Edinburgh Impact

Was COP26 a success?

The climate summit in Glasgow saw the planet take major steps towards addressing the climate crisis, but stumble attempting the giant leap needed to limit warming to 1.5C.

Graffiti on wall for COP26

Professor Dave Reay, Chair in Carbon Management & Education and Director of the Edinburgh Climate Change Institute

Reflecting on the two weeks of intense climate negotiations at COP26 in Glasgow it's clear that, while real progress was made, it was nowhere near enough.

There were notable successes in terms of agreement on the 'rule book' that underpins the Paris Agreement, and strong multinational initiatives on tackling key issues such as deforestation and methane emissions. Ultimately though, COP26 fell well short of delivering the national commitments that would together limit warming globally to 1.5C.

The wins 

On the so-called ‘Paris Rule Book’, covering issues such as the transparency and consistency of reporting, common time frames and, crucially, carbon trading, COP26 delivered some major successes. For all the justified chagrin that mitigation commitments by individual nations still don’t equate to sufficient global action, having a robust Paris Rule Book that actually allows assessment of success – and failure – down to national and sub-national scales is crucial.

Agreement on transparency – such as how and when emissions, finance and adaptation actions in each country are reported – was therefore a major win for the Glasgow COP. As ever, you can’t manage what you don’t measure.

Financial leaders from around the world gather as part of COP26
Financial leaders from around the world gather as part of COP26

Likewise, agreement at COP26 on how emissions reductions can be traded at national and sub-national levels was a big step forward in terms of opening up financial flows for projects and mostly dealing with gaping double-counting loopholes. These loopholes, such as selling credits to someone else while still claiming the same reductions yourself, could have badly undermined many of the commitments made before and during COP26.

The Glasgow Climate Pact – the final cover text for COP26 – was itself a step forward in terms of areas such as: ramped up finance for adaptation; a push for increased national commitments in 2022; overt acknowledgement – though no mechanism to address it – of the loss and damage already occurring and that will occur in the future; and the widely reported phase down of coal use.

Just transitions

For Scotland, like all nations, the full implications of COP26 will play out in the coming months and years. Our domestic climate targets, actions and progress continue to receive a huge amount of attention from other countries, states, cities and institutions. Sharing our successes, as well as our failures, in the transition to net zero represents a vital leadership role for Scotland internationally.

For me, a stand out element of this is Scotland’s approach to delivering a just transition to net zero. The emphasis on ‘just transition’ is to be found several times in the COP26 outcomes and was brought into a stark light by the commitment of the US and others to support the transition away from coal in South Africa. Internationally, safeguarding against negative impacts arising from the Paris Climate Goals, such as risks to livelihoods in high carbon industries, will become an ever-more pressing issue.

Young people from around the world gather for the Fridays for Future march at COP26
Young people from around the world gather for the Fridays for Future march at COP26

Addressing this globally through so-called response measures, like international finance, is important but even more important is the domestic response and the embedding of just transition principles into national targets and actions. In Scotland, we are ahead of the global curve when it comes to grappling with these challenges. Ultimately it is a make or break issue for the sustainability of national and sub-national efforts on climate change, and is therefore fundamental to the Paris Climate Goals as a whole.

So, was COP26 in Glasgow a success? Yes, if you regard major steps forward on a basket of key climate issues as success. However, if you were looking for the giant leap forward required to limit warming to 1.5C, then it has to be a resounding no.

Picture credits: graffiti and march - Jeff Mitchell/Getty; politicians - Christopher Furlong/Getty