While COP26 produced some positive forward steps, these fell far short of what is needed to save the world from climate disaster.  In this blog, Tony Whitbread gives his personal take on the outcome of the Glasgow Climate Summit and suggests this grassroots pressure could be the element that finally pushes policymakers into action.


The last best hope

COP26 – the 26th “Conference of Parties” since the Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed in 1992 – has just finished in Glasgow.  This has been described as the last best hope to address the climate emergency and keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Be sure, 1.5 degrees is not a comfortable target.  Even at that level the threat to human and natural systems is significant.  We are still going to see severe impacts.  But after 1.5 degrees it gets so much worse.

The record of success with past COPs has been poor.  More than half the CO2 ever emitted has been released since that 1992 Convention.  And there is no sign that the previous 25 COPs have had any perceivable effect on CO2 levels in the atmosphere.


Judging the success of COP

So how can we tell whether this COP was a success or a failure?  The dizzying array of statements, pledges, plans and commitments might sound convincing but through all the warm words must cut some basic questions:

Will COP26 result in fossil fuels being left in the ground?

This must be the overriding key test, but no, COP26 will not result in more fossil fuels being left in the ground.  Nevertheless, at least fossil fuels were discussed – incredibly, this was not the case in the previous 25 COPs.  Perhaps the context is set for more serious efforts in COP27 next year.

Will COP26 stop fossil fuel use well before 2050? 

No, it won’t.  Even the “phase-out” of fossil fuels has been diminished to “phase-down”, and that is just for coal, not oil and gas.  And the reaction of the UK and USA (for example) is to propose a new oil field in the North Sea and huge new oil leases in the Gulph of Mexico.  But commentators do feel that the writing is on the wall for the fossil fuel industry.

Has COP26 prevented prospecting for more fossil fuels? 

The known reserves of fossil fuels are more than enough to drive us well past 1.5 degrees.  There is no need to look for more as we can’t afford to burn what we have.  But COP26 has not prevented the search for still more fossil fuels.

Will COP26 stop deforestation? 

There was a commitment to stop deforestation by 2030 (why wait until 2030?) and this was agreed to by significant countries such as Brazil.  Indeed, COP26 has been referred to as the “Nature COP” because of the emphasis on restoring nature as part of a response to the climate crisis.  But similar deforestation commitments were made in 2014, since which deforestation increased.

Will we pay for loss and damage to those suffering from our emissions?

The worst effects of climate change falls on the poorest countries who are least responsible for it.  However, we are even failing to provide the £100bn promised many years ago – a tiny sum against the wealth extracted through our climate change driving economies.


Looking for the positives

It might be argued that there was progress.  There were some very good speeches, serious commitments made with plans to ratchet up the ambition every year, rather than on the current five-year cycle.   Nevertheless, we should be clear that for future COPs to be a success, we should recognise that this one was a failure.

The most positive aspect of the conference, however, was not what happened inside but outside on the streets.  Huge numbers of people protesting and making demands – turning up the pressure and calling for action.  Most climate scientists agree that these demands are more commensurate with the scale of the issue than the warm words uttered inside the conference.  Without this, the parties inside would have got away with far less progress.  While national and international negotiations are dithering, civil society is stepping into the space far more effectively than at any time in the past.  Most visible are the activist organisations like XR and the school strikes.  But behind this are a multiplicity of organisations; from Indigenous peoples, community groups, NGOs through to local authorities and alliances like SECA.  This lead from the wider population is probably the key thing that will force positive change, albeit at the 11th hour.

Tony Whitbread is President of the Sussex Wildlife Trust, and is a founding member of the SECA Steering Group.  He is writing here in his personal capacity.

Further analysis on COP26

There have been many excellent wrap-up summaries on COP26 from analysts and commentators. I would like to highlight a few:


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