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13 November 2021updated 14 Nov 2021 12:35pm

The good, the bad and the ugly: What did Cop26 achieve?

The conference was a very human, flawed attempt to deal with a problem of our own making.

By Philippa Nuttall

At the end of two weeks of intense negotiations, everybody in the Cop26 “blue zone” — negotiators, journalists and observers — were all exhausted, desperate to see daylight, breathe some fresh air, eat some proper food and not have Dettol sprayed under their nose every five seconds. 

Yet countries were not about to go home without a fight. In the meeting of negotiators on Saturday afternoon to discuss the latest draft agreement, Cop host Alok Sharma was ready to declare job done. But countries wanted to have their say before letting him off the hook.

After nearly three hours of further criticism, praise and much invoking of children and grandchildren, it became clear that no-one wanted, in the words of European Commission vice president Frans Timmermans, to stumble “in this marathon a couple of metres from reaching the finishing line.” Going down in history as the nation who failed to stop climate change was not something anyone wanted on their CV.

Yet this was not the end of the story. In the final plenary, it transpired that India had led a rebel deal to waterdown the language on coal. The earlier agreement to “phase-out” inefficient fossil fuel subsidies and coal power that is not fitted with carbon capture and storage technologies is now a rather limp “phase down”.

The EU and various other countries expressed their deep disappointment about this change and the manner in which it had been decided. A visibly moved Sharma apologised for both.

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The final deal is, as it was always going to be, a compromise. Indeed, the idea of getting nearly 200 countries to agree to anything is mind-boggling. The conference did not solve once-and-for-all the problem of climate change, nor was it expected to.

The final pledges on the table are not in line with the goal of the Paris Agreement to hold the rise in warming to well below 2 Celsius degrees, and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 Celsius degrees. However, the world has reiterated its commitments to these goals and the promises made in the last fortnight will, if implemented, help make them reality. To encourage this, the agreement calls on countries to show up in Cop27 in Egypt next year with plans showing how they will increase ambition in line with this target.

Professor Emily Shuckburgh from the University of Cambridge described Glasgow as a “gateway to a 1.5 degrees Celsius world, but we need accelerated action to get there”.

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Elsewhere, climate finance to help developing countries move away from fossil fuels and adapt to the impacts of extreme weather remains an issue. Developed countries did not come up with deep-pocketed solutions. Instead, the final agreement acknowledges that current proposals and promises are insufficient, agrees various mechanisms, and places this issue at the centre of discussions at Cop27. 

Likewise, the concept of loss and damage, where rich countries pay poorer nations for the destruction already caused by climate change, remains an idea rather than a reality in the document.

And questions remain over the fairness and transparency of the system — the infamous Article 6 of the Paris Agreement — that will be used to allow developed countries to offset some of their emissions by, for example, planting trees in poorer nations. 

Nature, women, the just transition, climate justice and indigenous people are all mentioned in the text. But, for some countries and campaigners their inclusion is more lip service than a real attempt to ensure they are at the heart of climate action. 

The negotiator from Tuvalu, a country that will disappear if warming temperatures and sea level rises are not stopped, noted that all countries were now aboard “the Glasgow train”, which was leaving the station, but the train had to “move fast” and deliver on what has been agreed.

“Today is a day for prayer across the Pacific,” Satyendra Prasad, the Fiji ambassador to the UN told the New Statesman. “Tomorrow morning, we roll up our sleeves and battle on with even greater determination.”

The last two weeks have been a rocky road.

After the G20 meeting at the end of October, UK Prime Minister and Cop host Boris Johnson said he was pessimistic about the chances of a strong deal at Cop26. Two days of talks at the Global Leaders Summit at the beginning of November seemed to shift the dial a bit. Whether this was pure theatre is not clear. In any case, the front-loading of the Cop negotiations, with heads of government meeting ahead of the nitty-gritty discussions between experts was widely welcomed. The leaders did not mince their words about the need for urgent climate action. The bar was set, but could the world live up to it?

The first week of Cops can be a slow affair. But not in Glasgow. The UK had assigned a theme to each day from gender to transport, deforestation and energy. As each day passed, announcements and pledges came thick and fast. The most notable, were commitments to phase out coal power, end deforestation, slash methane emissions, end licensing for new oil and gas fields, and, eventually, phase out fossil fuel-powered cars and vans. There are caveats to all of these agreements and only certain countries have signed up to certain deals. But they are progress.

However, away from the glitzy headlines, things were more complicated. In 2009, developed countries promised to deliver $100bn a year to help poorer countries adapt to the impacts of climate change. Yet this money has never been forthcoming in its entirety. An agreement just before Cop means the full amount of money — which developing countries are clear is far too small to deal with the task at hand — will not be delivered until 2023. This broken promise has caused massive distrust from poorer countries, and did not help ease negotiations.

Wider geopolitical tensions between the US and China — plus the absence of Xi Jinping from Glasgow — was also not helpful. But then suddenly things began to move. In a surprise turn on Wednesday, the two countries called two separate, consecutive press conferences, and told the world they has agreed to put aside other differences for the good of humanity. 

The agreement gave new impetus to the talks and after a weak first draft of what would become the final agreement, a deal seemed to be in the making. But by Friday afternoon, it was clear that countries on the frontline of climate impacts wanted, indeed needed, to see more ambition on the thorny issue of “loss and damage”. The EU and the US were in the firing line for their efforts to stop action. And while vulnerable nations made their point, they will have to wait 12 months to see what developed countries really have to offer.

Cop26 is neither fully a success nor a failure. It is a very human, flawed attempt to deal with a problem of our own making. We all — governments, financial institutions, individuals and companies — now need to change and step up to address this challenge. 

For my part, I leave Glasgow with mixed feelings. I will miss seeing nuclear industry representatives dressed up as bananas, the buzz of being surrounded by people from nearly every country on the planet, and the feeling of being at the centre of something important. I am, however, happy to leave behind the massive, freezing cold tent that was the media room, soggy Cop sandwichs, and go home and get some sleep.

The world has taken a step forward in the right direction. Like many of the negotiators said, I can go home and tell my children the adults didn’t fail them. But the adults will have to keep their promises sooner rather than later.

Extra reporting by India Bourke and Nick Ferris.

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