COP26 - Co-op or Cop Out?

Glasgow has found itself at the centre of a whirlwind of political deliberation and debate for the last two weeks. The convergence of global leaders, businesses, and influencers on the city was billed as the most important climate summit of the decade but to what extent is this true? 

One inevitability from the start of COP26 was the political spin that media consumers would have to wade through. Whilst some of the loudest, more eccentric voices would amplify criticism of the various agreements struck, it fell to the more mundane, procedural tone of politicians and business leaders to actually highlight what the summit achieved. In most cases, the public absorbed the messaging which excited them and provoked more emotion – hence why the outcomes of COP26 has divided opinion.

Polling by BMG Research during the two-week gathering showed that just 21% of people think the climate summit will achieve significant change. A YouGov survey similarly found that more than 45% of Scottish voters lacked the confidence in world leaders’ abilities to strike a climate deal. Whilst opinions may be shaped by the presence of more colourful groups and individuals, we cannot gloss over the achievements of the summit. 

Co-operation, carbon-cutting, and climate control 

Progress has undoubtedly been made in three areas – methane emissions, coal, and cooperation. More than 100 nations agreed to cut their methane emissions by 30% by 2030 as part of a bold Global Methane Pledge. As a root cause of rising short-term global temperatures, this agreement sets in place a critical time frame for decelerating warming. Notably, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report finds that this commitment offers the greatest potential to control global temperatures for the next 20 years. On top of this, the International Energy Agency estimates that the Global Methane Pledge will reduce approximately 145 megatons of the gas globally by 2030 – this is consistent with the climate agreement goal set in Paris in 2015 to maintain global temperatures at 1.5 degrees.

Alongside this, 40 nations agreed to cease using coal in their energy sectors by the 2030s, including some of the largest burners such as Canada, Vietnam, South Korea, Ukraine and Indonesia. Contributing 30% to global greenhouse gases, the coal agreement puts the UK in an envious position to offer a blueprint to these countries on how to ‘de-coal’ their economies. In 2012, 41% of UK electricity production relied on coal – it is now 1.6%. Not only does this commitment evidence success in reducing coal burning, but it also elevates the UK’s green credentials and establishes itself as a leader on climate action – a coveted position.

Of course, these achievements are clouded by the more appealing and outspoken soapboxes of radical environmentalists and celebrity opinions – at the same time President Biden announced the USA’s subscription to the Global Methane Pledge, the same amount of media coverage was seemingly given to Greta Thunberg’s ‘blah blah blah’ criticism of climate discussions at the summit. Delivery is key, colourful language to inspire and relate to is vital for any messaging – the summit, whilst successful, fell short on this front.

However, behind this mundane expression of progress by global leaders lies the extraordinary cooperation in achieving them. Whilst they looked chaotic, that is simply the nature of negotiations. In an era of competition and scepticism, agreement on a 1.5-degree target by the US and China is a major breakthrough. The agreement ranges from cutting carbon emissions to deforestation and took many by surprise. China’s input and adherence is a significant boost to the summit’s aims and impact. The triumph of cooperation isn’t just limited to China, but extends to non-governmental organisations and businesses. More than $130 trillion of private capital has been committed to achieving net-zero goals globally by businesses. 450 firms across 45 countries have agreed to provide the resources for the achievement of the 1.5-degree goal.

The UN finds that the private sector’s involvement could deliver 70% of the total investments needed to meet this. The key to succeeding will be an increase in ESG strategies by these firms that will, in turn, restrict unsustainable investment, enhance business transparency, and increase consumer confidence. Former Bank of England governor Mark Carney hailed this cooperation as “moving climate from the fringes to the forefront of finance”. ESG seems to be the new battlefront in the fight against climate change.

Beneath the disruptive chatter of social media and dissenting opinions actually lies a prosperous route forward for global climate control. Sure, the achievements should have been delivered in a more accessible and unified way for public consumption, but they nevertheless remain achievements. Unprecedented cooperation has produced that which otherwise wouldn’t have been – that is progress, and in regards to climate, progress equals success.

Private jets, protest, and lobbyists

Despite good intentions and international progress, COP26 suffered from poor optics. 

The media focus on private jets has somewhat overshadowed any news of substance coming out of Glasgow; world leaders and business executives have been criticised for using private jets to attend the summit. Indeed the Prime Minister and the EU President have been criticised for their short-haul and domestic flights. Many commentators have noted the hypocrisy of leaders and critiqued the optics of leaders telling their nations to reduce their emissions and change their lifestyles while they themselves jet across the world with large entourages on private jets. 

The aviation sector is a substantial contributor to carbon emissions, contributing 2% of anthropogenic carbon dioxide each year, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Furthermore, air travel releases emissions at altitude, which are thought to have an additional warming effect. 

An initial assessment suggests over 102,500 tonnes of carbon dioxide has been released over the course of the summit; that’s similar to the annual emissions from about 10,000 UK households and is double the emissions prediction from the last climate summit. The government points out more than 39,000 participants attended Glasgow, against 27,000 in Madrid in 2019. Furthermore, ahead of the climate summit, President Biden was criticised for his 85 piece motorcade as he attended the G20 summit in Rome and visited the Vatican. 

If private jets and motorcades weren’t causing enough bad press attention over the last few weeks, news outlets widely discussed the fact that there were more delegates at COP26 associated with the fossil fuel industry than from any single country. This story led the Today programme on Radio 4 last week, and it is small clippings and headlines that the public remembers, not dossiers and white papers. These headlines are very damaging to the credibility of the conference. 

Maybe most importantly, the pledges made at COP26 are not legally binding. Greta Thunberg has famously accused the conference of ‘blah blah blah’ and greenwashing. And indeed, the enduring image of the summit has nothing to do with the environment at all. It is of Boris Johnson, sitting maskless, next to the 95 year old Sir David Attenborough.

Tom Bromwich and Ben Peart are Research and Communications Assistants at College Green Group.