Will we see more action during COP26?

Friday, December 3, 2021
by Sarah Norton
courtesy photo

Photo courtesy of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

First impressions

In almost every virtual forum at COP26 that I have had the honour of attending, there has been a high level of aspiration for what can be achieved at the conference accompanied by overwhelming expressions of urgency for climate mitigation and adaptation efforts. Interestingly, COP26 has been touted as the COP of ‘delivery’, a global opportunity to move beyond reiterating statements of intent and increasingly more about assuming the work. Will we see remote targets translated into immediate action? Will goal setting around topics such as emissions targets, the phasing out of coal or climate finance persist through negotiations?

Though there is much still to be seen, I think COP26 is off to a great start. In the few days since the commencement of the conference, I have observed the sharing of crucial research and have had the opportunity to participate in meaningful side sessions that have fostered key criticisms. I have observed an incredible amount of collaboration and coordination, and the critical engagement of non-government actors. In addition to these successes are an increase in bilateral intentions and unilateral commitments from officials. I am hopeful that as the conference progresses, we will see multilateralism continue to move beyond strategy and into actions as negotiations continue.

One area of hope in this regard is the phasing out of coal, the leading source of fossil fuel emissions. Ahead of Energy Day on November 4, an international agreement has been reached to accelerate the end of coal domestically in Canada and halt the financing of fossil fuels abroad. Complementary to this are deals focused on helping countries financially to transition away from reliance on fossil fuels towards clean energy, such as South Africa’s deal with countries like France, Germany, the E.U., the U.S., and the U.K. Though this shows momentum towards global reduction of fossil fuels, it is hard not to think that the conversation of coal ought to be behind us, and we should have moved on to the reduction in reliance on oil and gas.

Doubts arise

We knew leading up to COP26 that there is an urgent need for more ambitious climate action to meet the Paris Agreement commitments in terms of both pace and scale. This is particularly true if there is to be any hope of keeping global warming from rising above the 1.5-2 degrees Celsius, pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. Limiting temperature increase to 1.5 degrees by 2100 was the core objective of the Glasgow Climate Pact. Did COP26 and the Pact go far enough to achieve this?

As the conference progressed and I participated in more plenary sessions and meaningful dialogue with fellow delegates, I could not help but note the mounting anxiety growing inside of me. But, I wasn’t the only one. Throughout conversations I had, particularly with younger representatives, a theme of doubt became apparent. Many of us were worried that states were making increasingly ambiguous commitments on an expedited glide path that would not be realized. Our concern about the integrity of these commitments was compounded by the reality that this gap in credibility already exists. States and organizations are currently not living up to their commitments under their nationally determined contributions. Now coming out of COP26, where there is a greater sense of urgency with heightened commitments, I think there is reasonable doubt that we will not fulfill these ambitious commitments and adjust the warming glide path we are on.

Was there any progress?

I believe that COP26 made progress in some areas, including attempting to address this credibility gap concern. The Pact captured this by incorporating rules around ‘transparency,’ requiring states to report emissions and progress every two years. Though an essential step in the right direction, it is still to be seen whether this inclusion goes far enough to hold states accountable, both in terms of reporting and emissions management. Additionally, the conference and the Pact asks states to reconsider and improve their 2030 climate plans before 2023 instead of the initial 2025 deadline. However, whether states will come forward earlier with more demanding commitments is far from guaranteed and could widen the credibility gap. This is especially true as more analyses of state pledges around cutting greenhouse gas emissions estimates, based on those submitted, put the world on a trajectory for 2.4 degrees warming from pre-industrial levels by 2100.

Where do we go from here?

Now that the conference has concluded, where do we go from here? For me, one obvious answer is to use this opportunity to establish more consistent and coherent state policies towards climate action; for states to make good on the promises they make. For Canada, this means not only reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, but exploring more supply-side policy initiatives that consider ceasing domestic fossil fuel exploration and extraction; something notably missing from Canada’s commitments throughout the conference.

Sarah Norton

Sarah is a Ph.D. student in Global Governance, studying Global Environment at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, and attended the 26th Session of the Conference of the Parties (COP26) United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, U.K. during fall 2021. This is her reflection from participating as a student delegate.