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15 November 2021

Was Cop26 a failure?

The promises made aren’t enough to keep warming below 2°C – the level at which parts of the world start to become uninhabitable.

By Stephen Bush

Cop26 ended in tears – quite literally. Alok Sharma, the Cop president, shed a tear after having to agree to a watered-down agreement in which coal power will be “phased down” rather than “phased out”.

Does that mean Cop26 is a failure? The pledges made through it alone aren’t enough to keep warming below 2°C, the level at which parts of the world start to be uninhabitable. (A good reckoner, according to one study, is that every degree above 2°C will uproot a billion people – and the more people are displaced means the more lives lost and the more unstable and dangerous global politics becomes, regardless of whether you are among the displaced or not.)

But they do mean that across the democratic world, environmentalists and other campaigners are no longer having to argue for the adoption of ambitious targets but can instead argue “look, you’ve made this promise, now keep it”. It’s fashionable to be cynical about manifesto pledges and other promises, but for the most part, in most democracies (including the UK, most of the time) these pledges are taken seriously, and they’re far better than no preference at all.

It is also significant that the United States and China were able to agree a bilateral deal about methane emissions – not just because of the threat both countries’ emissions pose to our climate, but because the more those two nations talk to one another, the more the risk of a dangerous miscalculation, triggering a hot war between the two, is reduced. And that watered-down commitment on coal is still, ultimately, the first global climate agreement since the 1997 Kyoto protocol to bind its signatories to do anything on coal power.

On the other hand, measures to support adaptation in states and regions worst affected by the climate crisis don’t go far enough, and many national commitments are still too weak or too vague. Much has been promised, but there is a lot left that needs pledging and far more that needs to be done.

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[see also: The good, the bad and the ugly: What did Cop26 achieve?]

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