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Don’t buy into the gloomy COP26 rhetoric

Momentum on climate action is picking up, and lots of efforts are heading in the right direction.

Climate activists march in Trafalgar Square in London. (Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty Images)
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I was on Pod Save America last week. One of the things I talked about is the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, which wrapped up last week with a final agreement that…say it with me…represented real progress but fell short of what’s needed. Just like all the other COP agreements.

I had a pretty deflating take on the whole thing on the pod. Given the melodramatic rhetoric around COP26 — the same rhetoric that attends every international climate summit — I thought I’d briefly explain why I don’t think COP26 is worth getting down about. 

By way of background, remember that there were effectively two climate events at the COP, as there always are. One was the COP itself, the business of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The other was a kind of climate-festival-cum-trade-show, featuring governments, nonprofits and private-sector actors announcing all kinds of new campaigns and initiatives alongside the UNFCCC process — and protestors marching outside.

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First event first. 

The Paris Agreement continues to play out

The actual business of COP26 mostly involved negotiators from various countries in cramped conference rooms hashing out technical details of elements of the Paris Agreement — about monitoring and verification, about who is contributing how much to the climate fund for poorer countries, about how often countries will report new targets, and so forth. 

None of that stuff was particularly dramatic; it was all the usual incremental, too-slow movement forward. There was some drama at the last minute when India — which had started COP26 with a bang, promising to hit net-zero emissions by 2070demanded that a provision on a global coal phaseout” be rewritten to say phasedown.” (This was disappointing, but keep in mind this is the first time fossil fuels have ever been specifically mentioned in a COP agreement.)

Much was made of this and other shortcomings of the final agreement, but there’s a weird kind of disconnect around this commentary. What people seem to forget is that the UNFCCC has no real power to enforce anything, and there isn’t the level of unity needed among participating countries to create a binding target with real consequences. 

This was the origin of the Paris Agreement: the realization that the best the UNFCCC could do is structure and publicize voluntary national goals and commitments. The idea was to do with transparency and peer pressure what decades of adversarial negotiations couldn’t: steadily increase ambition.

A shorter way of saying this is that a COP agreement can’t make a country do anything. Whether and how fast India phases out coal has nothing at all to do with what its diplomat says in Glasgow and everything to do with domestic Indian politics, which have their own logic and are only faintly affected by international politics. 

The utility of the Paris process is that every few years it provides the equivalent of a giant camera flash, revealing where everyone stands. That is useful. International transparency and peer pressure can sometimes move national governments. But it is a mistake to invest any particular hopes for change in the UNFCCC process — it can’t really do anything. It can only illuminate what is being done.

What is being done

The good news is that we’re making progress. A decade ago, we were on track for 4 degrees to 6 degrees Celsius average warming by the end of the century, which would have been species-threatening.

As this report from Climate Action Tracker (CAT) shows, thanks to actions taken by national governments since then, we have bent the curve” on climate change, as it were, and brought the average expected warming down to 2.7°C.

That would still be devastating. But we’re not going to stop there. Progress is only accelerating. If every country that has submitted a 2030 carbon target in the Paris process — an NDC, or nationally determined contribution — hits that target, average warming will be 2.4°C.

If all short- and long-term targets submitted thus far are achieved, it’s down to 2.1°C. In CAT’s optimistic scenario” — in which all targets announced by anyone anywhere are met — the average is 1.8°C.

As the CAT report emphasizes, that’s still short of the Paris goal. There’s still a credibility gap between what countries say they want to achieve and what they are willing to offer. There’s certainly no reason for complacency. 

(CAT)

But the trajectory is in the right direction. There’s still plenty of reason to fear where we are currently headed, but at the same time, there’s no reason to think that five years from now, at the next major Paris stocktake,” we’ll still be headed there. 

We’re bending the curve, and lots of forces and institutions are lining up behind the effort. Speaking of which…

Climate Woodstock

Alongside every official COP is a kind of international festival where everyone who’s doing anything on climate goes to talk about it. Bilateral and multilateral coalitions, states, cities, nonprofits, corporations — everyone gravitates to the moment when media attention will be most intense. 

There was a bit of a sour taste at the festival this year, given that fossil fuels were abundantly represented and the poorest and most vulnerable were, thanks to Covid, unusually underrepresented.

Nonetheless, amid the unsavory optics came all kinds of heartening news. There was a global treaty on methane, brokered by the U.S. and the U.K., which has been signed by more than 100 countries. A group of renewable energy players created the 24/7 Carbon-Free Energy Compact in partnership with Sustainable Energy for All and UN-Energy (see my explainer on 24/7 clean energy).

A group of governments and private funders pledged to spend a total of $1.7 billion on Indigenous peoples and local communities protecting local biodiversity. Over 100 countries pledged to stop deforestation by 2030

A group of philanthropic and development organizations and governments called the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet pledged $10.5 billion toward helping emerging economies transition from fossil fuels. Similarly, the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero pledged over $130 trillion of private capital to the energy transition. 

And so on. What this shows is an immense amount of will in the world to address this problem, struggling to organize. There’s so much going on.

Another thing I said on Pod Save America is that national governments are often going to be in the caboose of this train: civic groups, the private sector and subnational governments are leading the way. That’s distributed all over the world, less easy to see and sum up, but it shows that the caution and intransigence of national governments is not the whole story.

COP26 was a snapshot of a world moving to address a crisis, agonizingly slowly but with gathering speed. There’s no reason for anyone to stop pushing, but there’s also nothing wrong with acknowledging and celebrating the progress that’s been achieved by all the pushing so far. 

Things are moving! 

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This article was originally published at Volts.

David Roberts is editor-at-large at Canary Media. He writes about clean energy and politics at his newsletter, Volts. Previously, he covered the same subjects at Vox and Grist.