By Jona Cordonier Gehring (Winchester College) and Nico Cordonier Gehring (King’s College School)
The COP26 UN Climate Change Conference which was hosted by the UK in partnership with Italy, took place from 31 October to 12 November 2021 in Glasgow. This is the 26th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), where ‘Parties’ means the countries that have agreed to the UNFCCC, nearly all of which have also ratified the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change. For nearly thirty years, the UN has been bringing together representatives from almost every country on earth – and many other organisations too – for these global climate summits in order to coordinate their efforts to take action on climate change, implementing the commitments and obligations that they have agreed to respect. In this time, the COPs of the UNFCCC developed from a small, specialist event with a few diplomats and scientists from different countries, to a meeting of highest priority and global importance with many heads of state, serious delegations of decision-makers, and thousands of stakeholders including leaders on UN agencies, specialist international organisations, civil society and academic institutions, business – even local government, as well as indigenous nations, women’s networks and – especially – children and youth (the YOUNGOs).
COP26 in Glasgow had some important outcomes. Of high significance, the ‘Paris Rulebook’ of guidelines on how to implement the Paris Agreement is now finally completely agreed, after six years of negotiations. The rules and guidelines will help to make the Paris Agreement, as an international treaty under the UNFCCC, fully operational. The rules for Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, especially, are now agreed, which allows for carbon trading under Article 6.2, and the new ‘sustainable development mechanism’ to generate carbon credits from investments in reducing emissions in a way that supports sustainability under Article 6.4. The rules for monitoring, reporting and verification – transparency under Article 13 – were also crystalised, and the terms of reference for the Paris Agreement Implementation and Compliance Committee (the PAICC) under Article 15, among other important points.
The collection of world leaders’ decisions taken in Glasgow at COP26, the so-called “COP26 Glasgow Climate Pact” contains many good ideas but also a few disappointments. One key question was that a proposed commitment to “out” coal and other fossil fuels was reduced to phasing “down.” While it would surely be stronger to be both ‘down and out,’ the Pact does recognise that “limiting global warming to 1.5 °C requires rapid, deep and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, including reducing global carbon dioxide emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 relative to the 2010 level and to net zero around mid-century, as well as deep reductions in other greenhouse gases.” The Pact also underlines “the important role of non-Party stakeholders, including civil society, indigenous peoples, local communities, youth, children, local and regional governments and other stakeholders, in contributing to progress towards the objective of the Convention and the goals of the Paris Agreement” – which is crucial to remind everyone that we all need to work together, globally, to scale up action on climate change fast.
Several important pledges were signed during the COP26, galvanising climate action across many areas of human endeavour. Over 136 countries (as well as hundreds of cities) have now pledged to ensure they become ‘net zero’ emitters, most of them aiming to achieve this by 2050 or before, with over 16 countries including the UK adopting their pledge in law. More than 130 countries have also pledged to halt and reverse deforestation and land degradation by 2030. The signatories cover over 90 percent of the world’s forests. Notably, Brazil, home to the Amazon Rainforest, signed on. Many investors committed to align their lending and their funding with the Paris Agreement, with over 450 managers of over $130 trillion from banks, pension funds and other financiers joining a Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero. A wealthy philanthropist also pledged $2 billion to help restore natural habitats and transform food systems. As another example, 110 countries signed up to the Global Methane Pledge, which aims at reducing methane emissions by 30% by 2030 compared with 2020 levels. (Certain large methane emitters such as China, India and Russia did not sign this pledge, and further investment will be needed to bring them on board). Importantly, 23 countries went further than the Glasgow Climate Pact, making new commitments to phase out coal. Many signed on to an initiative to help developing countries, such as India and South Africa, transition away from coal. 25 countries and five financial institutions committed to stop public financing for most fossil fuel projects by the end of 2022. And several countries joined an alliance that aims to halt new drilling for oil and gas. Also during the COP26, in the completely booked-out green zone for public awareness, education and climate change action projects, not only was this journal launched in a special international event engaging young writers and editors from around the world, but also thousands of students and members of the public were able to visit and learn about climate change, and how to take action locally and globally. Further, during the COP26 there were many public protests in the streets about climate change, with some estimating that over 100,000 people took part.
In conclusion, COP26 achieved quite a bit. There were many formal rules decided, to help the UN and countries to advance implementation of the Paris Agreement. There were also many high-level pledges made, which will require a great deal of follow-up and tracking to ensure they are implemented. Thousands were involved in education and awareness raising activities, both in Glasgow and around the world. And thousands more raised their voices together in public protest, calling for the faster and deeper change that is necessary to stop a climate change crisis of epic proportions which could foreclose the rights of all future generations. COP26 was a key milestone in global efforts to tackle climate change – although much more is needed, and the fastest, toughest work is yet to come.