Was COP 26 Up to the Challenge?

By Anne Caruso, 

November 18, 2021

From November 1-14, 2021, 197 Heads of State met in Glasgow for COP26. This was the 26th time since 1995 that world leaders met at a Conference of Parties (COP) to the Paris Climate Agreement addressing the planet’s changing climate due to heightened greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions. The goal of these conferences is to keep global warming to no more than a 1.5C increase since the start of the Industrial Revolution. That goal requires a 45% reduction of global GHG emissions by 2030 and zero GHG emissions by 2050. This is an extremely tight schedule to meet. 

It’s always good to lead with the positives and COP26 did have some positives. It’s a victory that there was no debate about the need to transition to renewable energy, the necessity for robust global forests, or the responsibility of wealthy countries to aid poorer countries in making a transition away from high GHG emission fuel production. These battles have been won. New deals were made on reducing coal use, reversing deforestation, and reducing methane emissions. The goal of reducing methane emissions by 30% by 2030 is important because methane is the second largest global GHG. COP26 succeeded in getting many countries to sign a pledge to reduce their use of coal burning power and eliminate all plans to build new coal plants. Unfortunately, the countries which burn the most coal did not sign on. China with 54.3% of the world coal use, India with 11.6% of the world coal use, and the USA with 6.1% of the world coal use all did not sign the pledge. Heavy coal users Russia and Australia have also refused to sign the pledge. Also disappointing is the weak language COP26 adopted when addressing coal by calling for a “phase down of unabated coal” instead of clear, measurable language. For this reason many experts fear the momentum at COP26, while being in the right direction, will not result in the needed GHG reduction in time to avert more extreme climate change. 

Climate scientists warn that in order to avert irreversible catastrophic climate change we must limit global warming to 1.5C  from the start of the Industrial Revolution. We have already warmed 1.1C. Alarming research was shared at the Conference which predicts that the plans agreed to by the world’s countries so far would result in a global temperature rise of 2.4C, well above the 1.5C limit. 

Also disappointing is that while there was a recognition that poor countries affected by sea rise, violent storms and the health and economic impacts of rising global  temperatures need help from wealthier countries, there was not  a solid, specific commitment of what help will be given. 

While some positive steps were taken at COP26, much work remains to keep the planet livable.  It’s not certain that the  necessary changes will be done at a pace fast enough to meet the goal of limiting warming to 1.5C. The inescapable reality is that the planet is in danger of  dropping into the catastrophic warming range.