Verdicts on COP26 depend almost entirely on the expectations of those delivering them.

Younger generations, activists and casual bystanders – no doubt influenced by rallying cries such as John Kerry’s “last best hope” and Boris Johnson’s “last chance” – have judged it a failure. This was not the transformational agreement they had hoped for. 

More seasoned COP observers and some within the “climate community” have taken a more sanguine view. They point to genuine progress on ridding the world of coal, agreement on returning next year with concrete emissions-reduction plans and the fact that 1.5C is still alive, if only just.

Under pressure

The initial reaction to the final text may have been a universal disappointment – India and China’s late ambush to replace a coal “phase out” with a “phase down” was a bitter blow, not least to COP President Alok Sharma, who apologised “deeply” for the last-minute changes. But there were enough breakthroughs to give hope that all is not lost. 

The first mention of coal in a climate treaty since Kyoto in 1997 was an unexpected surprise, as was the agreement to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. An agreement to double adaptation finance by 2025 was also a highlight, while the urgent need to provide funds for loss and damage was at least acknowledged. Strong calls for those countries yet to submit NDCs to do so by next year, for all plans to align with 1.5C-2C, and for an annual assessment of these plans from 2022 were clear signs of progress on emissions reductions. Establishing rules on climate reporting was particularly important as countries’ performance will soon be compared and judged accordingly, meaning a central element of the Paris Agreement (PA) will be up and running by the mid-2020s. The PA works on peer pressure and the ability to name and shame will ramp up pressure on individual countries to take strong action.

Money talks

A number of gaping loopholes in the rules for carbon markets, not least double counting, were also closed, but the rules agreed upon are not tight enough to stop some countries and companies from gaming the system. For example, some old Kyoto credits can still be traded. Much will depend on the UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres’s expert group effectively scrutinising offset markets. A levy on trades to help fund adaptation in the poorest countries was also removed.

Indeed little progress overall was made in providing support for developing countries and vulnerable communities, whose leaders left Glasgow disillusioned and resentful. The developed world did acknowledge it had failed to provide the USD 100 billion in climate finance it had promised, but aside from doubling adaptation finance, little of consequence was agreed, merely the need to return to the issue at COP27 in Egypt. Indeed clear calls for a facility on loss and damage financing were rejected by some of the wealthiest countries. There was, however, an acknowledgement that USD 100 billion is not nearly enough, and discussions around external financing through development banks and the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights showed that rich countries are starting to get their heads around the kinds of sums needed. A huge gap remains, however – a number of developing countries, particularly India and many in Africa, made it clear we are talking trillions, not billions.

Actions speak louder

So what now? The next 12 months are absolutely vital. The Glasgow Pact calls for countries to return with credible plans aligned with the PA next year. They must. Much more needs to be done to help developing countries combat climate change, both to secure desperately needed financial assistance and help heal the rift between the rich world and the poor that has deepened in the past two weeks. Rebuilding trust and working collectively will be vital to avoiding dangerous temperature rises. 

Countries and companies alike must understand that pledges mean nothing without action. They must work tirelessly and tenaciously to fulfil their promises, taking on powerful vested interests like the fossil fuel lobby that looks to delay, defer and deflect at every turn. And they must acknowledge that current pledges are not enough. We are currently heading for a 2.4C rise in temperature, heating that will bring devastating impacts to communities across the world. The talking is over. The work starts now.

Toplines from the big deals

Global Coal to Clean Power

The good:

  • 190 governments, financial institutions and companies signed up
  • no new international public financing for coal
  • developed countries will phase out coal power in the 2030s and the rest of the world in the 2040s
  • 23 have committed to ending coal generation for the first time. This includes five of the world’s top 20 major coal power countries – South Korea (5th), Indonesia (7th), Vietnam (9th), Poland (13th) and Ukraine (19th).

The bad:

  • the US, China, India and Australia did not sign up
  • the deal only covers 10% of global coal generation.

Declaration on accelerating the transition to 100% ZEVs

The good:

  • 33 countries, representing 18% of the global car market, committed to accelerating the adoption of zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs)
  • 23 of these countries, accounting for 10% of the market, explicitly targeted a phase out of fossil-fuel cars by 2040 at the latest
  • six of the world’s leading carmakers – GM, Ford, Mercedes Benz, Volvo, Jaguar Land Rover, and BYD – also signed up
  • Kenya, Morocco, Ghana and Rwanda are the first countries in Africa to back a ZEV pledge.

The bad

  • three of the largest car markets in the world – the US, China and Japan – did not sign up
  • a number of key carmakers – including VW and Toyota – also did not sign up.

Declaration on forest and land use

The good:

  • more than 100 world leaders promised to end and reverse deforestation by 2030
  • the pledge includes almost USD 19 billion of public and private funds
  • countries that signed the pledge – including Canada, Brazil, Russia, China, Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the US and the UK – cover around 85% of the world’s forests
  • more than 30 of the world’s biggest financial companies – including Aviva, Schroders and Axa – also promised to end investment in activities linked to deforestation
  • 28 countries – key producers and consumers of products linked to deforestation – agreed to boost trade in sustainably-produced commodities.

The bad:

  • Most of the commitments are voluntary so there are no guarantees governments, investors or corporations will deliver.

Global Methane Pledge

The good:

  • the first international climate pact to tackle methane emissions
  • 105 countries signed up to the EU and US-led pledge, which commits to cutting methane emissions by 30% by 2030 from 2020 levels
  • the signatories represent almost half of global methane emissions and 70% of global GDP
  • includes major emitters such as the US, Canada, Nigeria, Iraq, Brazil and Saudi Arabia

The bad:

  • fails to address emissions from the agriculture sector
  • three key emitters – Russia, China and India – did not sign up