1.5 degrees is now in the driving seat:
Despite vague language in much of the final declaration and too many "urges" and not enough "decides to", Cop26 has delivered a big win.
It is by way of acknowledgement the world – all 197 countries backing the 2015 Paris Agreement – has to get on a track rapidly to keep temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees to avoid dangerous climate impacts.
Critically, key resolutions to pursue greenhouse gas emissions cuts in line with holding global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees were retained.
This must be reinforced by “best available science”. It means countries will no longer get away with “we’re striving to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees” – the notorious political fudge that got the Paris pact across the line.
The 2.4 degrees reality check:
Promises committing to cut emissions (mitigation) in "nationally-determined contributions" were significantly strengthened in the run up to and during Cop26 summit, following relentless pushing for increased ambition by hosts the UK government – with the "keep 1.5 degrees alive" reminders at every turn.
Ireland did its bit by rowing in with its 51 per cent cut. Our poor delivery on achieving cuts remains an issue, but that target means we are among those showing most ambition.
After week 1, analysts suggested it all added up to the world being on target for less than 2 degrees, and maybe even 1.8 degrees; a historic first. It injected optimism into negotiations.
The sucker punch was later when Climate Action Tracker – the most reliable modellers in the world – said no, commitments if delivered would mean a 2.4-degree world. In short, an uninhabitable Earth; more intense and ferocious extreme weather events and sea level rise of several metres this century. Trigger gloom at Cop26.
It was agreed nations will be asked to return next year to strengthen their so far inadequate targets on emissions cuts – 1.5 degrees has yet to be kept alive but direction of travel is clear.
The terrible "here and now" scenario:
Global leaders including Taoiseach Micheál Martin landed for the first two days and in upbeat fashion backed greater ambition and participated in a flurry of announcements in form of alliances between various combinations of countries on coal phase out; addressing deforestation, methane and unhinging vast amounts of private capital.
Going into complex negotiations, that appetite for greater collective action dissipated as some big emitter states reverted to type.
It was almost as if too many parties didn’t believe the latest UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that concluded the climate crisis is here and now – and no place is safe.
US envoy for climate John Kerry, and others, repeatedly underlined mitigation the key lever to force down global temperatures and should be “science, fact based not ideological or political”. There may be the promise of technological solutions such as “carbon capture and storage” to get to net zero. But this is unproven at scale so “we can’t bank on that ...We have to act now.”
Methane moves centre stage:
The superwarming greenhouse gas methane, arising from fossil fuel production and agriculture, is now the big "no no" in the global fight against global heating. More than 110 countries backed efforts to cut levels by 30 per cent by 2030, rowing in with a US-EU pact.
This was further underlined when, unexpectedly, US and China, pushed aside differences on other issues and announced a plan to work together on climate action over the next decade, backed by tangible rapport in Glasgow between John Kerry and lead China negotiator Xie Zhenhua. High up on their action list was methane. This is because cutting levels ensures the quickest win in cooling global temperatures.
Unprecedented public engagement:
There is no question mobilisation of civil society is at an unprecedented level across that world. That was in evidence in Glasgow despite blatant exclusion of campaigners; corralling many activists away from the venue, Covid preventing many from poorer countries attending, staggering costs for most attending the summit, and it feeling "a bit too white and elite" on the inside – amid heavy security at every access point.
That irrepressible force for change was encapsulated by UN secretary general Antonio Gutterres, who commended “the moral voice of young people keeping our feet to the fire ... the dynamism and example of indigenous communities, the tireless engagement of women’s groups ... [and] the action of more and more cities around the world”.
Stress of climate activism builds relentlessly:
But there is a concerning trend evident among young climate activists who attended Cop26. They carry a heavy burden of worry. Many feel acute eco-anxiety and are up front about it. The issue dominates their lives when they should be getting on with living and pursuing life's voyages of discovery.
Unquestionably, this is compounded by their voices not being heard sufficiently; they in turn are given token access to negotiations when they have a justifiable case to be at the table.
As Elders chair Mary Robinson noted, when Greta Thunberg uses language like blah, blah, blah, “they say ‘is that all there is?” – when they deserve action and assurance this is not the case. Another young Irish climate justice campaigner, Valery Molay, questioned if it was worth coming to Cops any more – yet this is the only available multilateral mechanism the world has got for climate action.
Global efforts will not get on the right track without their full participation, and politicians will fail the “providing a just transition” test unless they broaden their narrow mindset on this issue.
Big Oil has not gone away:
The world is finally beginning to decarbonise and coal is on course for phase out but the fossil fuel sector was all too evident. The NGO Global Witness established at least 503 fossil fuel lobbyists, affiliated with some of the world's biggest oil and gas giants, were granted access to Cop26, "flooding the Glasgow conference with corporate influence".
In concert with big oil producer countries – notably Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Australia and Russia - their fingerprint was evident with weakening of the draft text, which finally came down on “accelerating phase-down of coal and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”. Some developing countries claimed it provides loop holes allowing them to continue their polluting activities – in spite of being the single biggest source of emissions.
The Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance may be only a coalition of less than 10 countries (including Ireland) but it marks a shift in approach by countries committed to greater ambition, and put down a big marker for change. It intends to build to a point where turning off the fossil fuel tap is central to global climate agreements with firmer timelines – as opposed the failed approach of trying to limit oil and gas emissions.
Boris on the global stage:
With typical unbridled enthusiasm UK prime minister Boris Johnson tried to persuade world leaders to take action on "coal, cars, cash and trees" in advance of Cop26. His keynote address won some plaudits, though his comparing the climate crisis to James Bond being strapped to a doomsday device was greeted with some headscratching.
A Daily Mirror opinion piece had the headline: “Boris more Johnny English than James Bond as hypocrisy turns Cop26 moment into farce”.
As he had a dinner with chums to attend in a posh London club, he jumped on a private jet and flew home belching out 1,000kg of CO2, when the train would have emitted just 20kg. He returned the following week trying to knock heads together in seeking greater urgency; his press conference was dominated by the sleaze controversy.
A lesson in effective diplomacy was provided by Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon in spite of her country not being an official party at the summit. She committed £1 million to a loss and damage effort to help developing countries, and was a strong fringe presence throughout. She doubled that funding by the finish, while winning plaudits for Scotland coherence on climate action.
The country running the talks, the UK, cut overseas aid just before Glasgow, which did little to build trust with vulnerable countries already suffering due to global heating, though Cop26 president Alok Sharma did much to restore relationships.
Capitalism's big pivot:
This was the Cop where the financial world was finally seen to be gearing up for a net-zero world, and it will be backed up for availability of private funds. Some insisted the vast sums about to be unleashed add up to complete reorientation of capitalism.
The big announcement on this front was $130 trillion “of capital committed to net zero” by the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, a group of 450 banks, fund managers and insurers led by UN climate envoy Mark Carney, former governor of the Bank of England.
“The implication of this number is that finance is greening the world,” one sceptical banker told the FT. Reality is the transition will require huge state intervention backed by private sector money. The risk for GFANZ is that having overpromised, private finance will under deliver.
Mr Carney has defended the extent of commitments and structure for delivery over the coming decades. “People will no longer tolerate worthy statements followed by futile gestures. They won’t settle for governments making announcements at summits that they don’t meet at home, or companies that speak green but don’t act. That’s why we’ve worked to transform the heart of finance,” he added.
Urgency gap is glaring:
This was supposed to be the Cop of "no more soundbytes, no more empty promises, no more blah, blah, blah". It may not have lived up to that billing but neither was it "a greenwashing festival" dominated by the Global North, as Thunberg claimed.
There was repeated endorsements of the climate emergency but a glaring lack of translating that into the level of urgency now required to have a better chance of avoid catastrophic climate change.
The testimonies from countries in the frontline were truly harrowing as many face a future where “there is no high ground”. They are experiencing merciless sea-level rise with the risk that their countries will disappear and their citizens will become refugees.
“You might as well bomb us,” declared Surangel Whipps Jr, president of Palau, an archipelago of over 500 islands in the western Pacific, speaking of the pain in watching his country suffer “a slow and painful death”.