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Early reflections from Glasgow on COP26

Updated Friday, 5 November 2021

Chief OU observer ‘optimistic’ after first three days.

Find out more about The Open University’s Environment qualifications.

Putting a World Leaders Summit at the start of COP26 is inspirational and electrifying. It provides a much-needed shot in the arm to the COVID-delayed multilateral process of sorting out the details of the UNFCCC process (including the Meeting of the Parties for the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreements, the Subsidiary Bodies). Truly pan-Global World Leaders Summits (not just G7s, G20s for example) don’t happen all that often and it is unprecedented to start a UNFCCC COP with one.

Photo taken at COP26 of centre stage.

Normally the “High-Level Segment” only begins at the start of week 2 of the COP where ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’. The World Leaders Summit at the start of COP26 gives the world leaders plenty to negotiate on in various backroom bi- and multi-lateral deals. It is not clear if all these leaders are going to hang around for the rest of the two weeks or not – it will be extremely interesting to watch that detail. Apparently, Scotland’s best hotels and country clubs are fully booked for the whole period, so maybe.

In 1992.

The Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 which launched the Conventions on Climate, Biodiversity and Desertification and Agenda 21, was supposed to launch a very important fourth International Framework Convention, which never made it. The run-up to Rio included a set of negotiations on an international Framework Convention on Forestry; a topic which of course sits at the heart of the other three Conventions. It never made it as a legally binding convention but emerged as a set of Forest Principles.  So, the World Leaders Declaration to end and reverse global deforestation by 2030 is significant. There have been many pledges over the years to end deforestation, if this one can deliver on the reality of genuinely involving indigenous peoples, backed up by substantial financial flows it may halt those depressing satellite images we see of year-upon-year of forest area shrinkage and incursions. Finance is the key here. However, using finance to help Developing Countries protect ecosystems in return for finance has its origins in the late 1960s in ideas like Debt for Nature Swaps.

Expectations around activism.
The Youth and Climate Justice Movements are rightly impatient and have little time for ‘blah blah blah’. We need tangible outcomes that instantly change all our lives for the better.

The presence of the international Youth and Climate Justice Movements is also a remarkable feature of COP26. Both have been part of the COP process from the start, but there is clearly a step-change in terms of the role of and expectations around activism versus the formal multilateral process. The Youth and Climate Justice Movements are rightly impatient and have little time for ‘blah blah blah’. We need tangible outcomes that instantly change all our lives for the better. Regulations and standards are a very good example. On Tuesday 2 November, the launch of a global initiative on clean technology standards/targets is extremely welcome. It is exactly where we should/could have been in 1997 with the Kyoto Protocol. There was a chance back then to set IEA Technology Collaboration Programme-type technology Earth Shots (for instance, to double the on-road fuel efficiency of automobiles within 15 years). Instead, the design architecture around the UNFCCC was based on economic principles related to the Kyoto Flexibility Mechanisms. The fear back then was about the economic costs of setting technology standards and hence the focus on flexibility. A good 0.3oC of global heating later, the fear is on climate impacts and the emphasis is now on direct actions to encourage the public and private sectors to work together to directly change technologies wherever and whenever possible. Better late than never!

Sustainable economies?

Global finance is now starting to align in a way that we have never seen before. Public and private bonds, investments, pensions and insurance industries have a careful eye not just on divestment from fossil fuels but on investment in those technologies that will create the sustainable economies we all want to see. Mark Carney is absolutely right to point out that we need to measure COP26 outcomes on a scale of $100 trillion (not just the $100 billion first promised back in 2009 in Copenhagen and re-iterated in the 2015 Paris Agreement). I co-wrote a paper with Paul Ekins around this very topic in 2017. The Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) is a game changer.

Illustration of two hands pointing at a glass half full of liquid. Caption says 'Half full?'.

The various usual negotiation Contact Groups are underway around the day-to-day business of sorting out the details of the rule book on the Paris Agreement (Article 6) as well as perennial issues such as adaptation and technology transfer. However slow it might seem, things do seem to be shifting. I am starting COP26 as an optimist….let’s see if I remain so by the end.

Screenshot of animation for COP26 Click on the banner to explore the COP26 hub


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