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COP26 Update: The Midway Point

Kate Byng-Hall catches us up on all the biggest revelations, statements and promises of the first week of COP26.

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Photo by Kaique Rocha

Since Sunday 31 October, COP26 has been running at the SEC Centre in Glasgow. The 26th Conference of the Parties has been seen by many as the last chance to address climate change, and make the international commitments needed to resolve it.

Over 100 countries are represented at the conference, and have four main aims:

  1. Secure global net-zero by 2050, and limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. This is a huge challenge, as COP26 President Anok Sharma stated that we are currently on-track for 2.7°C warming.

  2. Step up protection of threatened communities and habitats across the world.

  3. Increase financial support for vulnerable countries to $100 billion annually, something that richer countries have failed to do since they initially committed to it in 2020.

  4. Finalise the 2015 Paris Agreement to ensure co-operation between governments, businesses and the public in fighting climate change.

Let’s take a look at all the biggest developments over the first week.

Big Statements

For the first two days, world leaders from both some of the world’s smallest and biggest polluters attended the event (despite notable absences from Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping), with many making speeches about the challenges ahead.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson did not hold back, saying, “if Glasgow fails, then the whole thing fails”. He asserted that: “eighty per cent of the global economy will wipe out its contribution to climate change by the middle of the century, up from 30 per cent, thanks to the UK’s COP26 leadership.”

“We’ve failed to meet our commitments to provide $100 billion a year to support developing countries to grow in a clean and sustainable way. […] The countries most responsible for historic and present-day emissions are not yet doing their fair share of the work” - Boris Johnson

US President Joe Biden said: “None of us can escape the worst that’s yet to come if we fail to seize this moment. […] We are standing at an inflection point in world history. We have the ability to invest in ourselves and build an equitable clean-energy future, and in the process create millions of good, plain jobs and opportunities around the world.” Iconic environmentalist David Attenborough made an impactful appearance, sharing some optimism before negotiations began: “If, working apart, we are a force powerful enough to destabilise our planet, surely working together, we are powerful enough to save it.”

The First Commitments

Although the majority of the solid decisions and detailed negotiations are yet to come, some commitments have already been made.

The Global Methane Pledge has been joined by over 100 nations representing 70% of the global economy, with the goal of limiting methane emissions by 30% by 2030. Methane currently accounts for 20% of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere, and has caused approximately 50% of all global warming. Cutting methane levels is much easier than doing the same for carbon dioxide, so there are high hopes for this pledge.

One hundred and ten nations made a pledge to end deforestation by 2030, with a notable signatory being Brazil – the location of the majority of the Amazon Rainforest. Boris Johnson said: “We have to stop the devastating loss of our forests [and] the role of humanity as nature’s conqueror, and instead become nature’s custodian.”

Alok Sharma said the “end of coal is in sight”, as a further pledge was made by more than 40 countries to shift away from coal production in the 2030s for major economies, and the 2040s for poorer nations. However, the absence of big emitters including China, India, Australia and the US from this calls its potential success into question. The Glasgow Breakthroughs agenda was also announced, with the goal of scaling up funding of green technology. The plan will increase global funding to cleaning up power, road transport, steel and hydrogen.

Lord Deben, former MP and chair of the Climate Change Committee, said that he believes major companies, as well as national economies, are “really committed” to the environmental agenda. As he said:

“It is a fundamental change, and it is the financial world that has pushed that change because it seems to me that the people who invest have now realised that if you are going to invest with certainty, you have to invest in a green future”

Mass Protests

Despite not receiving an invite inside the conference, Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg has been in attendance outside the venue throughout, and emphasised her scepticism from the outset. “Inside COP there are just politicians and people in power pretending to take our future seriously, pretending to take the present seriously of the people who are being affected already today by the climate crisis,” she said.

Protests have been staged every day of the conference so far, but a week after it began, 100,000 people took to the streets of Glasgow in the Global Day of Action for Climate Justice to demand action. The movement was echoed around the world, including a huge march on Trafalgar Square in London. Speaking at the march, Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate said:

“The climate and ecological crises are already here. But so are citizens from around the globe. Leaders rarely have the courage to lead. It takes citizens, people like you and me, to rise up and demand action. And when we do that in great enough numbers, our leaders will move.”

The International Energy Agency has come forward and said that if the commitments made at COP26 so far are adhered to, then a 1.8°C warming rate is ahead of us. While this is not enough to stop potential disaster of an even greater scale than we are already seeing, it is progress that we all hope will continue.


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