It is easy to point out the holes in the deal struck in Glasgow on climate change, but the outcome offers at least a glimmer of hope and keeps the pressure on all parties to revise their weak commitments to cutting emissions by 2030. It may not be enough to meet the ambitious targets of the Paris climate agreement and stave off some of the worst consequences of global warming. In the words of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the 1.5-degree ambition is alive, but on life support. According to the research group Climate Action Tracker, if all the pledges and commitments made in the lead-up to the COP, at the summit and on its sidelines were to be achieved, the world could be on a pathway to 1.8 degrees 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. But unlike so many climate meetings in recent years, the negotiations in Glasgow did not collapse or produce only a tepid statement of consensus. Negotiators did make progress on some crucial unsolved problems, like how countries can trade emissions credits and pledging more money to deal with the consequences 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.
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. And one thing was never going to change: 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. That is a test the world has to live up to still.