Personal reflections on COP26

Dr Jamie Stewart, Deputy Director, Centre for Energy Policy

It was a great privilege to attend the COP26 conference in Glasgow on behalf of the Centre for Energy Policy.  Since starting my role at the Centre in March 2020, the conference has been on the horizon, with building excitement, hope and apprehension about what its outcomes may bring.

With the opportunity to attend the second week of the conference, some important declarations around ending and reversing deforestation by 2030, slashing methane emissions by 30% by 2030 and a broad pledge from 450 organisations in the financial sector to move funds to recipients that are committed to net zero, had already been made. But as the second week commenced, tensions were building around whether a new multilateral agreement would be reached, and importantly what it would include.

With a week since the conference concluded, it’s now known that a multilateral agreement –the  Glasgow Climate Pact – was reached on the final Saturday of the conference.

Others, including the Centre’s Director Professor Karen Turner, have since reflected on the details of the agreement, which will ultimately be judged as the central outcome of the COP26 process.

However, in this blog I want to describe some key perspectives and learnings I gained through my four days on the ground in the blue zone of the conference, attending plenary sessions, presidency sessions and side events. With an overwhelming (but encouraging) number of events covering a wide range of climate related topics I won’t describe events in detail, instead drawing on 3 key learnings that emerged.  

Variety of economic, societal and political perspectives

Firstly, after just a morning in the blue zone, the true international nature of the conference is distinctly apparent. This is aided by the patrolling UN security guards, who would look more at home in a US airport, and the broad range of accents, languages and dress, which after the last two years of the Covid-19 pandemic have been so missed.

The coming together of the global community, does feel like a significant moment. Not the European Union, the G7, or the G20, but all countries. While this feels like a special occasion, it reinforced the fact that climate change is an issue that will affect all nations, requiring action across the world, but especially from those with the most ability to act, and often largest responsibility for historic and existing emissions.

Attending plenary ‘stocktaking sessions’, chaired by the COP president Alok Sharma, really highlighted the variety of the issues and perspectives brought to the negotiations by different nations.  Hearing first-hand from countries spokespeople on how the climate emergency was already impacting their nation, the focus of outcomes they were looking for from the conference and what actions they might be able and willing to take, was truly fascinating. Working largely in the UK policy space, I’m guilty of thinking too much about climate action from an industrialised developed nation’s perspective.

But listening to contributions, the difference in the nature and structure of different countries’ economies, their political structures, their geographies, and importantly governmental capacities to engage in the UNFCCC process became very apparent. It was also clear that while the UK’s Nationally Determined Contribution’s (NDCs) cover almost every sector of the domestic economy, for other nations, NDCs can be made for only a selection of sectors, where countries feel they have the capacity to act and deliver change. This was an issue I wasn’t aware of before attending the conference.

It is clear that economic development, to lift people out of poverty, is still a crucial focus for many countries. The need and opportunity for sustainable economic development was described well by the representative from Mexico, who paraphrased their president in saying that ‘For the wellbeing of Mexico, first we will focus on the poor and those left behind.’

While this drive for economic development could be seen as a challenge, it did make me consider the different opportunities that exist for different nations when trying to tackle what feels like the insurmountable challenge of climate change.  

The multifaceted nature of the response to climate change means that some countries could be well placed to capitalise on new activities such as ecosystem services, clean fuel production and sustainable food production. This could bring benefits to their economies that could be used to raise living standards and meet other sustainable development goals whilst facilitating the global drive to reduce emissions. But crucially, the right financial and non-financial support will be needed for developing nations in particular (and especially those already facing devastating impacts of climate change) to make the most of these opportunities. For some countries, whose focus was on adaptation, loss and damage, seeking opportunities for economic development in the climate crisis might already feel out of reach.    

The urgency and permanence of the climate issue

The second personal learning I took away from the conference was the urgent need for action, not in the next decade, but now. Before attending the conference, I knew this was the case and would frequently write and talk about the pace of change required. But after a week of living and breathing climate change, at the conference and on the streets of Glasgow, hearing stories from partners around the world about the pressing need for finance to tackle loss and damage, and listening to seminars about the permanence of permafrost thawing, I really felt the urgency of the situation in the pit of my stomach. I will never know the answer, but I wonder if world leaders felt the same?

The imperative nature of keeping ‘1.5 degrees alive’ also became more and more apparent to me as the second week passed. As Alok Sharma said in plenary, for island nations, 1.5degrees is what is needed to stay alive, 2 degrees is a ‘death sentence’. He took two examples from the IPCC to highlight the difference between global impacts at 1.5degrees versus 2degrees. At 1.5 degrees, 70% of coral reefs will be dead by 2100. At 2 degrees, they will all have died. At 1.5deg, 14% of the global population would be exposed to extreme heat waves once every five years. At 2 degrees, that percentage jumps to 37%. Again these are facts that many might have read in a report, but hearing them ushered in person, in front of delegates from around the world, did a lot to reinforce their weight and the seriousness of the situation.

A global issue requiring a global response

Perhaps one of the most hopeful and optimistic learnings I took from my time at the conference was the real opportunity for collaboration that has, and is, materialising with the urgent need to tackle a global issue. As I spoke about in my pre-COP26 blog, the two week long period of the conference provided a focal point for civil society organisations, policymakers, universities and businesses from all around the world to meet, collaborate and share best practice.

The sharing of best practice and the promise of partnership working did seem to be alive and well in the nations pavilions. I watched Scotland sign a memorandum of understanding with Denmark around district heating development, heard how public transport initiatives set up in Santiago Chile (and described at a previous COP) had driven the Danish transport minister to take action, and how the theory of ‘open government’ can be used to deliver robust climate responses from nations in Europe to Africa.  

While some have criticised the COP in Glasgow as being the most ‘corporate’ yet, my hope and feeling on the ground was that the presence of multinationals reflects a tipping point in the global economy, where businesses start to initiate the transformative change of aligning with net zero emissions by the mid-century. And I think this is important. As David Turk the Deputy US Energy Secretary said at the presidency event on innovation day, a ‘Moonshot’ like effort is needed to drive technological development and cost reduction across a range of technologies needed to meet net zero. Here the private sector, with the correct Government incentives and policy certainty, will play a crucial role.

However, perhaps the most important collaboration in tackling climate change, which was a little less evident at COP26 in my opinion, between the global north, the global south and emerging economies, is where more work needs to be done. In the UK, we can show leadership in setting and delivering against our domestic 2030 and 2050 climate targets. But collective support and actions, such as delivering on the $100bn climate fund pledge, and sharing technology and public-policy learnings across nations will be crucial in building trust, political momentum and capacity to meet this existential global issue.