clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
A passerby walks in front of a mural on the 1.5 degree target at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, on November 12.
Christoph Soeder/picture alliance via Getty Images

Filed under:

What the world did and didn’t accomplish at COP26

The biggest climate conference in history was a tiny step toward solving a gargantuan problem.

Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

GLASGOW, Scotland — The high-stakes COP26 climate change talks in Glasgow concluded on Saturday evening with the strongest government commitments to fighting climate change in history. Yet they’re still not enough to meet the ambitious targets of the Paris climate agreement and stave off some of the worst consequences of global warming.

It was not the massive course correction for the climate that activists — some of whom staged a “die-in” outside the COP26 venue — were clamoring for.

“I hope you can appreciate that where I live, a 2 degree [Celsius warmer] world means that a billion people will be affected by extreme heat stress,” Vanessa Nakate, a climate activist from Uganda, told attendees. “I hope you can understand why many of the activists who are here in Glasgow and millions of activists who could not be here do not see the success that is being applauded in these halls.”

But unlike so many climate meetings in recent years, the negotiations in Glasgow did not collapse or produce only a tepid statement of consensus.

After working through the night on Friday, past the scheduled close of 5 pm, negotiators made progress on some crucial unsolved problems, like how countries can trade emissions credits and pledging more money to deal with the staggering costs of climate change in developing countries.

The final agreement, dubbed the Glasgow Climate Pact, was endorsed by nearly 200 countries, and presents a set of principles and goals for action on climate change. While there is no enforcement mechanism, the agreement serves as a lever for international political pressure.

For the first time, UN climate negotiators specifically called to draw down use of fossil fuels, which scientists say is necessary to meet climate targets. Many countries and corporations have fiercely resisted ending their reliance on oil, gas, and coal — the dominant sources of greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere.

More than 130 countries also said they will zero out their impact on the climate in the next half-century, and most countries strengthened their pledges to cut emissions. At the beginning of the two-week conference, India announced a target of net-zero emissions by 2070. That means the world’s three largest greenhouse-gas emitters — China, the US, and India, together accounting for nearly half of global emissions — are now aiming to stop contributing to climate change completely in the coming decades. India, however, weakened some of the language on ending coal power in the final hours of the meeting.

“This is the moment of truth for our planet and it’s the moment of truth for our children and our grandchildren,” said COP26 president Alok Sharma. “These decisions, I believe, set out tangible next steps and very clear milestones to get us on track to meet the goals of the Paris agreement.”

COP26 president Alok Sharma (second from right) speaks with members of his team during negotiations on November 12.
Ben Stansall/AFP via Getty Images

But other key topics like setting up a system to pay for damages wrought by climate change, a high priority for countries facing sea-level rise and more extreme disasters today, were still unsettled.

“It is not perfect, it is not without fault, but it does represent real progress,” said Tina Stege, climate envoy for the Marshall Islands. “There is work to do on loss and damage … and we know and we commit to focusing on this in the coming year to find actual solutions.”

Glasgow also showed how much UN climate events have evolved in line with the urgency of the issues. What were once sleepy affairs with hundreds of bureaucrats have become carefully stage-managed international festivals. The COP26 meeting, with 39,000 registered attendees across the sprawling Scottish Event Campus along the River Clyde, was the largest climate meeting in history.

In addition to world leaders like President Joe Biden and former President Barack Obama, celebrities, artists, musicians, authors, and 3,700 reporters attended. The venue included massive meeting halls, a huge showroom where countries brought exhibits, and Instagram-ready art pieces. COP26 ads greeted travelers at every major airport in the United Kingdom proclaiming “the world is looking to you,” and banners hung in major cities across the country.

However, the true test of the negotiations will be the actions countries take to make their pledges real — not just in terms of reducing emissions, but also restoring ecosystems, switching to clean energy, and addressing the historic injustices around climate change.

Countries came to the table rattled by a year of disasters worsened by climate change — like flooding in China, flooding in India, flooding in Germany, heat waves in the US, wildfires in Russia — illustrating just how much is at stake. A major new scientific report also came out this summer, finding that rising temperatures are causing irreversible “widespread and rapid changes” in every inhabited part of the world.

In stark white meeting rooms, island nations sat directly across from major polluters. Outside, environmental campaigners chanted and clapped, calling for climate justice and definitive actions to keep warming in check.

By itself, COP26 was never likely to bring the world fully in line with the goals of the 2015 Paris climate agreement; limiting global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius this century, with a second target of staying below 1.5°C. The process is slow and tedious; the latest iteration did not deliver a decisive victory and left few happy. But it’s a small bit of progress.

What COP26 actually accomplished

When 196 parties adopted the Paris climate agreement in 2015, their individual promises were far too modest to limit global warming in line with the goals they set. If those pledges were fulfilled, the world would be on course to warm by roughly 2.7°C by 2100. And those pledges were not being fulfilled. In fact, greenhouse gas emissions continued to rise in the years since.

But countries also agreed to ramp up their commitments, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs), over time. So far, 150 countries have agreed to step up their goals. More than 130 have pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

Estimates vary, but the sum of the new NDCs plus net-zero commitments — if they are met — would put the world on course to warm by roughly 1.8°C, though there is a wide range of uncertainty around this number.

A COP26 delegate attends the People’s Plenary on November 12.
Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Here are some of the most important elements of the agreement forged in Glasgow.

1.5 is (sort of) the new 2

The world has already warmed up by about 1.1°C. Greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are still rising, which will trap more heat for years to come. To stay below 1.5°C, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found in 2018 that the world would have to cut greenhouse gas emissions roughly in half by 2030, and the world is further off-course than ever.

Still, for many negotiators at COP26, particularly representatives from countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, the slogan of the climate talks has been “keep 1.5 alive.”

“The difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees is a death sentence for us,” said Aminath Shauna, environment, climate change, and technology minister for the Maldives.

The more the planet warms, even incrementally, the worse the impacts of things like sea-level rise and extreme weather. Small changes in global average temperatures can fuel deadly heat waves and can make large storms even more severe. So everything done to avert fractions of a degree in global warming can save lives and livelihoods.

But fossil fuel-producing countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia resisted making 1.5°C the new de facto target since it implies a much more aggressive phaseout of coal, oil, and natural gas.

The Glasgow pact “resolves to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C” and “recognizes that limiting global warming to 1.5°C requires rapid, deep and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions.”

It’s still not an official target, but the greater emphasis on it means that NDCs and other climate goals put forward by countries will be evaluated based on how close they hew to this goal.

“As uncomfortable as we all are with the text, as imperfect as it is, it does bring sufficient enough balance for us to move forward, and it does provide us with the best chance at this time to keep 1.5 alive,” said Grenada’s minister for climate resilience, Simon Stiell.

The Glasgow pact also calls for countries to come back to the table next year with stronger and more detailed plans for cutting their emissions by the end of the decade and by the middle of the century.

Fossil fuels are directly in the crosshairs

The COP26 declaration for the first time calls for the end of fossil fuels, but some of the language was watered down at the last minute. Draft text called upon countries to accelerate “efforts towards the phase-out of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.” India, however, asked for “phase-out” to be changed to “phase-down,” implying reduction, but not elimination. Historically, major coal, oil, and natural gas producers have opposed any mention of fossil fuels at all.

The word “unabated” in front of coal implies that there is wiggle room for countries to use technologies like carbon capture to keep coal-fired power plants running, and “inefficient” before “subsidies” may allow some subsidies for dirty fuels to persist.

But it’s a shift from past COPs, where agreements focused solely on the goalposts and not on the tactics for reaching them.

There are now rules for international carbon markets

Under Article 6 of the Paris climate agreement, countries can work across borders to meet their climate goals. A country that has surpassed its climate target can tally up the emissions it has prevented, for example, and sell them to a country that’s falling behind. It could also include carbon offsets like restoring forests to balance out greenhouse gases.

But these tools are only as good as their accounting, and figuring out the right balance of transparency and flexibility has proven to be an immensely difficult task. Many vulnerable countries also argue such mechanisms end up being a way for polluters to stall instead of making emissions cuts.

Debates over the arcane rules governing carbon markets drove past climate meetings into overtime, but they were finally settled at COP26.

The agreement on Article 6 in Glasgow created rules to prevent double-counting of emissions credits, closed loopholes, and added stronger language to make credits being traded across borders represent real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Countries will also have to take a detailed inventory of their greenhouse gas emissions by 2024, which will be used as the basis for future emissions cuts.

Key details of paying for past, present, and future climate damages were unresolved

Climate change adds up over time, and the wealthiest countries in the world have spewed out the largest share of greenhouse gases that are heating up the planet. Yet the countries facing the worst effects of sea-level rise, more intense heat waves, and more destructive downpours — countries whose citizens often have the least resources to adapt — contributed the least to the problem.

“I think we say consistently that 20 countries equal 80 percent of all the emissions, and they do bear the greatest responsibility,” US climate envoy John Kerry told delegates. “President Biden from the moment he has come into office has been determined to live up to that responsibility.”

A key principle in international climate finance negotiations is the idea of “common but differentiated responsibility.” Every country has to contribute to solving climate change, but more developed countries have an obligation to help countries that have fewer resources pay for it.

But some of the mechanisms for paying for these losses have been underfunded, and many wealthy countries, including the US, have pushed back on paying for the climate damages they’ve already caused.

US climate envoy John Kerry speaks at COP26 on November 12.
Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

One of the main shortfalls is a commitment made in 2009 to make $100 billion available for climate-related financing for developing countries by 2020. This money, via loans, grants, and investments, would go toward supporting a shift to clean energy and building resilience to climate change. That goal has still not been met and may not cross that threshold until 2023. For developing countries, this promise was a key test of how serious wealthy countries are in addressing the climate damages they caused, and they emphasize that this is an obligation, not charity.

The Glasgow pact “[n]otes with deep regret that the goal of developed country Parties to mobilize jointly USD 100 billion per year by 2020 in the context of meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation has not yet been met.”

Jan Kowalzig, a senior policy adviser for Oxfam, said “not yet been met” implies that getting to $100 billion at some point in the future would fulfill the pledge. However, developing countries say that since it was pegged to a specific point in time, the window has closed and that this climate finance package must have enough money to retroactively fill the shortfalls beginning in 2020.

“This $100 billion is a key ingredient to this carefully crafted balance between developing and developed countries,” Kowalzig said. “Not meeting it is eroding this trust.”

Wealthy countries are also failing in their promises to help the countries facing the worst effects of climate change to adapt to a warmer world. The pact “[n]otes with concern that the current provision of climate finance for adaptation remains insufficient to respond to worsening climate change impacts in developing country Parties.” There is no funding target mentioned, but developing countries said they want international climate adaptation finance to roughly double from 2019 levels, to about $40 billion by 2025.

Another key issue is paying for the losses and damages from climate change that have already happened. The Glasgow agreement urges developed countries “to provide enhanced and additional support for activities addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change.”

But there is no funding mechanism in place; contributions to loss and damage funds are voluntary, and so far only one country — Scotland, which contributed $2.68 million — has chipped in at all. The US, the European Union, and the UK opposed language that would have created a more rigorous funding stream.

“The reason is, they fear that once they start accepting that they are contributing to financial assistance to address loss and damage, this would open up the avenue towards compensation claims for harm done through causing the climate crisis,” said Kowalzig.

COP26 also spawned a number of smaller climate agreements

Taking advantage of the international spotlight on the proceedings, a number of countries at COP26 also signed on to other climate side deals and targets:

The US-China deal

Even as President Biden and former President Obama called out Chinese President Xi Jinping for not attending COP26, Chinese and US diplomats were hashing out a deal. The countries put out a surprise statement during the meeting that emphasized their willingness to do more to cut fossil fuel pollution over the next 10 years. The statement doesn’t change either country’s goals and is light on details, but observers said it shows that the US and China are willing to separate their work on climate change from other diplomatic tensions.

“This agreement of the world’s two biggest emitters is a reassuring sign that the US and China can work together on the biggest crisis humanity is facing,” said Byford Tsang, a senior policy adviser for climate diplomacy at think tank E3G, in a statement.

Ending deforestation by 2030

Forests absorb and store carbon dioxide as they grow. When they’re cut down, much of that carbon ends up back in the atmosphere, heating up the planet. Deforestation accounts for about 10 percent of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions.

More than 100 countries, including Russia, Brazil, and the US, pledged to end deforestation by 2030. Among them, they cover 85 percent of the world’s forests. These countries also committed almost $20 billion in public and private funding to back efforts to curb deforestation. However, Indonesia, home to one-third of the world’s rainforests, has already begun to walk back its commitment, and past promises to save the Amazon have failed to save millions of acres from fires, illegal logging, and agriculture in Brazil.

Environmental activists greet delegates with banners and placards at the COP26 gates on the final day of the summit in Glasgow on November 12.
Andrew Milligan/PA Images via Getty Images

Cutting methane emissions

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that leaks out of natural gas pipes, belches out of cows, and seeps out from landfills, ultimately trapping about 30 times as much heat as carbon dioxide over 100 years. That means cutting methane has swift and sweeping climate benefits. More than 100 countries, responsible for half of global methane emissions, signed the Global Methane Pledge to cut their methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. Signatories include the US, the European Union, and Japan.

Phasing out coal

More than 40 countries have committed to ending their domestic use of coal for electricity, and 25 countries agreed to stop financing coal power in developing countries. Coal-fired power plants produce one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions. But China, India, the US, and Australia — comprising more than two-thirds of global coal consumption — did not agree to a domestic coal phase-out.

Ending oil and gas production

Many discussions focus on the burning of fossil fuels, but a new program at COP26 targets their extraction in the first place. The Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, launched by Costa Rica and Denmark, commits country members to phasing out new licenses for oil and gas production. Members, which currently include France, Greenland, Ireland, Quebec, Sweden, and Wales, must also set a date for ending oil and gas production in line with the Paris agreement.

“Fossil fuel demand is decreasing, and supply needs to adjust,” said Christiana Figueres, one of the lead negotiators of the Paris agreement, in a statement. “That’s why I’m so pleased to see such a diverse group of governments launching the Beyond Oil & Gas Alliance to take decisive action to phase out oil and gas production.”

More long-term climate goals are in place, but near-term actions are still going in the wrong direction

The foundations for zeroing out global greenhouse gas emissions and staying below 1.5°C have to be laid now. But some countries are still moving in the wrong direction, even those that call climate change a “crisis” and an “existential threat,” and activists have decried the hypocrisy.

At COP26, Obama scolded Russia and China for failing to send their top leaders to the meeting and criticized their commitments.

“Their national plans so far reflect what appears to be a dangerous lack of urgency, a willingness to maintain the status quo on the part of those governments,” Obama said.

However, Obama campaigned for president on boosting US fossil fuel production, presided over a massive increase in US fossil fuel extraction, lifted a ban on crude oil exports, and licensed the US’s first natural gas exports shortly before leaving office. Ahead of COP26, Biden reached out to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries to ask them to boost oil production.

A view of the disaster area after severe rainstorm and flash floods hit western states of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia in Bad Munstereifel town of Euskirchen, Germany
Torrential rainfall and flooding killed more than 150 people in Germany this summer. Researchers at World Weather Attribution found climate change made such an event more likely.
Abdulhamid Hosbas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In fact, several countries that claim to have net-zero emissions targets are planning to invest in more fossil fuel production in the near future. A group of environmental groups and think tanks put out a report during COP26 highlighting how the US, Norway, Australia, Canada, and the UK are still subsidizing and expanding fossil fuel production.

And “net zero” targets set for decades from now could end up allowing countries to continue emitting more greenhouse gas emissions in the meantime, with the expectation that those emissions will be soaked up somehow at a point in the future.

“Developed countries will continue using the carbon budget that belongs to the developing world, and this is not fair,” said Diego Pacheco Balanza, leader of the Bolivian delegation. “We need to really push developed countries not to get to net zero by 2050 but to achieve real reductions of emissions now.”

This is a bad way to tackle a global crisis, but there isn’t a better one

A big international meeting of 196 parties with their own prejudices, political constraints, rivalries, and economic interests is a terrible venue for tackling an urgent crisis like climate change.

But the atmosphere doesn’t care under whose flag greenhouse gases are being emitted — the whole planet will warm the same. So every country has to be at the table, every country has to have a say, and every country has to agree on what to do. More than two and a half decades into these COP meetings, it’s clear that this makes for an agonizingly slow process as delegates hang on every word in an agreement.

At COP26, a simple change from “urges” to “requests” in a draft document left delegates, observers, and journalists scrambling to figure out which word was stronger as they parsed the language.

Extinction Rebellion protesters are seen during a die in protest outside the entrance to the COP26 site on November 13, 2021 in Glasgow, United Kingdom.
Protesters outside the COP26 venue stage a demonstration as climate change negotiations run past their deadline.
Peter Summers/Getty Images

Often, many of the same debates are relitigated over and over. Island countries want immediate cuts to emissions, developing countries want more financing, fossil fuel producers don’t want to halt their exports, and wealthy countries don’t want to pay for their damages.

Meetings like COP26 are not the only venues for climate action, but they’re one of the few times where every country faces the spotlight and where negotiators can meet face to face and go head to head. The process is slow, but it still accounts for the biggest strides in mitigating climate change.

The next challenge will be to strengthen the commitments that are now on paper. “Glasgow has delivered a strong message of hope, a strong message of promise,” said Tuvalu’s finance minister, Seve Paeniu. “What is left now is for us to deliver on that promise.”

At next year’s COP27 meeting in Egypt, the process will repeat again — and possibly end with another step forward. But another year will be lost, the planet will get hotter, and the window for action will close even further.

Future Perfect

Want to fight climate change effectively? Here’s where to donate your money.


The future of the planet hinges on understanding these 5 key phrases


Earth will soon cross a scary climate change threshold. What happens next?

View all stories in Climate