Climate in 2021: Beyond the ‘blah, blah, blah’ of Cop26

Climate forced its way into political consciousness, we just didn’t do enough about it

A deal was hammered out at Cop26 climate summit in November, yet there are wildly varying views on what was achieved. It was a bold attempt to get the world to face up to increasingly dire consequences of what is facing Planet Earth. But an observer might wonder: Were the political leaders, the corporations flagging green credentials and the young climate activists all at the same gathering?

Some dismissed the event as a greenwashing parade ending in betrayal; others expressed relief at getting the 2015 Paris Agreement to implementation phase. Despair in one camp contrasted with satisfaction in another at having retained crucial wins in an imperfect agreement.

Greta Thunberg cited too much “blah, blah, blah” prior to Cop26, while she believed the outcome was more “blah, blah, blah”. Many Cop veterans say expectations were too high, but there is at least clarity now on the direction of travel. No country – not even the oil giants, usually blockers of progress – now disputes the symptoms of a distressed world or their causes.

Pacts were unveiled on stopping deforestation, cutting methane, phasing out coal, backing hydrogen fuel in a net-zero emissions future, and putting in place a carbon market.


Though all accept we must do more to prevent catastrophic temperature rises, current targets are insufficient, and time is running out. An average global rise of 2.4 degrees this century – as predicted at the meeting – is a death sentence for the small island communities of the south Pacific and Caribbean. It equates to an intolerable 3.5-degree rise for Africa and a cataclysmic 10-degree rise for the Artic.

Are we in a better place post-Cop26? Overall yes, says environmental scientist Dr Tara Shine. "We saw unprecedented coverage of and interest in the Cop in Ireland and beyond. This helped to grow the conversation on climate change and climate solutions … The challenge is to keep climate high on the political agenda and create a dialogue with citizens, businesses, investors and communities to accelerate the pace and scale of change on the ground."

She adds: “Agreements on the Paris Rulebook are technical but critical to implementing and tracking action, and while we saw some progress on increasing financing for adaptation to climate change in vulnerable countries, more needs to be done to help countries and communities on the frontlines cope with losses they are experiencing in terms of livelihoods and loss of culture and territory.”

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney believes: "Cop26 demonstrated a collective willingness by all countries to do more, including larger countries like the US, China and India, which are critical to raise the bar on global climate ambition."

As 197 countries needed to agree on a negotiated text, however, it meant the outcome wasn’t as ambitious as Coveney would have liked. “We need to ensure the progress made is banked, and we continue collectively to build on the momentum from Glasgow over the 12 months to Cop27. If we can keep up momentum and pressure ... we can capitalise on that collective willingness I saw in Glasgow and see an even more positive outcome next year.”

All told, climate has forced its way into political consciousness. Big wins should be recognised, but so must blockages to progress.

High points

Limiting temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees is accepted as the critical target. Beyond this threshold comes deadly heatwaves, acute water shortages and biodiversity collapse.

“We didn’t secure enough commitments to get to 1.5 degrees yet (the amount of temperature increase we can sustain with some level of safety) but the decision to keep driving momentum and to get countries to come back to the table with new commitments next year is positive,” Shine believes. This means, according to environmentalist Dr Lorna Gold, “there is a chance in the coming year to really garner momentum for decisive action”.

Recognising that 1.5 degrees is safer than 2 degrees is also significant. "The science is informing the political process and that creates space and a strong rationale to get countries to do more," Shine underlines.

People in unprecedented numbers want to make their contribution to decarbonising the world. It adds up to a colossal global force. In spite of Covid-19, this movement has grown in strength, Gold says. "It is no longer the purview of 'environmentalists' but a vast mix of society from concerned surfers to grannies, to business owners to faith leaders. The vision of the sea of people in Glasgow gives me hope of a great change on the horizon."

The business world is pivoting to a sustainability agenda, recognising the next great industrial revolution is "net zero". Many companies are not hanging about waiting for governments to act. "There is a lot of greenwashing, but some businesses are recognising the critical importance of climate action and making deep changes," Gold adds.

Low points

Extreme weather events witnessed last summer, heatwaves, wildfires and devastating floods, made worse by a destabilised climate; the inevitable consequence of rising temperatures.

The warning from EU vice-president Frans Timmermans that children born today will be fighting each other for food and water in 2050 if 1.5 degrees is not achieved.

The last-minute watering down of the Glasgow pact in a move by India with "phase out" of coal being replaced by "phase down". Self-interest can still trump global responsibility.

The downbeat mood of young activists after years of campaigning, when their concerns are not being addressed. Climate justice campaigner Valery Molay of the National Youth Council of Ireland, who was in Glasgow, says she and fellow campaigners are exhausted. They "often feel they don't have enough ways to bring about what they know in their hearts is required". They have presented the facts to adults in the mistaken belief they will respond accordingly.

Fundamentally, Molay believes focus has to go beyond emissions to addressing over consumption and failure of business-as-usual capitalism by putting in place a new model of living. “You have to apply a climate justice lens to see the problems of societies in the form of exploitation of people and resources,” she adds.

Cop26 was marred by exclusion and Covid cannot be blamed. Many dissenters were restricted to outside a heavily policed security cordon. There was a gender and generation gap. As chair of the Elders Mary Robinson noted, it was "a bit too white and elite". Those with power to make decisions about how much the world warms in coming decades were mostly old and male. The strongest voices advocating faster climate action are mostly young and female. Global North dominates over Global South. Climate justice is impossible in that mix.

Big winners

Science is at the heart of the Glasgow pact. Key elements of the recent landmark IPCC AR6 report feature prominently. That climate change is here and now, and no place on Earth is safe, is undisputed.

Powerful new alliances are being forged such as the global faith community. "I have never seen such a strong and colourful faith presence at a climate demonstration," says Gold of a protest in Glasgow attended by more than 100,000 people. Over 80 per cent of the world's population adhere to a faith, and what faith leaders say matters to many. Moreover, faith institutions have significant financial clout, tracts of land, education and health facilities, backed by media power.

The faith environmental movement has been growing under the radar for decades, she says. It was given a big boost when Pope Francis met faith leaders ahead of Cop26 in the Vatican. They promised "bold plans" to address environmental sustainability. "It feels like faiths are sleeping giants awakening quietly to a shared mission to care for the planet," says Gold of this new form of multilateralism.

Big losers

Soaring fuel prices may bring temporary windfalls for Big Oil, but long-term indications fully factoring in carbon pollution costs indicate the game is up. Shell's decision not to proceed with investment in Cambi oilfield off the Shetland Islands "on economic grounds" flags the new reality.

It's not confined to fossil fuels. Some of the world's biggest companies have joined the "first movers coalition" to scrub notoriously dirty industries including aviation, steel, cement, trucking and shipping.

Ireland’s report card

Forged through political consensus, holding together so far, Ireland has a new Climate Act and national climate action plan with unprecedented specificity including commitments putting the country among the most ambitious globally. The big enforcer is the carbon budget.

We are backing offshore wind big time. Our power generation system is not yet fit for purpose, but growing ability to cater for renewables on the grid suggests the challenge can be met. We have eight years to show how poor implementation of the past can be replaced by sustained forcing down of emissions.

On the international stage, we have joined with those pushing for decisive phase out of fossil fuels under the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance. At Cop26, Ireland’s was at the forefront in pushing for meaningful climate action.

We all have our own ways of dealing with these crises – so you have to find what works for you

The approach of the Irish Aid programme, which has for many years supported those who have done least to cause the climate crisis but who are feeling its worst effects, brought credibility.

“Listening to our partners in sub-Saharan Africa and in Small Island Developing States, who are already experiencing the impacts of climate change, we have prioritised support for adaptation. We have been encouraging others to listen to what the most climate-vulnerable countries are saying and provide more support to adaptation,” Coveney notes.

This has also informed Ireland's championing role at the UN Security Council on climate and security. "Climate change is increasingly a driver of insecurity, and in my view effective climate action can help with conflict prevention and peacebuilding," he says.

Remaining gap

There has been tangible progress, yet global emissions are set to rise by 16 per cent by 2030. And there is a pace issue. International moves by consensus are slow, Shine says, but we don’t need to negotiate with other sovereign states to make change. “Action locally can happen much faster. So focus needs to be on what we can do in Ireland now to reduce our emissions by 51 per cent by 2030, to involve people in decision making on actions and changes we need to make and to create a national solidarity in support of a better, safer, fairer future.”

Political leaders need to do brave things, she says – “so they need to know they have our support … To earn that support, they need to have a clear vision of where we are headed.”

“Politicians need to hear support for new policies and laws to protect us from climate risk, and put us on a path to sustainable development, from citizens and businesses … they need to engage everyone in shaping a vision of the Ireland and global community we want.”

Beyond blah

Youth activists have done a great job in energising the world, Gold says. “I think they now need to join forces with others in the climate movement, like the faith leaders and some business leaders, to actually create and implement solutions.”

“There is still a lot of blah blah - and I think Greta is right when she says that nobody is coming to ‘save us’. It is certainly true that no UN or governments are going to do this without us. We need to shift our thinking – we can protest but we can do a lot more. We can co-create solutions and bring them to scale. That can only be done if we work together,” she insists.

Countering disillusionment

Disillusionment, anger and frustration are common experiences, Gold acknowledges. “As a campaigner who has worked on climate issues for 30 years, it is heart-breaking at times, especially when you see another generation face this. I try not to suppress those feelings – you have to lean into them, name them, given them their space. They are natural and need their space.”

Connecting with others and with nature and sharing how she is feeling helps. “Have a cry if necessary, have a rant … then together try to channel that energy into action. It is so important we talk about it and find ways to act together as the problem is too big for us on our own.”

Burnout is a risk, as many sense acutely the extreme urgency required. “It’s so important to respect our own natural rhythms and allow ourselves time to recharge as much as possible. Right now, after Cop26, there is a great need for that. It is only if we have recharged ourselves we can engage again with the effort to tackle this momentous challenge,” she says.

“We all have our own ways of dealing with these crises – so you have to find what works for you,” Shine says. Getting informed, getting angry, getting outdoors, and joining a group are all options but “find a moment to pause and think about it and what it means to you personally”, she urges.

“Avoid falling into despair by taking action (cycle, walk, repair, upcycle, swap, grow, protect, invest) and talking about it … Every time you talk about climate, nature and sustainability you help to grow the conversation and to create a conducive environment for change.”

The mantra of her organisation Change by Degrees is “telling a different story to get a different outcome”.

Where we need to be

A post-Cop26 Twitter exchange encapsulates where the world stands: “We are winning, we are just not winning fast enough,” declared Auke Hoekstra of Eindhoven University of Technology.

Set against a small and rapidly diminishing carbon budget, “winning slowly is really the same as losing outright”, Climate scientist Kevin Anderson responded.

Hoekstra explained: “We know what to do (because we are already doing it, and it is working) but we need to scale up faster. That is very different from ‘we really need to act but we don’t know what to do’. I’m not denying we have to go faster at all. But it simply doesn’t help to be dissatisfied with everything if you want to go faster.”

Many people are so worried they want to vent frustration instead of contributing to solutions, he added. “That might feel good for a moment but it is not good for their own mental health and for solving climate change.”

Being dissatisfied with everything, Hoekstra believed, was intellectually lazy, entitled and counterproductive. “I think we should do more of what works, and less of what causes problems.”

His suggestion has merit as a guiding light for 2022.