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Cop26 was as much about process as about progress

Real value of Glasgow conference was as a whole-of-world event for a global crisis

Now that pop stars and spacemen have retaken the stage at the Scottish Events Centre in Glasgow – Gary Barlow and Tim Peake both have scheduled gigs – Cop26 has receded in the public psyche.

That’s fine, because it’s not what happens at a UN climate-change conference that matters, but what happens as a result of it. Only time will tell if it was a good cop or a bad cop.

In truth, it was a bit of both. "It has been a bit of a rollercoaster," says Dr Diarmuid Torney, associate professor at DCU and author of a number of books on climate change and policy, who attended the event.

“Expectations were quite low going into it. The flurry of pledges and announcements in the first few days, including the leaders’ summit and all the multilateral agreements, lifted the mood, but by the last two days the mood had deteriorated again because it wasn’t going to finish on time and the available texts were being watered down.”

Every Cop jamboree follows a similar dynamic, with early apparent gains whittled away as both states and lobbyists get to work.

From the outside, the pace of progress can seem painfully slow and difficult to understand. Some of the most furious negotiating took place around whether or not to even include the term “fossil fuels”. Hard to believe that didn’t feature once in the Paris agreement. Indeed, “carbon” appeared in that document only twice, in a paragraph about forests. This time around, fossil fuels made it in, as did coal and even methane.

Progress was also seen in the simple fact that, where references to the science behind climate change was scant in Paris, science took top billing at Glasgow. Given the extreme weather events seen in the six-year interim, it was no surprise that by the time Cop26 started climate science was less a hypothetical hot potato and more of a fast-warming reality.

Process

But Cop is not an event but a process. The real value of Glasgow, and any Cop, is that it’s an opportunity for a whole-of-world event, which is what’s required for a whole-of-world crisis.

“There is value in the process because it provides a high-level political moment for the countries of the world to come together and to be held accountable for the things they have and haven’t done,” says Torney.

“What Glasgow did was shine a light on climate change and send signals to the global economy and the financial markets, that the end of the fossil-fuel era is on the way. It’s not happening now, and NGOs and others are right to complain that it’s not happening fast enough, but these Cop yearly meetings are important in guiding the direction of travel.”

Whether or not it was a success, like most things in life, depends on how you look at it. “Broadly speaking there are two ways to measure progress,” says Torney.

“If your measure of progress is set against what climate science is telling us needs to be delivered, then we are, most emphatically, not doing enough. But if your measure of success is related to what would have happened in the absence of the Cop process, then yes, we are making progress.”

Going into Glasgow, experts predicted the world was on track to hit a rise in temperature of 2.7 degrees. The pledges made at the event brought that down to anywhere between 1.8 and 2.4 degrees. “That is not enough, but it is progress. But the really important part is the implementation. Those pledges have to be put into action,” he adds.

UN secretary-general António Guterres summed up the challenge starkly, in advance of the event: “Enough of brutalising biodiversity, killing ourselves with carbon, treating nature like a toilet, burning and drilling and mining our way deeper.”

We are, he said, “digging our own graves”, adding that the planet is changing before our eyes – from melting glaciers, to relentless extreme weather events. Sea-level rise is double the rate it was 30 years ago, oceans are hotter than ever, and parts of the Amazon rainforest now emit more carbon than they absorb.

“Recent climate action announcements might give the impression that we are on track to turn things around. This is an illusion,” he warned. We are in fact “careening towards climate catastrophe”, he said, egging world leaders on.

The very strength of Cop, bringing world leaders together, is its inherent weakness – hoping they will all agree.

Requirement for unanimity

"The requirement for unanimity is the difficulty," says economist Jim Power, "yet unanimity is very important in order to pursue an agenda as radical as this. It's why we end up with a series of watered-down compromises by the end of each Cop, but at least it's still alive."

Unfortunately, as Glasgow showed, too many countries still fail to grasp the enormity of the issue facing us, or the speed at which it has to be addressed. Yet agreement has to be reached by the whole world, “because the whole world has to work together on this,” he says.

The latest provisional report from the World Meteorological Organisation, which set the context for Cop26, showed the past seven years were the warmest seven years on record. "Global sea levels reached a record high in 2021, extreme weather events are becoming much more commonplace and more extreme, and glaciers are melting at an alarming pace," says Power.

“The risks are now immense, and the certain consequences are alarming. These include flooding and droughts, forced migration of populations, with accompanying political consequences, global food production will be significantly altered, vital ecosystems will be destroyed, and water scarcity will intensify.”

Effectiveness

Only time will tell if Glasgow galvanised all into action. “The success of Cop26 will be understood in the years to come based on how effective the signatories are at implementing change,” says Aebhric McGibney, Dublin Chamber’s director of public and international affairs.

If Cop progress seems to proceed at glacial pace – not even a rapidly melting one – businesses at least can take action more quickly. A huge part of the value of Glasgow was that it provided the kind of clarity that businesses needed in order to undertake strategic planning and investment.

“We in Dublin Chamber see companies responding to climate change in many cases ahead of what national governments are doing. They are following the customer, following their staff, and following the investor in terms of their demands on business to be green,” says McGibney.

This change is more prevalent and advanced in larger firms but is trickling down into smaller firms too, often via greener strictures when assembling approved suppliers, tenders and procurement practices.

The Government’s launch of the Climate Action Plan 2021, which came out just before Cop26, and its commitment to reduce Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions by 51 per cent in 2030, are to be welcomed, he says.

"Ambitious measures are needed to accelerate the transition to a sustainable and innovative economic model for Ireland, that will form the basis for prosperity in a rapidly changing world," says McGibney.

Regardless of whether it met your individual expectations, or watered them down, Cop26 will be of immense significance for the economic, social and political future of the planet.

“There is no option other than to address the challenges in an aggressive manner but the process will be extremely challenging,” warns Power.

“The reality is that curbing emissions will be painful and will have significant implications for certain sectors in particular, but for everybody in general. There will be considerable opposition to the required measures and there will be significant costs involved.”

As Glasgow recedes in the rear-view mirror, the road ahead looks rocky. “Strong and brave political leadership will be required in Ireland and in every other country,” he adds. “Taxes, incentives, technology and diversification strategies will all have to play an important role.”

Sounds like a fair cop.