Events like COP26 are hard to assess while you’re there. Indeed, it remains hard to assess as I write this on the final day of the formal agenda, when it is looking likely that negotiations will go into the weekend.
It’s only after the event that perspective can be reached and judgement passed on whether the meeting has been a success. The answer will largely depend on who you ask. That’s not just because it’s fiendishly hard to unpick the rhetoric from the reality. It’s also because this COP meeting has been one of contrasts and complexity.
First up—week 1 vs week 2. As is often the case with meetings like this, the first week saw a slew of announcements and commitments dominating the headlines. A new declaration aiming to deliver clean and affordable technology and solutions across the globe by 2030; a deal that aims to halt and reverse global deforestation over the next decade and £5.3 billion from the private sector; commitments to halt the use of coal by 2040; the ’30 by 30’ pledge to limit methane emissions by 30% compared with 2020 levels by 2030. The headlines came thick and fast as momentum was injected to proceedings. Come to week 2, though, and a different atmosphere takes hold. Now the challenge of working through the detail of how all these commitments will work in practice—and a recognition that many seemingly intractable issues (e.g. carbon markets) remain unresolved.
A further contrast could be seen in the ‘multi-track’ nature of COP26, with formal negotiations taking place alongside business discussions, NGO advocacy and social activism in the streets. Some dubbed the meeting the ‘Real Economy COP’, reflecting how non-state actors and, particularly, the private sector has stepped commitments. At a forum I attended, Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever, described it as an ‘ambition loop’ between business and government, whereby one sets a stronger commitment that emboldens the other to action, which in turn drives stronger commitments.
There were certainly criticisms of the business presence at COP26, but for the most part the focus was on action and delivery. For example, the UK government announced that 60% of the FTSE 100 are now signed up to the UN ‘Race to Zero’ campaign; UK and Nordic pension funds announced $130 billion commitment to climate finance; Mark Carney and the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) announced $130 trillion of private capital is committed to transforming the economy for net zero.
As well as different actors, different geographies were also a key fault line in the discussions. While the focus has naturally been on climate, there was a recognition that we cannot forget the ‘S’ in ESG. Achieving the kind of transformation we need to see in our economy requires significant behavior change, while the uneven distribution of climate change’s negative impacts means the concept of a ‘just transition’—one that shares the benefits of the low-carbon economy widely while supporting those who stand to lose—will increasingly need to shape all policy responses. Undoubtedly this will call on all our reserves of commitment, creative thinking and community. But without it, we would miss the opportunity to build back a better and more just world.
Overall take-aways? There’s a lot of work still to do. There’s been progress made in some key areas, inertia in others. Commitments have been made but now need to be turned into action. A report from Climate Action Tracker judged that we may still be heading somewhere between 2.1°C and 2.4°C if we consider stated policies and lack of short term progress by 2030. Other predications are slightly more positive. At a meeting characterized by contrasts, it’s hard not to feel a mix of optimism and anxiety in equal measure. For all our sakes, I hope optimism wins, agreements are made, and action is taken - NOW.