Did COP26 ‘keep 1,5 degrees alive’?

By Andy Jordan, Professor of Environmental Policy at the Tyndall Centre, University of East Anglia and Associate Director of the ESRC CAST centre. Published first as a commentary on The UK in a Changing Europe

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When Alok Sharma finally gavelled COP26 to a close, he wrapped up two weeks of intense international diplomacy on climate change, and also completed the first phase of the UK‘s Presidency of the Conference of the Parties (COP).
Formally, the Presidency is tasked with delivering a COP summit, which are held annually in late November.
The very first one was held in Berlin in 1995, three years after the UNFCCC was signed at the 1992 Earth Summit. The uncomfortable fact that greenhouse emissions are still rising almost thirty years later indicates just how tough a nut climate change is to crack.

The Presidency works closely with the Secretariat of the UNFCCC to prepare the agenda for COP summits. It presides over the meeting, working to a set of rules of procedure. In the year preceding its COP, the Presidency is expected to work closely with the incumbent, as well all the other 200 or so countries that are Parties to the Convention, as well as a multitude of other stakeholders. It is not a job for the faint hearted.

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Climate change continually divides the parties to the UNFCCC. This explains why there are so many voices at COPs fighting to be heard. Yet, every formal decision must be taken on the basis of consensus. Together with the written rules of procedure, the gavel is one of the few physical tools that a President is able to use to wield influence.
The UK invested a lot of political capital in COP26. Although the original application to host the Presidency was taken by Theresa May, Boris Johnson quickly grabbed the opportunity to demonstrate that the UK had lost none of its diplomatic prowess after Brexit. COP26 quickly became a key plank of his government’s strategy to level up the country by unleashing a new era of social and technological innovation.

But things did not start well. His first choice – Claire Perry O’Neill – was abruptly sacked months into the job. Several more senior politicians including William Hague and David Cameron were reportedly offered the job, but turned it down. Her eventual replacement – Alok Sharma – had no strong record of voting for green issues in Parliament. But he had briefly run two departments with a big stake in the agenda: BEIS and DFID.

Not long after, everything was delayed by a year because of the pandemic. But even with the benefit of another year of planning, Sharma must have known that he had to walk a tightrope, somehow engaging 200 countries in a dialogue as well as keeping UK parliamentarians, business associations, scientists and environmental groups on board. As the pace cranked up, he was branded ‘air miles Alok’ for flying too much in a pandemic.

But Sharma, the self-styled fan of ‘no drama’, worked his way into the job, supported by a team of around 200 Cabinet Office staff. The COP itself got off to a flying start, when several groups or ‘clubs’ of nations announced a slew of new pledges on methane, deforestation and electric vehicles.

When he choked back tears on the final day to announce that China and India had blocked the adoption of more progressive language on ‘phasing out’ coal, he won even more admirers. It is telling that some of the first congratulations he received came from the two main opposition parties.

Of course not everything ran to plan. There was considerably more progress on two of the UK’s priority themes – namely trees and coal – than on the other two (cars and cash). The queues, particularly during the first few days, the lack of affordable accommodation and the over-reliance on one local supplier of soft drinks also riled many participants.

COP26 was chiefly a procedural or ‘delivery’ COP, not a big new target-setting COP. It did not and could never have put the world firmly on track to 1.5 degrees. But it succeeded in keeping alive the possibility that staying within 1.5 degrees is still technically feasible, albeit only by moving rapidly into what Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General, referred to as ‘emergency mode’.

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The UK now retains its Presidency until the next COP in Egypt in 2022. In many ways, the hardest work – that of turning the words of the Glasgow Pact into actions – is still to be done by Sharma and his team, assuming of course that the rumours that he is destined to head off to run a new department of climate policy are false.
Key priorities include rolling out the newly adopted rules on carbon accounting and trading (‘Article 6’), supporting world leaders as they prepare fresh national action plans (‘NDCs’) and building support for more climate finance to poorer countries.

Climate scientists maintain that massive emission cuts, somewhere in the order of 45%, are required by 2030 to give a reasonable chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. COP26 may have closed, but business and civil society groups in the UK will do their utmost to hold Boris Johnson to his word after he implored all politicians to ‘get real’ about climate change.

Expect them to subject every single one of his policy decisions in the coming years to a detailed ‘net zero test’, whether it be new coal mines in Cumbria or big transport infrastructure projects in the red wall constituencies. Then and only then will they accept that COP26 marked the ‘beginning of the end of climate change’.


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