It’s human nature to make comparisons—was Glasgow more like Paris or Copenhagen? But maybe the more important question to ask is did COP26 meet the moment? As the U.S. just had its hottest summer on record and other parts of the world saw climate-related catastrophes, there is a growing urgency to act now.
Setting the stage
COP26 saw a return of the U.S. to the negotiating table. The U.S. Pavilion was a central presence after a number of years away. The delegation included various Cabinet secretaries to talk up big commitments to climate action tied to Biden’s domestic policy and high-level climate officials. A highlight, of course, was a joint announcement between the U.S. and China on enhancing climate action. That the two biggest emitters—current and historic—appointed seasoned climate veterans (John Kerry and Xie Zhenhua) to negotiate this deal sent a strong signal that both countries are committed to work together despite other areas of competition.
A firsthand account
I spoke with several ICF experts who attended COP26—Robert Kay, Principal, Climate Change and Innovation + ICF Climate Center Senior Fellow; Alastair Blanshard, Senior Manager, Aviation; and Enrui Zhang, Senior Manager, Energy and Low Carbon Specialist—about what they heard on the ground. Read on for why optimism is warranted and what’s next.
Derina Man: What did you hear this year that was different than in COPs of the past?
Robert Kay: The atmosphere has changed, in both meanings of that word. We’re in a space now where we’re not talking about IF climate change is an issue. The focus in Glasgow was very much on how we are going to get things done and how quickly can we help developing countries adapt—while recognizing the shortfall in funding that’s been committed to date. The large countries have clearly heard the need for investment by agreeing to double finance for climate adaptation by 2025 and making access easier for climate-vulnerable countries. The convening power of COP was also quite evident in Glasgow, from entrepreneurs to social innovators. There were forums for technology, investments, innovations, etc. It’s become a real magnet to draw together organizations from all over the world and all sectors.
Alastair Blanshard: I felt the same way about the conversation around sustainable aviation. ICF supported a net zero by 2050 pledge by Airports Council International (ACI) earlier this year and the sustainable aviation fuels component of a similar commitment by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) this fall. It was clear in Glasgow that the aviation industry has embraced these ambitions and is now on the offensive. One of the final thematic days of the conference was Transport Day, where there was a lot of discussion on sustainable aviation. Twenty countries and other industry stakeholders announced the launch of a coalition to reduce carbon emissions from aviation. We attended and presented at several sessions and side events, and it was great to see such a cross-section of the aviation industry—with airlines, airports, manufacturers, startups, and many others all in the same room and really embracing the challenge.
Enrui Zhang: Agreed. Participants were more engaged than before in regard to the ambition of achieving 1.5°C and green financing goals. At our events, we had climate ambassadors, individuals, and companies all talking about what climate actions they’re committed to taking. It was not only the big companies, but we saw a wide range of participation by different stakeholders, which was a very positive change compared to prior conferences.
Derina Man: What did you hear in terms of translating all of this talk into action?
Enrui Zhang: Innovation was a hot topic in Glasgow. Going into COP26, we flagged the importance of decarbonization as central to meeting aggressive climate goals. The U.S. launched a new partnership—the Net Zero World Initiative—focused on accelerating the transition to net zero and resilient energy systems. Many countries have established their carbon neutrality targets, but some emerging technology—like carbon capture and storage—are priced too high for massive commercialization. Accelerated innovation is quite important for carbon mitigation, which is why we supported the UK and China clean energy partnership. Innovation is an area that both countries are keen to collaborate on, particularly around hydrogen.
Robert Kay: One of the successes of Glasgow was having a very simple and powerful narrative around the Race to Zero and the Race to Resilience. These coalitions of businesses, cities, regions, and investors are committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and building the resilience of billions of people who are vulnerable to climate risks. This provided a framework and a rallying cry for all—not just governments—which hasn't happened before. In talking to people in Glasgow, I got the sense that to keep this momentum going, we have to pivot into engaging with real people, real stakeholders. So working out the communication strategy is equally as important as the politics.
In the immediate aftermath of COP26, climate experts around the world are weighing whether or not COP26 was a success. There were clear breakthroughs, both in commitments made through specific initiatives and the inclusion of critical technical elements that lay the groundwork for enhanced climate action. This was the first COP where the final decision called out the need to phase down coal and phase out fossil fuel subsidies. While there was disagreement over the specific wording, it’s a big step to finally recognize the central cause of global emissions.
Another major accomplishment was the completion of the Paris Rulebook, i.e., the rules and modalities that govern enforcement of the Paris Agreement. This is important as we now know the requirements for transparency and reporting. Our team has worked on the transparency component of the Paris Rulebook and we will continue to support our clients on implementation.
But substantial challenges remain. The commitments made in Glasgow are expected to help limit global warming to 1.8°C above pre-industrial levels, which is lower than the 2°C target agreed upon in Paris. But the science is clear that avoiding the worst impacts of climate change will require limiting warming to 1.5°C.