The highs and lows of did it all turn out?

Professor Karen Turner

Following on from my ‘highs and lows’ blog halfway through COP26 in CEP's home city of Glasgow, here are my main takeaways on the final outcomes, including what is to be known as the Glasgow Climate Pact.

Slow but important progress

An important context to set in any discussion of COP outcomes is that global climate discussions and developments notoriously move at a glacial pace. This is painfully ironic given that climate change is causing glaciers to rapidly melt, break off into the sea and retreat on land. Six years on from the much celebrated Paris Agreement, COP26 began one key challenge that many may not be aware of: finalising what is known as the Paris Rulebook. That is, there was a job to be done in that this rulebook – which provides the practical guidelines on what countries need to do in implementing global agreements on climate change mitigation, adaptation, and finance – had not even been finalised several COPs on!

Therein lies one key success of COP26 – while it may sound a bit ‘geeky’, a long overdue but crucially important outcome of COP26 has been to actually finalise the Paris Rulebook! What’s so important about that? Well, this is one of the most tangible things that the fourth of the goals of COP26 – on ‘working together to deliver’ – needed to do so that it is possible to make the Paris Agreement finally become operational in ways that are transparent and measurable. In doing so, there have been important developments in things like the operation of global carbon markets to enable cost-effective reductions in emissions across countries while delivering genuine reductions overall (and this is a process that began back in 1997 with the Kyoto Protocol).

A welcome development on Global Carbon Markets

The important progress made in this regard have been welcomed by organisations such as the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA), on the basis that we now have clear accounting guidance for emissions trades between countries, particularly through the launch a new crediting mechanism giving market access to all countries interested in attracting green investment through the global carbon market. However, there is still much to be done, for example, in terms of the need articulated by the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) for governments to ‘get smart’ in how they use carbon pricing instruments, crucially to harmonise carbon pricing instruments across nations and global regions. This is crucial if the type of ‘offshoring’ challenge – where emissions (and, crucially, jobs associated with production activity) may simply shift across countries in response to uncompetitive decarbonisation costs – that I highlighted in one of my own pre-COP blogs.

It's all about compromise

For anyone (like me) who sat through the final stages of the ‘Glasgow Climate Pact’ agreement being agreed on Saturday, it became starkly clear that reaching a global agreement on anything is all about compromise and can be frustratingly lacking in the type of detail and specific progress we all know we need! As the UNFCCC has summarised climate change adaptation, mitigation and finance have all indeed been strengthened in a very complex and ultimately delicate balance supported by all Parties (nearly 200 countries) represented at COP26. This wasn’t easy: even those of us who only caught the ‘highlights’ on later news roundups may have seen COP President Alok Sharma becoming somewhat emotional and pleading for agreement without unravelling the threads of the complex tapestry that was the draft agreement. And at one point it did look like it may just start to unravel, when India objected in particularly to the ‘phase out’ language on coal.

Phasing out, phasing down - it's all about the signals, and successful economic development

So, did resolving that challenge – in manner that Mr Sharma felt the need to apologise particularly to those nations on the ‘front line’ of real and extreme climate change impacts – substantially weaken the outcomes? Well, for many it may well have done, given that burning coal is a key source of the damaging carbon dioxide that hangs around in the atmosphere for so long and causes extreme climate events so long after it is emitted. However, as many have already pointed out, even having a fossil fuel explicitly named in a global climate agreement is an historic development, and one that will have crucial impacts in investment markets all over the world. In short, while it was already undoubtedly happening, the Glasgow Climate Pact is highly likely to hammer the final nail in the coffin of investment in coal-fired power plants.

Moreover, transitioning away from coal is not only important in terms of limiting emissions. One of the main inhibitors of action on climate change is national concerns over sustaining and improving economic growth and development. However, if countries like India are to successfully develop their economies, they need to stop investing in capacity that is not effectively or fully utilised – i.e. coal fired power stations that may only be running at 40% capacity. In short, the implications for Indian workers currently dependent on jobs linked to coal fired power generation need to be set in ‘just transition’ terms that take account of the broader objective of realising pathways to the nation’s future and sustainable economic prosperity.

Pushing countries 'Do their homework' in time for COP27

So, what other tangible outcomes emerged from COP26? Well, there were a number of things beyond the headline agreements on reducing methane emissions by 30% by 2030 and limiting deforestation. A number of ‘sectoral deals’ on things like shipping, road transport and agriculture are detailed on the UNFCCC outcomes webpage. However, a key frustration for many of us observing the process was that many countries did not update their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC)  on emissions reductions, something that the Paris Agreement requires to be done every 5 years, a timescale that many would argue falls into the glacially slow pace that is so characteristic of the global climate change conferencing process. Thus, a crucial outcome of the Glasgow Climate Pact is the push for countries to do this more regularly. And this starts with the explicit call to bring revised NDC plans to the 2022 COP27 in Egypt, with particular focus and practical ambition on the emissions cuts required by 2030 if the target of 1.5 degrees Celsius warming by 2050 that COP26 agreed upon is to become a practical and achievable outcome.

Blah blah blah?

So, does this all sum to ‘blah blah blah’ or ‘kicking the can down the road’? I agree that some of the outcomes of COP26 lack detail and solid commitment, specifically around delivering on climate finance, both for mitigation and adaptation, and particularly in supporting those developing and vulnerable nations that have played less of a role in causing climate change but are disproportionately suffering its effects. However, I’ll close this blog by concluding that this is not only the wrong debate to focus on but potentially a counter-productive one. As I’ve noted above, perhaps the key thing to come out of COP26 is the signals sent to not only investment markets, but to businesses and citizens. The transition to net zero is a costly and complex challenge, and one where we need to align economic development and changing lifestyles/ways of doing business with addressing and overcoming the challenges of climate change. We can do this by identifying and effectively exploiting ‘green growth’ opportunities and placing central focus on delivering ‘just transitions’. However, this is a risky endeavour, where people need as much certainty as possible that the governments of the world are committed to net zero pathways. The outcomes of COP26 should do much to deliver this but it is crucially important that, while we all push to ensure ambitions are actually realised, we must be careful not to undermine it through the conduct of the climate debate.