The recent Cop26 global summit marked a big shift in moving away from words and rules on climate action, to "the hows" on how global warming can be addressed, according to former EU Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard.
Cop26 delivered real progress and could have gone much worse because of issues such as Covid-19 and the climate finance controversy with failed promises of sustained support for developing countries, she told an Institute of International and European Affairs webinar.
"For the first time science was not questioned," added Ms Hedegaard who is chair of the European Commission Mission Board on Adaptation to Climate Change. "Normally there are a handful or more of spoiler nations. This time that was not so. Everybody sees that now climate change is for real. It means everybody is discussing 'the hows'."
The ambition mechanism worked, she insisted, whereby “we will have to look each other into the eyes and say ‘OK if you’re doing your part as promised, I will also do mine – and maybe I can do a bit more in line with innovation, taking up pace in line with prices coming down, in line with technologies developing’.”
Department of Foreign Affairs climate director Dr Sinéad Walsh said the UN climate change conference was productive and constructive “but we are nowhere near where we need to be”.
More progress had been make on “loss and damage” than expected, in developing a mechanism to provide financal supports for developing countries in the face of “climate impacts that are so bad that you cannot even adapt to them”.
This resulted from developing countries coming out like never before, she believed, and saying "this is not enough, given what we're facing" – a stance strongly supported by Ireland.
In addition, there was a commitment to double finance for “adaptation” by 2025 to help climate-vulnerable countries adapt to inevitable impacts from global warming.
UCC Students Union environmental officer Alicia O'Sullivan, who represented the university at Cop26, said there were many positives including addressing commitments on stopping deforestation; on methane and phasing down coal but the outcome, which had been described as "a compromise", could not be reconciled with a world about to experience 2.4 degrees of warming.
“I don’t understand how we can compromise with the climate crisis and, essentially, compromise peoples’ lives,” she added, as that meant more heatwaves; inundation of coastal cities, crop loss, disease and conflict with millions more suffering.
She told the REthink Energy webinar series co-hosted with the ESB she was motivated to get involved in climate action "because it sickens me that not only do people purposefully harm our climate and our biodiversity, but they actually profit from the harm they cause".
The role of the private sector, including companies and finance houses, was a significant positive, said Prof Morgan Bazilian, director of the Payne Institute for Public Policy in the US and member of the Climate Change Advisory Council. This was not confined to announcements, he noted, but included concrete actions that are taking place, which "is both admirable and desperately needed".
He added: "As usual, there was too much 'blah, blah, blah' as Miss Thunberg rightly pointed out some weeks prior to the event." Refrains about moving from ambition to action have been repeated so often "as to be utterly hollow", Prof Brazilian believed.
Despite this, he said Ireland should be proud as it came to Glasgow with long-term net-zero emissions goals, while also doing the much more difficult work in making detailed plans and policies to meet them. Such an approach is rare but essential, he added.
The Biden administration in the US had not heeded his advice on coming to Glasgow with considerable humility while showing they were back at the global climate talks table. But it deserved credit for leading a coalition on addressing methane emissions, which was a key contribution, Prof Bazilian said.
The Paris agreement reflects the reality and limits of the UN process, he said, notably in creating frameworks for voluntary pledges, he said. “That is fine and good but should not be mistaken for globally-binding agreements.”
In addition, the massive gap between rich and poor was on clear display, with deeply entrenched inequality going beyond the climate arena. The truth was poverty alleviation rather climate change remained the main priority of many countries. Thinking otherwise led to too many mis-steps, though work done by Ireland on this particular issue was “nothing short of world-leading”, he said.