Cop26 week 1: Hype aside, was there any actual progress?

Leaders meeting in Glasgow are cautiously optimistic targets can be met, or almost met

Glasgow might not be looking its best during the fortnight-long negotiations with rubbish piled up on streets due to an ongoing strike by refuse collectors but the welcome is consistently friendly from the hosts.

Scotland’s own environmental credentials cannot be questioned; it is a climate leader planning to reduce emissions by 75 per cent by 2030 and already uses remarkable levels of renewable energy to drive its economy.

Despite its ambitions to forge collective action, Cop26, with 25,000 delegates from nearly 200 countries, is a chaotic affair, with interminable queues and where everyone must produce a negative antigen test before they are allowed to gain access to venues.

Inside, as chairwoman of the Elders, Mary Robinson, noted, it has a feel of being "too white and elite" – and sanitised, with climate activists kept well away, observed by hundreds of police officers across the city.


The collective mood is one of worry about the future of the planet, but there is, too, a surprising degree of modest hope that has built up over the week. The clear instructions of two 90 year olds, it seems, set the right tone.

In a video message, Queen Elizabeth, confined to staying at home by doctors' orders, told 120 global leaders in town for Monday and Tuesday to "rise above the politics of the moment, and achieve true statesmanship".

Meanwhile, eminent naturalist David Attenborough was present to tell them to their faces to put humanity on the right course – "We need to rewrite our story to turn this tragedy into a triumph" – warning future generations would sit in judgment upon them.

So what’s on the table so far?

Leaders came with a raft of new pledges including newly forged alliances on methane, deforestation and coal. Big business was talking of a just transition; a notable first. The British wanted to “consign coal to history”.

A cobbled-together deal was endorsed by 40 countries but with less demanding timelines. However, it showed how mega-emitters can revert to type despite committing to net-zero emissions since Australia, the US, India and China refused to sign up.

UN climate envoy Mark Carney announced a pact between 450 banks, investors and insurers, making available $130 trillion (€112.5 trillion) to pursue net zero. A staggering amount which, if delivered, would mark a radical shift in global capitalism.

With the UK as Cop26 host, how is Boris playing it?

Prime minister Boris Johnson has not been his usual ebullient, over-promising self. Indeed, he was uncharacteristically sombre after last weekend's G20 summit. So far, the British have held to a "cautiously optimistic" line, but no more.

Has the US re-joining the Paris agreement fold made a difference?

US president Joe Biden put down a marker that the US will stay the course for decades to come, while pointing the finger of blame at China and Russia for not turning up. Failure to get his domestic climate package across the line meant, however, it has not been a triumphant outing.

Most significantly, the US rejoined the “high ambition coalition”, the group of developed and developing countries with its chief goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees – the most demanding Paris target.

Is it, as billed, ‘the most inclusive Cop ever’?

There has been a lot of criticism that Cop26 is not hearing enough of civic society voices, says DCU climate policy specialist Prof Diarmuid Torney, and not all of that can be blamed on security concerns: "The voices of vulnerable and marginalised communities need to be heard louder."

What’s happening in negotiation rooms?

The British believe that a “can-do attitude” shown by leaders has percolated down to the negotiators handling the detail of the tortuous talks – a surprise given the way Cop26 was shaping up beforehand.

Will it turn the dial?

The bottom line is: are the promises to force emissions and temperature dials downwards and to keep 1.5 alive enough? Before Cop26 started, the betting was against, since national pledges, even if met, would see the planet warm by 2.7 degrees.

During Cop26, India declared for the first time an ambition to reach net zero by 2070, Torney adds. “Not long before Cop26, China committed to net zero by 2060. The US and the EU led a global pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030.”

If realised, global warming could be limited to below 2 degrees, and possibly to as low as 1.8 degrees. This is a “a significant win”, says energy specialist Prof Brian Ó Gallachóir of MaREI in UCC.

For now, the verdict is still out. The pledges are promising, but it does not yet guarantee that a realistic plan that gives a realistic chance to keep temperatures below, or at 1.5 degrees, will still be alive this time next week.