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Did COP26 Represent Any Meaningful Climate Progress?

Yes, but there is still a long way to go.

Brian Leli

Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas

They met, they discussed, they committed (and they argued over the carbon footprint of haggis). If the new goals set by governments at COP26, the just-wrapped United Nations climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland, are met, it is estimated the world will warm by 1.8°C by the end of the century. That is a big “if,” of course, as Climate Action Tracker notes in their comparison between “lip service” and concrete action. They estimate that we are on track for 2.7°C of warming based on what is happening on the ground currently. 

Here are some applause-worthy developments from the meeting, which ended in overtime last week:

Significance rating: This one is a big deal. Methane doesn’t stick around as long as carbon dioxide, but it warms the planet more powerfully and makes up a third of current human warming. The pledge encompasses the countries that emit nearly 50% of all methane.

What’s being said about it: Scientists believe that the pledge could “help the world avoid .3°C of warming by 2040,” the BBC reports. European Union Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, meanwhile, called methane “the lowest hanging fruit” and said that cutting it was “one of the most effective things we can do to reduce near-term global warming.” United States President Joe Biden echoed that sentiment, while the US Environmental Protection Agency announced its plans to limit methane emissions from around one million oil and gas rigs across the country. 

Climate Action Tracker notes that this commitment isn’t wholly new, but was partially already included in the US’ long-term strategy, as is the case for many countries that signed on.

Why we care: Forests absorb vast amounts of carbon dioxide—a third of global emissions from burning fossil fuels, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature—and are considered crucial to tackling climate change.

Countries that have signed the pledge, which include Brazil, Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Russia, China, Canada, the US, and the United Kingdom, represent around 85% of the world’s forests. The US and 11 other countries will invest $12 billion in public funds this year through 2025. The deal also brings investors, businesses, and communities into the fold, with CEOs from over 30 financial institutions committing to ending investments that contribute to deforestation.

Despite the target date being decades later than many other countries’, experts say the target is meaningful and in alignment with the most feasible scenario for the country to reach net zero. While India is the third-highest emitter in the world, it also houses 17% of the world’s population. So it’s under half of the global average in terms of per capita emissions. “If one wanted to apportion fair carbon budgets, India would be viewed as a true hero,” Rahul Tongia, a senior fellow at the Center for Social and Economic Progress in New Delhi, told MIT.

What else? Prime Minister Narendra Modi also announced some shorter-term commitments, including an aim to “generate 50 percent of its power from renewables and reduce carbon emissions by 1 billion tons by 2030,” according to Grist.

Other 2030 commitments include increasing India’s non-fossil energy capacity to 500GW and reducing the carbon intensity of the country’s economy—the amount of carbon emitted per unit of economic output—by 45%.

  • The largest global effort to date”: Solving for climate change requires looking at almost every industry, and healthcare is no exception. Forty-two countries agreed to cut down on emissions from their health systems. Of those, 12 countries have committed to reaching net zero by 2050.

Significance rating: The healthcare sector accounts for nearly 5% of global CO2 emissions, according to The New York Times. “If it were a country, it would be the fifth largest emitter.” In other words, making health systems healthier for the planet is critical.

  • Swimming safely: Panama, Ecuador, Colombia, and Costa Rica will create a mega marine protection area, covering more than 200,000 square miles, where fishing is not allowed, ensuring safe passage for animals like sharks, whales, turtles, and manta rays who migrate in their waters.

The Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor (CMAR) will form “one of the world’s richest pockets of ocean biodiversity,” The Guardian reports, and “cover one of the world’s most important migratory routes.”

  • The final agreement: It’s not perfect, but it’s also not insignificant. Known officially as the Glasgow Climate Pact, the final agreement has official pledges from nearly 200 countries that, if met, would limit global warming to below 2°C. It also includes carbon-trading rules that would better translate to real-world reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and order country-specific inventories of emissions by 2024 so as to more effectively measure emissions cuts in the future.  

The agreement, according to Grist, “represents the most dramatic step forward for international climate progress since the Paris Agreement in 2015.”

The criticism: An early draft of the agreement included a commitment to accelerate “efforts towards the phase-out of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.” But a last-minute push by India and China saw “phase-out” change to “phase-down.” The emphasis on reduction rather than elimination has led to criticisms that the final coal commitments were watered down.

But still: It’s the first-ever mention of reducing coal in a COP text, not to mention the first time the word “coal” has ever appeared in a global climate deal.

“In sum,” wrote Dean of Columbia Climate School and TPN Member Jason Bordoff in a Twitter thread about climate optimism versus pessimism, “we have and are making progress. But we’re nowhere close to on track to prevent severe climate harm. The takeaway from COP26 should be both optimism [that] decarbonization is possible and acute concern that we’re far from taking the needed policy, finance, and technology steps to do so.”

Climate coverage tends to end with the same question: is it all enough? To reach only 1.5°C of warming, no, it is not. But every tenth of a degree that we can prevent the world from warming counts. Now we watch to see whether the COP26 commitments will be made good on—and what will have changed, if anything, by next year, at COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt.

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Brian Leli is The Progress Network’s editorial assistant. Originally from the American Midwest, he is currently living in northern Thailand.

Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas is the Executive Director of The Progress Network. An editor and writer specializing in nonprofit media, she was formerly Executive Editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and is the editor of two books from Wisdom Publications.