Reflections on COP26: A Firsthand Account

Reflections on COP26: A Firsthand Account

One month after COP26, I reflect on the conference’s successes and failures, as well as the role of international organizations in addressing climate change. I don’t have all the answers, but what I do know is that now more than ever, our students need to grapple with these questions.


The 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at Glasgow concluded with the signing of the Glasgow Climate Pact last week. People had high expectations for COP26, fueled by months of news headlines dominated by heatwaves, wildfires, storms, and floods, as well as a slew of alarming studies including the “code red for humanity” report published in August 2021. The sixth assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projected that global temperatures would rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the 2030s. Despite coronavirus and security restrictions, protesters thronged outside the Scottish Events Centre for the entire two weeks of the conference.


One month after COP26, I reflect on the conference’s successes and failures, as well as the role of international organizations in addressing climate change. I don’t have all the answers, but what I do know is that now more than ever, our students need to grapple with these questions.

As you navigate teaching about the role that international collaboration might play in climate solutions, here is a firsthand account of my takeaways from COP26.


The Glasgow Climate Pact


The Glasgow Climate Pact has been widely described as a compromise, an agreement to do better next year. The pact keeps the possibility of limiting warming to 1.5 C alive by calling on countries to come back next year with increased ambitions. For the first time in any UNFCCC meeting or negotiation, there was a reference to phasing down unabated coal power and phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. 


“We can now say with credibility that we have kept 1.5 C alive,” COP26 President Alok Sharma said while announcing the pact. “But its pulse is weak,” he continued, “and it will only survive if we keep our promises and translate commitments into rapid action. Before this conference, the world asked: do the parties here in Glasgow have the courage to rise to the scale of the challenge? We have responded. History has been made here in Glasgow.” 


In a press release, the UNFCCC attempted to explain the process of climate negotiations and the need for compromise. “The wide-ranging set of decisions, resolutions, and statements that constitute the outcome of COP26 is the fruit of intense negotiations over the past two weeks, strenuous formal and informal work over many months, and constant engagement both in-person and virtually for nearly two years. The package adopted today is a global compromise that reflects a delicate balance between the interests and aspirations of nearly the 200 Parties to the core instruments on the international regime that governs global efforts against climate change,” the press release states.


At the World Leaders Summit, new pledges and targets were announced for net-zero economies. The People’s Advocate for COP26 Sir David Attenborough said that the stability of the climate system that enabled the development of human civilization is breaking. He urged world leaders to turn this tragedy into a triumph.


Climate Finance


Climate finance was the most hotly debated issue. Back in 2009, developed countries pledged that by 2020, they would provide $100 billion per year in climate finance to developing countries. Shortly before the commencement of COP26, developed countries acknowledged that they had failed to provide these promised funds. Leaders from the Global South talked about trust, credibility, and accountability, pointing to the disconnect between pledges and reality and the lack of a clear definition of what counts as climate finance. 


The original $100-billion-per-year target is now inadequate. During the deliberations at COP26, leaders of vulnerable countries had sought at least $500 billion between 2020 and 2024, with India asking for $1 trillion by 2030. The Glasgow Climate Pact enjoins developed countries to meet the $100 billion per year target “urgently and through to 2025.” The pact also calls for developed nations to “at least double their collective provision of climate finance for adaptation” from 2019 levels by 2025.


Developing Nations


COP26 saw many disputes over “loss and damage,” a term that refers to financial aid to vulnerable communities suffering from unavoidable impacts of climate change such as floods and droughts. Loss and damage funding often numbers among the key demands of developing countries and island nations. Since the Paris Agreement, loss and damage has been considered one of three pillars of international climate policy (along with mitigation and adaptation), but it had largely been ignored during negotiations prior to COP26. 


At COP26, the G77 nations and China called for a "Glasgow Loss and Damage Facility" through which historical emitters would pay poor countries to remedy the loss and damage from climate disaster. Countries agreed to operationalize the Santiago Network of Loss and Damage initiated at COP25 by allocating funds "to support technical assistance for the implementation of relevant approaches to avert, minimize, and address loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change in developing countries." It was also decided that “loss and damage will be the focus of COP27 in Egypt.”


The Paris Agreement Rulebook


A key outcome of COP26 is the finalization of the Paris Agreement Rulebook, which makes it fully operational. The rulebook’s completion will give certainty and predictability to both market and non-market approaches to mitigation and adaptation. One aspect of the Paris Agreement that was clarified was the Clean Development Mechanism, which had previously left some important questions about carbon credits unanswered. The Glasgow Climate Pact resolved these issues, stating that when countries earn carbon credits by reducing emissions, they can either sell those credits to other nations or count the credits towards their own domestic climate targets, removing a loophole that had previously led to double counting and corruption.


Clean Technology


More than 30 countries and financial institutions signed a statement committing to halting all financing for fossil fuel development overseas and diverting that spending to green energy. Thirty-five world leaders announced the Glasgow Breakthrough Agenda, which pushes countries and businesses to work together to scale up the development and deployment of clean technologies. 


The Global Methane Pledge signed by 103 countries aims to reduce methane emissions from 2020 levels by at least 30% by 2030, but India, China, and Russia have not signed the pledge. More than 100 entities, including some countries, signed the Glasgow Accord on Zero Emissions Vehicles to phase out new fossil fuel vehicles by 2040. 




Two major announcements concerning deforestation were made during the World Leaders Summit at COP26. The Glasgow Leaders Declaration on Forests and Land Use was signed by more than 130 countries promising to “work collectively to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030”. The Forest, Agriculture and Commodity Trade (FACT) Dialogue was signed by 28 countries “representing 75% of global trade in key commodities” that contribute to deforestation. The FACT Dialogue aims to support sustainable trade between commodity-producing and -consuming countries.


Final Reflection


At Glasgow, I was a witness to the anxiety of the youth and anger of the affected communities, including indigenous people from all over the world. I listened to Greta Thunberg and indigenous leaders at the George Square on the 5th, and I marched with protesters in the cold November rain during the Global Day of Action for Climate Justice the following day. Following the People’s Plenary on the 12th, thousands of us walked out of the Blue Zone to protest the lack of urgency and intent to deliver climate justice. 


“We must accelerate action to keep the 1.5-degree goal alive. Our fragile planet is hanging by a thread. We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe. It is time to go into emergency mode — or our chance of reaching net zero will itself be zero,” UN Secretary General Guterres said in his statement. The Glasgow Pact does not guarantee a 1.5 C limit to warming, but it is a strong framework for enhanced and collaborative action. The path to success has many obstacles, but COP27 will provide another opportunity to overcome them. Failure is not an option.