Where are we at the end of the first week of COP26?

Has COP26 made progress in the week since it opened here in Glasgow?

My quick answer is that it is going better than I feared, but it has not yet provided the massive boost to tackling climate change that we require – there is a lot still to do.

Things did not look promising when it started last weekend. Overall climate ambition was far too low – the analyses of the UNFCCC secretariat and the UNEP Gap Report both put the world on a pathway to something like 2.7°C warming by the end of the century. Developed countries had failed to meet their target of mobilising 100 billion US dollars a year from 2020. And the logistics left a lot to be desired – many delegates are having to stay as far afield as Edinburgh because of the shortage of accommodation in Glasgow, there were queues of up to two hours to get into the conference centre in the morning, and security concerns around the leaders’ summit meant that only a handful of observers were able to get into the area where the official meetings were happening. Quite a few people were making comparisons with Copenhagen – always a worrying sign!

But despite those initial challenges, the conference has made some progress. The leaders’ summit saw announcements of further action by a number of countries, such as India’s promise to strengthen its targets on non-fossil energy including, to further reduce emissions intensity and to reach climate neutrality by 2070. Indeed, it is now estimated that around 89% of global emissions are covered by net-zero targets of one kind or another.[1] There have also been a series of major announcements including on ending deforestation, reducing methane, and getting out of coal. Added to that is a heavy barrage of announcements that fall every day giving the impression that countries, business, investors and other actors are rapidly ratcheting up their ambition. The head of the IEA went as far as to suggest that if everyone met the targets they were announcing it might be possible to limit warming by the end of the century to just 1.8°C – still too high, but much closer to the pathway we need to get onto.[2]

The problem is that everyone has to do what they say they will do, and for the moment that is far from given. Long-term neutrality targets are a great start, but they will not be met on their own – they depend on action taken in the next few years, and that remains too low. In addition to new NDCs and long term strategies, many of the other announcements made over the past few days are not necessarily or fully additional to existing action, indeed some may simply repeat existing targets that have not been met, and others may be little more than good communication. Sorting out what will really make a difference is difficult. That is not to deny that things are moving in the right way, but a lot more needs to be done to translate talk into action, announcements into target written in legislation, budgets and investment choices. We have a greater chance than before of limiting warming to 1.5°C or at least below 2°C.[3] With luck that will happen, but we cannot rely on luck, we need action.

As for the technical negotiations, the good news is that negotiators from all parties are engaging in their work. Of course, there are divergences, sometimes significant ones on some topics. Work is going more slowly than it should on issues such as transparency, article 6, finance, and adaptation, and parties often play a tactical game that leaves decisions until the final days. So, although the subsidiary bodies have now closed, many texts will need further work under the guidance of the UK presidency with the help of ministers in the next few days. It is going to be busy and some political heavy-lifting will be necessary.

Finally, the UK presidency is starting to prepare with parties a final political decision that would set out how we might further strengthen ambition, action and delivery on mitigation, adaptation and support in the coming years. That text will be a key output of the conference – how far it sets out a clear and convincing way forward that all parties truly share will be critical. It cannot just be another set of words on paper, it has to be a real pathway to action.

It is wrong to expect a conference to save the world, nor is it helpful to frame an event such as this as the last hope. If things go wrong in the coming days COP26 could be a very disappointing conference – probably not a second Copenhagen, but another chance not taken after so many others. My hope, however, is that it can still prove a moment of acceleration and boost climate action sufficiently with the next conferences in Egypt in 2022 and the United Arab Emirates in 2023 to provide further momentum. As things stand today, that is still possible – we have to make it work by next weekend.