What can the COP26 climate summit achieve?

Climate change experts and campaigners on whether November's global summit can meet the climate threat

Lorna Gold

Climate justice campaigner
As COP26 is taking place in my home city, I have a particular interest in seeing it succeed. All COPs are billed as "the most important yet", but this one in my eyes is hugely significant because unlike the last few, it offers real hope. Trump is gone, and whilst Biden faces an uphill struggle on climate, there is no shortage of goodwill and ambition.

The pandemic, moreover, is teaching humanity some sobering lessons regarding the consequences of science, as well as the need to work collectively to tackle threats to human survival. This COP has to seal the rule book on how the Paris Agreement will be delivered and address the thorny issue of “loss and damage” – historic claims on climate harms inflicted by wealthy nations.

The single most important issue, however, I believe is money. Wealthy countries have utterly failed to deliver on their promise of $100 billion per year to support poorer countries, which are already feeling the brunt of climate breakdown. New finance mechanisms to tackle climate change are emerging but these are largely through private sector initiatives.

Can real progress be made?
The pandemic has blown a massive hole in public finances globally and it is hard to see how new public resources to support global climate action will emerge. This could yet derail the whole process.


Experience suggests we should temper our expectations of success. Negotiators' briefs prioritise national self-interest over global community good

Pádraic Fogarty

Irish Wildlife Trust ecologist & biodiversity champion
Loss of biodiversity must be a central concern at COP26, all those "net zero" targets implicitly need some means to take carbon dioxide from the air. Why pin our hopes on a technological breakthrough when nature has been sequestering carbon for aeons? While land use and forests are already accounted for in national greenhouse gas emissions inventories there is no accounting for the enormous role played by our oceans.

Bottom trawling was recently shown to release as much carbon dioxide as the aviation industry while it’s also a highly destructive way to catch fish. Bringing it to an end while establishing marine protected areas will help store and draw down carbon while reviving marine life. Globally, forests need to be better protected (and restored) but there is no differentiating between natural, biodiversity-rich forests and monoculture plantations which are not as effective in storing carbon.

In Ireland, our peatlands could be climate heroes but only emissions from "managed" peatlands are counted, so emissions from fires and overgrazing by sheep get a pass. This must change. Rewilding our land and oceans, while regenerating agricultural soils, are among the cheapest, easiest and most effective forms of climate action. I hope COP26 will recognise this.

Can real progress be made?
We are fortunate in that we know what needs to be done and we have the tools to do it . . . I feel there is progress but the pace is way too slow.

Saoi O’Connor

Climate activist & FridaysForFuture striker
Many governments bemoaned the loss of COP last year, but have not taken any steps towards real climate action during the 25 previous COPs.

Many governments have appropriated the radical language of peoples’ movements for climate justice in saying the COP is urgently needed because “we need action now”. This is not untrue, but the lack of action from leaders in the Global North is not down to a lack of conferences, it is due to a lack of willingness to act.

No amount of COPs will change this, because the people who hold the power in those negotiations do not want it to change. In addition, due to vaccine inequity and the Covid-19 pandemic, this COP will most likely be excluding those people who need to be heard most around these tables – civil society, and those from the peoples and areas most impacted by climate change.

Can real progress be made?
It won't come from those sitting around the decision-making table. The potential for climate solutions and for dismantling the systems that created this crisis comes from the people; it always has.

Prof John Sweeney

Maynooth University climate scientist & COP veteran
The choreography leading up to COP26 has been remarkably similar to that which preceded the ill-fated COP15 Copenhagen event in 2009. Once again we see efforts to reach a pre-meeting agreement by the world's two largest polluters: China and the US. Once again the EU has increased its emissions reduction target, now at least 55 per cent by 2030. But will the Glasgow COP overcome the five-year logjam that has occurred since the 2015 Paris Agreement?

Agreeing the rules for carbon trading, and transparency in reporting, remain the main stumbling blocks. Countries such as Brazil, Australia and China were identified at the last COP as actively blocking agreement. Tied to this will be the running sore of whether rich countries will implement their commitment to supplying the finance necessary to assist transition in developing countries, and easing debt repayments to aid their post-Covid green recovery.

Can real progress be made?
Experience suggests we should temper our expectations of success. Negotiators' briefs prioritise national self-interest over global community good. The best we can hope for is further incremental progress, but not enough to turn around the climate and biodiversity emergency.

Sinéad Walsh

Irish Climate Envoy & DFA deputy director general for Irish Aid and Africa
My first hope for COP26 is that representatives of people on the front lines of climate change will be able to participate actively, despite Covid. Communities in the poorest countries and island states where our aid programme, Irish Aid works are often the most affected by events such as floods, droughts and severe storms, and the least able to cope. We need to hear the voices of women, men and youth from these countries in Glasgow.

Linked to this, there is a real issue of climate justice that this COP has to tackle. We must meet our global commitment to increase climate finance to $100 billion per year and spend much of this helping the poorest countries adapt to climate impacts, which are destroying lives and livelihoods and driving conflict.

I would also highlight the need for a strong focus on oceans at COP, a key priority for Minister Simon Coveney who frequently points to how coastal communities are some of the worst affected. Finally, of course, emissions reduction. Our own Climate Bill is very ambitious and necessarily so.

Can real progress be made?
I am certainly more optimistic than I was at the end of last year. We are making good progress domestically. The US Earth Day Summit has given a great boost to mitigation ambition and Dublin Dialogues next week will be helpful too in keeping momentum going.

Prof Andrew Keane

Director of UCD Energy Institute
With COP26, we have a real opportunity to act together in the interest of our planet and our people. From my perspective, the key areas for agreement are ambitious emissions targets in line with the best science and engineering, backed up by financial commitments and a robust governance framework. Mandatory targets will provide a focus for investment in technologies, infrastructure, education, and research.

Significant progress is being made with an acceleration of technology development, but this needs to be supported by a political and financial framework that brings communities and citizens on the journey. A net-zero energy system in 2050 can be a reality and requires investment and transformation of our infrastructure with energy being transported from areas with high renewable potential to areas of demand. There is a major opportunity for Ireland given our rich offshore wind resource, along with opportunities for an improved quality of life and environment for our citizens.

Can real progress be made?
With major nations now signalling real intent, I am more optimistic the world will get the agreement it needs. Research will play a key role in unlocking many of the opportunities.

Dr Hannah Daly

Emissions expert at UCC MaREI institute
The pledges made by the Paris Agreement in 2015 need to be greatly strengthened: current commitments would lock in 2.7 degree warming by 2100, way off course from meeting the Paris Agreement goals.

How far the new pledges go in closing that gap will be a key measure of the summit’s success. My hope is that very strong near-term targets are set – we know that an immediate and steep decrease in global greenhouse gas emissions is needed to prevent the worst impacts of climate change – and that pledges are backed up by concrete policy measures and financing, such as phasing out subsidies for fossil fuels and setting timelines on ending coal power.

Can real progress be made?
I hope the summit will be a catalyst for reinvigorating public and media pressure for global action, led by young people, which was halted by Covid-19.

Dr Aidan Farrow

Air quality scientist at Greenpeace Research Labs, University of Exeter
It is well-established that air pollutants from fossil fuels are responsible for chronic and acute illnesses, damage to ecosystems, the economy and millions of premature deaths each year. Today these harms are often felt disproportionately by marginalised and poor communities. When it comes to cutting emissions there is no time for delay.

There can be no higher priority at COP26 than to achieve credible emission reduction pathways, plugging gaps between the Paris Agreement and fully implemented policy. The urgency of the climate and air pollution crisis demands direct fossil fuel phaseout. Solutions such as carbon markets and offsetting schemes, which allow emissions to continue do nothing to protect human health, human rights or biodiversity today and are no substitute for emission cuts at source.

Can real progress be made?
Past national and international efforts to improve air quality have achieved significant success, and have a track record of boosting the economy through improving our health and environment. COP26 presents a historic opportunity to tackle the immediate and long-term impacts of air pollution and climate.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times