10 tests for COP26: The verdict

Joseph Eastoe considers the tests GreensCAN set for the summit, finding that, in most cases, it failed to introduce meaningful change. We should be wary, he notes, in believing that events of this kind will save us at the ‘eleventh hour’.

COP26 Sharma looking down

UNFCCC_COP26_13Nov21_ClosingPlenary_KiaraWorth-10 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Joseph Eastoe

COP26 is over. As the leaders slink back to their capitals, as the 10,000 extra police brought in from around the country head back to their constituencies, and as the thousands of activists, indigenous peoples, and representatives of the Global South begin the trudge home, it is time to take stock of what these negotiations achieved. Before COP, GreensCAN published their 10 Tests for COP26. Now, it’s time to assess how successful the climate conference was in meeting these aims. 

We’ve devised a rudimentary scoring system to do just this. Each test we outlined will be scored out of a possible 10, meaning that if COP26 was a roaring success that exceeded all our aims (remember, our tests were a bare minimum), then it’ll have a total of 100 points. Wouldn’t that be nice? 

0 – The topic was never mentioned by any party at COP26.

1-2 – The topic was mentioned, but not discussed in any significant detail. 

3-4 - The topic was discussed, but did not make it into the final deal. 

5-6 - The topic is represented in a deal, but the deal is weak and unbinding, and/or the extent to which action on the topic is discussed does not go far enough. 

7-8 – The topic is represented in a deal that meets our expectations.

9-10 – The topic is represented in a deal that surpassed our expectations, taking real action and treating the climate crisis with the gravitas it deserves. 

1. An unprecedented investment in genuinely renewable energy. 5/10

The importance of clean energy technologies and a shift away from fossil fuels is mentioned in the final deal. The draft argues for the ‘transition towards low-emission energy systems’ and a phasing out of ‘coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies’. Whilst this does signify increased support for renewable energy and decreased support for the subsidisation of fossil fuels, the wording is weak, as the deal ‘calls upon parties’ to act accordingly, with no legal binding sanctions for those who fail. Similarly, clean energy is only mentioned once in the report, thus, the overall extent to which COP26 marks an unprecedented investment in renewable energy is underwhelming. 

2. A thorough shift in transport away from petrol and diesel vehicles. 3/10 

Transport is not mentioned in any way, shape, or form in the final deal. Nevertheless, the UN has created the Zero Emission Vehicle Transition Council to manage the shift to zero-emission vehicles, and recognises that road transport accounts for 10 per cent of global emissions. The Zero Emission Vehicle Council is ‘encouraging vehicle manufacturers to show leadership in moving to supply only zero-emission vehicles’. However, this hardly constitutes a thorough shift away from petrol and diesel vehicles, and amounts more to asking nicely that manufacturers change their products. Moreover, this UN document is only concerned with road vehicles, and makes no mention of maritime transport or aviation.

3. A huge free transfer of technology and funding to Global South countries. 5/10

40 countries, including some of the largest economies, have agreed to back the ‘Glasgow Breakthroughs’, which signify a commitment to levelling up the capabilities of developing countries to shift to net-zero emissions. The Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet was launched at COP26, signifying a $10 billion investment in the development of renewable energy in developing countries. This alliance has the backing of numerous banks, the Rockefeller Foundation, Jeff Bezos’s Earth Fund and the furniture store IKEA. The US, EU, UK, France, and Germany also reaffirmed $8.5 billion in grants and loans to wean South Africa off its dependency on coal power in favour of renewable forms of energy, in a deal that could form the blueprint for similar deals with other countries. 

However, whilst these are tangible commitments of capital, they remain far too low. The International Energy Agency states that by 2030, the world needs to be investing $4 trillion annually in clean energy to hit net-zero by 2050. Therefore, whilst some action has been taken on this front, it remains a drop in the ocean of what is needed to make a change significant enough to change the destructive course we are headed on. 

4. A programme for transformational adaptation to dangerous human-triggered climate change. 0/10

COP26 reaffirmed the erroneous notion that systemwide change isn’t needed. The conference continued the illusion that our current paradigm can, with a few tweaks here and there, adequately confront the climate emergency. The level of adaptation that COP26 is open to is limited to ‘defensive’ adaptation as it tries to keep the current, broken system going, and fails to recognise that system change is needed. 

5. Planetary boundaries should be taken seriously – there should be hard caps on resource use and pollution. 0/10

Nothing at COP26 even came close to recognising planetary boundaries. The final deal makes no mention of limiting resource use and introducing hard caps on pollution. No party made any mention of introducing hard limits to resource use. 

6. Companies should be legally required to disclose climate-related financial risks and/or dependence on fossil fuels. 1/10

In the UK, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak announced plans to legally require all financial institutions and listed companies to publish plans on how they will achieve the transition to net-zero. This is a step forward. However, this was not brought up at COP26, it does not apply internationally, and campaigners such as Greenpeace warn that the plans will even be ineffective in the UK, as companies are still allowed to invest heavily in fossil fuels. 

7. Trade arrangements should be rewritten in order to facilitate a green transition. 0/10

Systemwide reformation of trade arrangements was not even discussed, let alone implemented in any meaningful way. In our original 10 tests, we mentioned the importance of institutions like the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in stepping up and taking responsibility for achieving a green transition, but the WTO’s actions during COP26 have been nothing short of vapid. 

8. ‘Net-zero’ schemes via ‘negative emissions technologies’ should only be permitted where there is genuinely no alternative. 3/10

The deal reached at COP26 declared that a mandatory 2 per cent of carbon credits (one form of carbon offsetting) be cancelled. Whilst this does signify a scaling down of carbon offsetting, it is a commitment so weak as to not make any meaningful effect. Moreover, net-zero remains the overall aim of the UN. Negative Emissions Technologies were also featured at COP26, often for the expressed purpose of reaching ‘net-zero.’ COP26 has made no attempt to restrict emissions to only when there is ‘genuinely no alternative’. 

9. Targets should be established for the reduction of industrial and intensive agriculture. 3/10

In our original 10 tests, we called on COP26 to tackle the elephant in the room; animal agriculture, which contributes a substantial amount of methane and carbon. On this point, COP26 seems to have introduced some legislation whilst simultaneously taking no real action at all. On ‘nature and land-use day’, 45 countries agreed to shift to more sustainable farming methods. However, these plans are vague, half-baked, and make no mention of plans to reduce animal agriculture or slash the dairy industry. 75 per cent of agricultural emissions come from livestock, and COP26 once again demonstrated the inadequacy of the UN and governments like the UK, US, France, etc. to face up to these statistics and put the earth first. 105 countries signed up to the Global Methane Pledge, agreeing to reduce methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 compared to 2020 levels. Again, this is a good step forward, but simply does not go far enough, especially since major polluters (China, Russia, and India) have refused to sign up. It also remains puzzling how a 30 per cent methane reduction is feasible whilst simultaneously refusing to curtail animal agriculture.  

10. Methods of allocation must ensure that women; children and young people; small businesses; and marginalised communities, including peasant and indigenous communities, share adequately in the benefits of any green government investment packages. 0/10

This test was probably the one that was furthest away from being achieved. If our scoring system included minus points, then this would certainly be getting a few. Much was made pre-COP of the inclusivity of these talks, and how welcoming they will be to indigenous voices and representatives of the Global South. We hoped these people would get a seat at the table to impart a different perspective of the human relationship with nature than the dominant anthropocentric model that has so dominated these climate conferences in the past. What unfolded at COP26 was nothing short of a disgraceful display of pseudo-inclusivity, masking the standard economically-driven status quo we’ve come to expect from these kinds of talks. The interests of oil, intensive agriculture, and big business have outmuscled the pleas of indigenous people, who have condemned COP26 as ‘a continuation of colonialism’.

Overall: 20/100

Hopes were high. COP26 was branded, by our own Government no less, as the last chance to get on the right track to deal with the climate emergency. What we got was, frankly, an embarrassing display of greenwashing, corporate hijacking, and unbinding promises. It should be clear to all that the Government, and the global political system at large, is not the white knight riding in from the distance to save us at the eleventh hour. In fact, perhaps a certain other four horsemen would be a more accurate depiction of the WTO, World Bank, Big Oil, and the political elites that so dominated COP26. With this in mind, we can no longer fool ourselves that someone else will pull us out of the abyss. We must react, organise, pressurise, demand, get active, and make as much noise as possible, because no one else is coming.