprinkle in the fact that wealthy countries are relatively insulated from climate impacts, and you have a recipe for distrust and caution within international climate change policy.

In short, the discussions and agreements that came out of COP26 were simultaneously meaningful and insufficient. That almost 200 countries agreed to reduce coal use and fossil fuel subsidies is significant and shows progress, but that progress will not stop the global temperature from increasing. Because climate change is a global problem, efforts at international coordination and cooperation are important, but the real action is going to occur at the national and local level. Until countries are incentivized to act, international commitments will just be hot air. 

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