Observers reflect on a disappointing COP26

The COP26 Youth Climate Protest in Glasgow on 5 November (image credit: PMGphotog /

COP26 concluded on 13 November amidst widespread disappointment from environmental commentators about a lack of significant progress on the promises made in Paris in 2015 – even disbelief at a failure to commit to fulfilling many of those past promises.

Decisive movement on ending fossil fuel use was seen by many as a baseline requirement at the outset of the two-week conference, and while there was some excitement early in the event that more than 40 countries had pledged to end all investment in new coal power generation, it was clear that there was still a long way to go without the participation of China, India, Australia and the US.

One of the most significant sign-ups, Poland, later confirmed it intended to carry on burning coal for at least another 25 years. And then India intervened in the negotiations at the last minute to amend wording on “phasing out” coal to “phasing down”.

Progress did seem to be forthcoming on cutting methane emissions, with more than 100 countries (although not China) – committing to a 30% reduction by 2030 compared to the 2020 baseline. The announcement indicated an emphasis on “high emission sources”, which suggested oil and gas production, and the Vegan Society said it was disappointed that “there has yet to be any global commitment on reducing methane from agriculture.”

India – the world’s fourth largest CO2 emitter (after China, the US, and the EU) – did set a net zero target for the first time, scheduled for 2070 (compared to 2060 for China, and 2050 for the EU and US), and also pledged to get 50% of its energy from renewables by 2030.

The ire of environmentalists seemed to be directed more at the developed countries, and Friends of the Earth’s Sara Shaw said the agreement left them “free to keep polluting” in addition to “giving the green light for massive land grabs for offsets in developing countries”

“Rich countries are forcing an agreement full of escape hatches: carbon markets, nature-based solutions and ‘net zero by the middle of the century’ are all ways for them to get out of making the real emissions cuts we need to prevent climate catastrophe.”

Carbon trading
The finalisation of rules for a new global carbon market was seen as a marker of progress by some, and experts expressed hope that the new framework will overcome the limitations of the existing system, criticised as fragmented, unregulated and dogged by opaque pricing, as the FT explained.

Each credit is equated to a tonne of carbon removed from the atmosphere, or not added in the first place. The new “Article 6 Rules” have been designed with the intention of diverting funds to schemes that generate credits, such as tree planting and carbon-capture systems. As Shaw of Friends of the Earth believed, the inclusion of seductive-sounding “nature-based solutions” – which should be read as “massive tree planting in the Global South” – would “fuel a grabbing of Indigenous and developing countries’ land for carbon offsets”.

While COP25 in Madrid had seen the launch of many such schemes by big polluters like Shell, Total and BP, with COP26 we could now see these schemes taking a central place in the draft agreement.

Carbon capture
An improved system of carbon trading might at least funnel more money towards techniques like Carbon Capture, Utilization, and Storage (CCUS), and Direct Air Capture (DAC). While it is believed that nature already removes around half the CO2 humans release into the atmosphere, solutions such as DAC remove more atmospheric carbon for the same land area, using “100 times less land and 200 times less water than biological CO2 removal solutions”, according to market intelligence firm IDTechX’s recent report on the topic. The main obstacle presently is cost, at around $100-$800 per metric ton of CO2 abated, while afforestation and reforestation can be as low as $5-50/tCO2.

DAC can also be installed on non-arable land and in any climate, so more countries could potentially participate.

CCUS was the focus of more than 30 events at COP26, covering areas like policy, business, and social and technical challenges. A new China-US bilateral agreement to cooperate on emissions reductions – another of the apparent consolations to be drawn from a disappointing COP – seemed to include a major commitment to the “deployment and application of technology such as CCUS and DAC”, as IDTech X noted.

What can be done with the captured CO2? One of the high-profile award ceremonies at COP, for start-up success stories, went to a company with a technology to convert industrial CO2 emissions into building materials. The firm, Australian Mineral Carbonation International, uses a system of mineralization to convert CO2 from CCUS or DAC into products such as cement, concrete and aggregates. It therefore holds forth the promise of storing CO2 indefinitely while also profiting from it, although it is still early days as the approach will need to scale “from almost nothing” to gigaton-CO2 capture to make a dent in the world’s emissions, as IDTechX observed.

Forests pledge
A pledge to reverse deforestation also seemed to be significant, and gained the support of around 100 countries, although some observers noted that a previous international agreement in 2014 “failed to slow deforestation in any way”, as Fotis Fotiadis, co-founder of Better Origin observed. His firm, a start-up converting food waste into animal feed, offers a technology that he suggested can help close the “gap between ‘what we say we will do’ and ‘what we actually do’”.

Overall though, it was hard to minimise a profound sense of failure at a summit that had intended to keep alive hopes of remaining within the threshold of 1.5C temperature rise (relative to pre-industrial levels) – the point beyond which it is believed that far more catastrophic impacts will be felt. COP president Alok Sharma described it as “a fragile win”. He said: “We can now say with credibility that we have kept 1.5 degrees alive. But, its pulse is weak and it will only survive if we keep our promises and translate commitments into rapid action.”

Why did the talks fail?
Pivotal to the event’s shortcomings, in the view of Molly Scott Cato, a Professor of Economics at the University of Roehampton, and formerly a Green MEP, was the absence of leaders from Russia and China, and the last-minute intervention by India and China to water down the language on coal. She added: “This is a diplomatic failure of the last few decades during which geopolitical manoeuvring and self-interest has shamelessly dominated the climate crisis.”

“The need to remove fossil fuels from our global economy has been held up by many of the most powerful countries sheltering their fossil fuel interests, including the UK and US. The UK presidency lost focus on the global diplomacy at the heart of COP with its desire to tout for sustainable finance business for The City.”

Dr Arunabha Ghosh of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group (CCAG), criticised “the relative absolutism in the negotiations”, which he suggested were evidenced by the “hard push for issues that matter to developed countries and soft words on issues that concern poorer ones”. He said this “demonstrates that we are still a long way from strengthening the foundations of collective climate action.”

A previous COP pledge for developed nations to provide the developing world with $100 billion in annual climate aid by 2020 had already been broken before delegates sat down for COP26, and now the sum is promised for 2023. OECD estimates say the amount provided in 2019 fell short of $80 billion, and it was likely much less still in 2020.

What next?
Blame for the failure of the latest round of talks was attributed to national governments, fossil fuel industry lobbies and private companies, by Sir David King of the CCAG. They “must all be held accountable,” he said, “for not only failing to follow up on promises made at the meeting but also for the loss of life and damage to our ecosystems that follow from their actions.”

“National and international lawyers have a critically important role to play in managing this accountability.”

Dr Arunabha Ghosh felt it was time to institute “a National Commission on Climate Change, as a constitutional body, to deal with climate change as a strategic risk and an overarching development priority.”

“We must prioritise making every critical sector of the economy — and vulnerable communities — more climate resilient.”

The UK’s role in the process is not quite over yet, and CBI Director-General Tony Danker felt that “more must be done in the next twelve months under the UK’s Presidency.”

The next major staging post on the climate negotiation calendar is the meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Egypt in 2022. Tony Danker said: “Pressure will surely fall on negotiators to come back to the table in Cairo to strengthen Nationally Determined Contributions and in particular address the stubborn issues of reducing coal use, the development of carbon markets, limiting fossil fuel subsidies and delivering necessary transition finance for nature loss and damage.”

David King said: “We now have to look to that meeting to set in place not only the rapid phase out of fossil fuels and deforestation, but also for the developed economies to take on the responsibility to fund the removal of excess Greenhouse Gases at scale from the atmosphere, aimed at bringing the level down to 350 ppm CO2 equivalent.”

“In order to buy time to achieve these objectives, they will also have to develop and roll-out the repair of the Arctic Circle so that it is once again covered with ice in the polar summer.”

Also discernible within the voices of the convention, was a plea for more local thinking. Costa Rican president Rica Carlos Alvarado, speaking at an awards ceremony held at COP by London-based climate charity Ashden, commented: “So many of the things I’ve seen in terms of announcements to stop deforestation, to stop emissions, protect forests and oceans, require an additional key element – we can’t agree on global multinational solutions if we don’t have local appropriate implementation.”

“Experience tells us that one-size fits all tends not to help people but to create new problems.”