COP26 round up: Newfound focus on climate change - but real action remains to be seen

16 November 2021, 06:00

Nearly 200 countries agreed to the Glasgow Climate Pact
Nearly 200 countries agreed to the Glasgow Climate Pact. Picture: Alamy
Gina Davidson

By Gina Davidson

The dismantling of the physical infrastructure of COP26 on the banks of the Clyde started at 4am Sunday morning.

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Eight hours previously Alok Sharma had brought down his presidential gavel on the Glasgow Climate Pact as it was dubbed; the agreement of 196 countries after 14 days of negotiation at COP26 about how to tackle the global problem of climate change and the Earth’s rising temperature.

Sharma was rather emotional as he brought proceedings to a close. Possibly through exhaustion but also because the deal did not go far enough for him - and for many others at the UN summit - watered down at the last minute.

So instead of the phasing out of coal and fossil fuel subsidies, the pact stated that the would be "phased down".

The dismantling of who was to blame also began then - with fingers pointed directly at India, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and South Africa in particular.

Read more: 'Historic' global climate deal agreed at COP26 after two weeks of tense talks

Read more: PM admits delight at climate pact is 'tinged with disappointment' after watered-down deal

In its defence India pointed to its bid during the summit for all fossil fuels to be treated equally, so that would include oil and gas - yet they didn’t make a mention in the agreement. The US, and indeed possibly the UK, will have seen to that.

Meanwhile the most vulnerable countries on the frontline of climate change - the Maldives, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, islands which could disappear as a result of rising global sea levels - all put the blame on the wealthier, bigger, and the most CO2 emitting countries.

They pleaded with the countries’ negotiators to think of their grandchildren’s futures and to think outwith election cycles, but their emotional pleas ultimately fell on deaf ears.

Sharma had to swallow the new language from India otherwise the whole deal would have fallen through - and he has since said that it was vital in order to ensure the most vulnerable countries were able to receive the financial aid which was agreed.

So yes, there were positives. There was a consensus on urgently accelerating climate action and all countries agreed to revisit and strengthen their current emissions targets to 2030. There will be a yearly political roundtable to consider a global progress report and a Leaders summit in 2023.

Remarkably, the Paris Rulebook, the guidelines for how the Paris Agreement is delivered, was also completed after six years of discussions. That included agreement on a transparency process which will hold countries to account as they deliver on their targets and also on Article 6, which establishes a robust framework for countries to exchange carbon credits through the UN.

There were also commitments to significantly increase financial support through the Adaptation Fund and there was recognition of the need to deal with loss and damage to those countries already suffering droughts and famine or floods.

It’s also worth remembering that when the UK took on the COP26 presidency, in partnership with Italy, nearly two years ago, only 30 percent of the world was covered by net zero targets. This figure is now at around 90 percent - and for the first time includes India.

And there were pledges on ending deforestation - even by Brazil - and all new car sales to be zero emission by 2040, even if that one was dodged by huge manufacturers Volkswagen and Toyota.

Alok Sharma believes that as a result of all of those moves, COP26 kept the target of just 1.5 degrees warming alive. Labour’s energy spokesman Ed Miliband said it was on life support. Greenpeace too declared the deal “meek” and “weak” - though it did agree: "A signal has been sent that the era of coal is ending. And that matters."

Read more: Climate change: Why is 1.5C the magic number for controlling global warming?

Read more: COP26 analysis: Talks enter the end game - will ministers become the Avengers?

So now what?

Sharma still holds the presidency until COP27 in Egypt next year. He has already said that China and India "are going to have to justify to some of the most climate vulnerable countries what happened. You heard that disappointment on the floor." He will be pressing that point at every opportunity he gets.

As for Boris Johnson - what is the legacy of COP26 on his premiership?

The Prime Minister has certainly had a Damascene conversion to the climate change argument and made it clear he wanted a concrete deal at the end of the summit. Yet he gave speeches in which the gravity of his tone was lost in his allusions with James Bond movies; he flew by private jet to Glasgow from Italy and then to London undermining arguments about net zero travel; he made a sudden and brief decision to return after the second draft of the agreement was published which appeared to shift no hearts and minds; and then stayed away when the going got tough on the Saturday.

He has called the agreement a game-changer. He could hardly do anything else given he had expended so much political and diplomatic capital - he was glued to the side of India’s PM Modi when the announcement of a net zero target was made. But he will now be under severe pressure to cancel the potential drilling of the Cambo oil field off Shetland and the new coal production facility in Cumbria if he does not want accusations of hypocrisy.

Glasgow itself will breathe a sigh of relief as it gets back to normal. It gave a warm welcome to the 30,000 delegates - as well as the high level politicians and the occasional Hollywood star. The pre-summit worries about rail strikes and bin collectors walk outs were avoided - for the time being.

As the dismantling of the COP site and the analysis of the agreement continues, there is no doubt that this is one COP which has focused the world’s attention on the climate crisis in a way like no other. Whether that attention turns to action will be its real legacy.