Reflecting on COP26

WWF's Marcene Mitchell, SVP Climate Change

David Bebber

From the beginning, the 26th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), known as COP26, had a different, nervous sort of energy. For the first time since Paris, the parties would be expected to enhance their ambition through their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Going into the COP, the latest information showed that, while collective ambition increased relative to previous NDCs, the aggregate impact of the new NDCs were not going to leave us anywhere near the 1.5-degree goals of the Paris Agreement, raising the stakes of the progress it would take to have a successful agreement.

Still, with many of us undertaking our first trip of any kind since the COVID-19 pandemic began (its own source of anxiety), country delegates, NGO representatives, journalists, and a host of others descended upon Glasgow to endure the discomfort of long walks and long lines, daily COVID testing, and hours of meeting in masks, but determined to make progress, and full of hope. 

The hope was that, with the world's eyes upon us, COP would become a forcing event that would bring leaps in ambition. The World Leader Summit and the presence of Prince Charles and President Joe Biden during the first few days of the event signaled that action this year would be frontloaded.

And indeed, while the negotiators were just getting warmed up, momentum was building from those gathered just outside the negotiation rooms in the Blue Zone. Among the most notable:

  • Over 130 Presidents and Prime Ministers, including Brazil, China, and Indonesia, committed to reverse deforestation and land degradation by 2030. These countries together are home to over 85% of the world's forested lands.
  • The United States announced that more than 90 countries would join it in a commitment to cut dangerous methane emissions 30 percent by 2030.
  • The Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ)—a group of large asset owners—committed to contributing more than $130 trillion in private capital to reach a net zero global economy. On the same day, the UK established the very first net zero aligned financial center, meaning all financial institutions and publicly listed companies are now required to publish transition plans by 2023 showing how they will reach net zero by 2050.
  • USAID announced an ambitious set of targets to advance the President's Emergency Plan for Adaptation and Resilience (PREPARE), a coordinated, interagency approach that will support locally-led development for more than half a billion people in developing countries to adapt to and manage the impacts of climate change by 2030.
  • More than 40 countries (but not China or the US) committed to ending all investment in new coal power generation domestically and internationally, and 20 countries, including the US, pledged to end public financing for "unabated" fossil fuel projects abroad by the end of 2022.

And those were all in the first few days.

As the first week wore on, progress from high emitting states was slow. Leaders from China and Russia were not at the talks, the US Congress did not pass the BBB bill, and while India raised its long-term ambition, it (along with China) did not address its transition out of coal. Outside the COP26 venue, pressure was mounting for more action and, in the words of Greta Thunberg, less blah, blah, blah. Thousands of activists shouted, marched, drummed and danced in the streets of Glasgow, calling for more. More integrity, more justice, more change. There was a fierce sense of urgency in these protestors, one that I share. We are not on track to meet our goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees centigrade, and have less than nine years to turn things around. We simply must move beyond talking about our plans and begin executing on them.

Aerial view of city of Glasgow

The commitments we saw in the first week of COP are the kinds of commitments we want to see from governments—marshalling the money and the ambition to cut emissions, a shift towards clean energy, implementing nature-based solutions, and adapting to the climate impacts that are already occurring with more frequency and intensity. And in all these things, not losing sight of the needs of frontline, Indigenous, and marginalized communities, who feel impacts first and worst, and often have fewer available resources to meet the challenge of the climate crisis.

Nature had a moment at this COP. For the first time, we’re seeing governments make significant commitments to Nature-based Solutions, recognizing that these solutions can, if we work them right, provide up to 30% of the emissions reductions needed to reach our climate goals.

At the beginning of the second week, former President Obama addressed the COP. His presence sent a shot of electricity through the building as he spoke directly to the youth. He urged them to push for more action through protest and marches, but also said they must vote, use their power as consumers and employees and be the voice that convinces their parents and relatives of the importance of addressing the climate crisis.

In a surprise move, the US and China announced a joint agreement to reduce methane emissions, transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, and to stop deforestation. That the two countries emitting the most carbon are now committed to working together to achieve the climate goals of the Paris Agreement is a hopeful moment, showing that countries are finally hearing the message on climate ambition. We will of course need to see these agreements become actions, but it’s an important signal.

What was also clear for me at this COP, is that national governments can and should build a foundation for change with regulations and incentives, but it is ultimately everyone else—businesses, state and local governments, academic and religious institutions, and other community-based groups—who are going to do the actual work of decarbonizing our economy and adapting to our new climate reality.

I saw the excitement coming out of the US Climate Action Center for Subnational and Non-state actors which was sponsored at the WWF Pavilion and managed by our ‘America Is All In’ team. Presented were a wide range of efforts that included everything from the resilience plans of Mayors to the voices of Indigenous, and marginalized communities around the use of nature-based solutions, to cultural institutions educating local communities to Governors creating multi-state coalitions to work on common emission reduction actions.

What these efforts had in common is that they embraced all segments of society, but especially frontline, vulnerable communities whose outcomes will be the ultimate measure of our success in addressing climate change.

The COP went into extra sessions, emerging with what is now being called the Glasgow Climate Pact. It’s got some real firsts—a commitment to work towards more ambitious climate targets in 2022, (vs. 2025) and a commitment of more climate finance—particularly for adaptation—to developing nations. But that progress is paired with painfully noticeable gaps. The commitments to developing nations will not apply to loss and damage. The key role of nature remains unrecognized. And at the last minute, the first specific mention in an international climate agreement of the transition away from fossil fuels was watered down -- China and India softened the language from “phasing out” to “phasing down.”

This mixed bag of results from the COP highlights the work that remains for us to do. On the positive side, we were able to keep the 1.5 degree Paris goal from slipping beyond our grasp. But conversely, that is not the same thing as actually meeting the moment and securing our future. The desire for increased ambition is strong, but concrete action plans to support new targets are still lacking. We are in some ways where we were at the beginning of COP—needing more action, not promises. Coming out of Glasgow, the focus must shift to the steps countries will take to make the pledges a reality.