COP26 Recap: Progress, Business as Usual, or Both?
About the author: Nate Van Duzer (J.D. Candidate, Class of 2023) is a Contributor to Travaux. He has worked with local policymakers and elected officials for nearly a decade, first as an aide to a Seattle city councilmember and later with the administration and school board of Seattle Public Schools. He holds a BA in history from Georgetown University and a Master of Global Affairs (International Peace Studies concentration) from the University of Notre Dame.
Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, speaking at COP26. Photo taken by COP26, available here.
Last weekend, COP26, the international climate conference in Glasgow, wrapped up with a consensus agreement by 197 nations. Global leaders have hailed a multitude of new agreements coming from the Conference. However, climate activist Greta Thunberg shared the opinion of many in the environmental justice community by labeling the Conference a “PR event” full of “business as usual and blah, blah, blah.”
Recent headlines have captured this stark dichotomy in how leaders and activists perceived the results from Glasgow:
The New York Times: Negotiators Strike a Climate Deal, but World Remains Far From Limiting Warming
Bloomberg Law: Glasgow Climate Deal’s Success Hinges on Pledges Becoming Action
The Nation: COP26 Ends With Promises, but Not Nearly Enough Progress
This article overviews the history of COP meetings and explores the perspectives of diplomats and environmental justice advocates who attended the Conference.
The History of COP
COP26 stands for the 26th “conference of parties” in the wake of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Since the early 1990s, the international community has held repeated conferences attempting to make progress on combating human-caused global warming, including those that led to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which sets binding emissions targets on industrialized nations. The most notable recent gathering was the 2015 Paris Agreement, a legally binding treaty that entered into force in 2016. Alongside significantly aspirational language, the agreement requires countries to prepare and submit a “nationally determined contribution” to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions every five years. Many countries updated their submissions in the lead up to this year’s COP26.
The Paris Agreement sets a target of limiting global warming to 1.5ºC. A United Nations report from 2021 calculates that, under current conditions, the world is on track for a devastating 2.7º increase. A separate group has determined that, under current national commitments for reductions by 2030, the result would be a 2.4º increase, less than 2.7º but still well above the 1.5º goal.
However, without binding commitments or penalties, climate pacts like the Paris Agreement often require more informal enforcement through peer pressure, example-setting, and positive reinforcement. One means of informal enforcement includes litigation, as international climate agreements have also been brought into numerous lawsuits filed in domestic courts. Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law maintains an extensive database of current climate change litigation efforts around the world.
Progress Made: The Narrative from Global Leaders
COP26 organizers point to several areas of the Glasgow Agreement as positive progress, including a heavier focus on adaptation and a recognition that developing countries need much more financial support. The Agreement contained language related to carbon markets that had been long-disputed since the Paris Agreement. The Glasgow text also contains the words “fossil fuels” for the first time in documents emerging from COP conferences, calling for “the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.”
Climate hopefuls will also point to numerous side agreements that arose from the Conference. More than 100 countries signed onto an agreement to “halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030.” Similarly, more than 100 nations concurred on cutting methane emissions by the end of the decade. The United States and China announced new agreement language about how they would begin working more closely together on climate action. India also initiated a new pledge to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2070.
Ultimately, Conference president Alok Sharma declared COP26 a renewed starting point for success: “We can now say with credibility that we have kept 1.5º alive. But, its pulse is weak and it will only survive if we keep our promises and translate commitments into rapid action.”
Nowhere near Enough: The Narrative from Activists
Environmental justice advocates were not particularly impressed, to say the least. One organization called the outcome a “compromise with catastrophe.” In the final days of COP26, civil society participants staged a massive walkout of the Conference and issued a list of demands. The activist COP26 Coalition’s statement in response to the final Glasgow Agreement ends with this summary, “At COP26, the richest got what they came here for, and the poorest leave with nothing.” Indigenous groups have characterized the Conference as “a death sentence.”
Skeptics note that most of the promises from COP26 carry few actionable details and concerted action to mitigate climate change still remains voluntary, which means strong steps are unlikely. For example, while a COP26 agreement to halt deforestation received many signatories, some were quick to point out that this pact is not much different from a 2014 declaration, which failed to halt or even slow the destruction of forests in the past seven years. And while India announced a new climate goal early in the Conference, it vigorously lobbied to water down the fossil fuel language in the late stages from “phase-out” to “phasedown.” The disappointing last-minute changes left the COP26 president “deeply sorry” and near tears.
At the end of the Conference, UN Secretary-General António Guterres released a statement calling the actions of COP26 “an important step but . . . not enough.”
Global leaders have much more work to do to hold themselves and each other accountable to their lofty pledges, and civil society must continue to make climate change an issue of electoral and political salience if the world is to avert the impending catastrophe of unmitigated climate change.