It takes a lot of chutzpah to claim success for a climate conference whose own president had to fight back tears as he confessed he was “deeply sorry” for the way it turned out.
Yet in the wake of the much-ballyhooed COP26 summit, the world’s climate-crats are fanning out across the globe, urging us all to see the glass they poured in Glasgow as at the very least half-full.
We understand the temptation to look for the silver lining in the cloud that is COP26. After all, it’s the way the world’s governments have agreed on to try and find a way to keep the planet from reaching catastrophic levels of heating. If that process collapses, what’s left?
So the primary victory claimed for the Glasgow conference is that it avoided that result. The worst outcome would have been no agreement at all, so the very fact that the 197 nations managed to sign on to something called the “Glasgow Climate Pact” must be regarded as success.
But if that’s success, then God help us. Before COP26 opened on Oct. 31, senior figures like the U.S. climate envoy, John Kerry, were talking it up as the “last, best hope for the world to get its act together” and head off global warming above 1.5 C by the end of the century. Now that the meeting is over, the best they can claim is that it didn’t actually fall apart.
Others with less invested in the COP process can see the truth more clearly, or at least are in a position to say it out loud.
Take, for example, Mary Robinson, a former UN commissioner for human rights and chair of The Elders group of former leaders, who says: “COP26 has made some progress, but nowhere near enough to avoid climate disaster … Not enough leaders came to Glasgow with a crisis mindset. People will see this as a historically shameful dereliction of duty.”
The most striking failure came at the very end of the conference. India suddenly insisted that a pledge in the conference’s final agreement about “phasing out” coal be softened to “phasing down.” Burning coal is the single greatest contributor to the greenhouse gases that result in global warming, and the pressure from India (backed by China) to render the pledge essentially toothless was indicative of the lack of resolution shown by some key countries.
The conference also fell short of meeting a longtime demand from the most vulnerable countries for $100 billion a year in financing for “loss and damage” caused by global warming.
Of course, there were successes, eagerly grasped by “glass-half-full” proponents. There was progress on finance for climate adaptation. The timetable for countries to produce more ambitious plans to reach net-zero emissions was advanced. And there were a series of agreements among some countries on such issues as ending deforestation and stemming methane emissions.
Those could have real, positive effects. And it’s true the COP process overall is making measurable progress.
Before the landmark Paris accords in 2015, the organization Climate Action Tracker estimated the world was on course to a disastrous 4 C rise in average temperature. Actions to limit greenhouse gases have already reduced that to 3 C, and a new report says that would be cut further to between 2 and 2.4 C if governments actually carry through with commitments they have made.
That’s far above the global goal of 1.5 C; it would be, in other words, only highly damaging rather than catastrophic. And it shows it is possible to make a difference if governments take strong, effective action.
The Glasgow conference, then, was a missed opportunity, but it’s just one chapter of a very long story. Its shortcomings should encourage Canada and other countries to redouble their efforts both at home and internationally. And resolve that the next climate summit not end in similar frustration.