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What was actually achieved at COP26 in Glasgow? 

By January 15, 2022No Comments


Several weeks on from the United Nations Climate Change Conference, Elaine Butler examines the real impact

Although some, like Teresa Anderson, a climate policy coordinator at ActionAid  International, argue that COP26 was just “a carefully orchestrated bombardment of  announcements with very little backing”, it was a COP of firsts. The first time fossil fuel and  methane were mentioned, the first time a mechanism for reporting companies’ carbon  emissions was tabled and the first time there was a sense of urgency to the event and text agreed upon.


Let’s drill down into the main headlines of the event and see what impact they could have.  

Greenhouse Gas Emissions & Global Warming 

Before COP26, the world was on track for 2.7°C of warming, based on commitments by  countries and hopes for technological breakthroughs. Just to put that figure in context, In  the months before COP26, people on every continent had felt the visceral impacts of a  changing climate at just 1.1C of global warming, being hit by floods, wildfires, storms or  heat waves.  

Announcements at COP26, including new pledges to cut emissions this decade, by some  key countries, have reduced this to a best estimate of 2.4°C*, but only if countries deliver  on their 2030 emissions targets.  

When you consider that not so many years ago, we were seriously contemplating  temperature rises of 4°C or even 6°C this is a positive change but we are not out of the woods.  

You may be wondering what happened to keeping global warming down to 1.5°C? Well, as  put by COP26 president Alok Sharma, 1.5°C remains alive, but it’s “pulse is weak”. It is  estimated that the various deals will shave 2.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide off our  2030 emissions, which is only 9 percent of the cuts that have to happen to put us on  course for a global warming of 1.5°C. 

To have a reasonable chance of limiting warming to 1.5°C by 2100, global emissions need  to fall roughly in half by 2030, and reach zero by 2050. By way of comparison, humans  emitted 5.4 percent less CO2 during 2020, because of the covid-19 pandemic, but 2021’s emissions were 4.9 per cent larger.  

Currently  74 countries have net zero commitments, which cover at least 76% of  global GHG emissions. However, only 12 of these are actually reflected in law today. 

According to Claire Stockwell, senior climate policy analyst at Climate Analytics “It is all  very well for leaders and governments to claim that they have a net-zero target, but if they  don’t have plans as to how to get there, and their 2030 targets are not aligned with net zero, then, frankly, these net-zero targets are just paying lip service to real climate action.

Also disappointingly, countries will be allowed to partially meet their climate targets by  buying carbon credits. This means that instead of having to actually reach zero emissions,  countries and companies can balance the emissions they do create by buying carbon  savings (credits) from companies that have them. 


Methane also made its debut at COP26, with the official text stating that nations are  “invited” to reduce methane emissions by 2030, but over 100 countries declared  commitments to cutting methane emissions by 30% by 2030. 

Methane from agriculture was noticeably absent from discussions around methane  reduction, which is worrying given that it causes 40% of methane emissions. America’s  methane-reduction plan focused almost exclusively on reducing methane leakage from  fossil-fuel extraction and, according to Politico, “misrepresent[ed] and minimise[d] the  livestock sector’s contribution” to methane emissions. Similarly, New Zealand’s net-zero  commitment exempts methane from agriculture and waste. 

Even our own Taoiseach was quick to settle critics of our commitment to the 30% reduction pledge, stressing that the figure of 30% was a global target rather than a national one, i.e  Ireland doesn’t have to deliver 30% reduction itself. 

Fossil Fuels 

For the first time ever fossil fuels were specifically mentioned at a COP, which might seem  crazy to anyone looking in from the outside, but politics moves slowly, especially when  there is strong lobbying working to slow things down.  

Coal is arguably the worst fossil fuel because it emits the most greenhouse gas per unit of  energy generated. At COP 23 countries promised to stop new coal power schemes, and to  phase out existing ones., including five of the top 20 coal-using countries: South Korea,  Indonesia, Vietnam, Poland and Ukraine, but the list of countries doesn’t include the three  largest coal users: China, India and the US.  

If we wanted to limit global warming to 1.5°C we would have to close 40% of the world’s  8,500 coal plants, according to Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency  (IEA). This is not likely to happen given the final text at COP26 was to ‘phase down’ coal  (as opposed to the original proposal to ‘phase-out of fossil fuels’)  

Coal may be the poster child of dirty fossil fuels but we need to say goodbye to gas too.  Between 2020 and 2019 emissions from gas rose by 42 per cent and it is projected to cause 70% of global emissions by 2030. The  increase in emissions by 2030? Gas will be responsible  for 70 per cent of it. 

That said, several countries have joined an alliance committed to halting future oil and gas  production within their borders. Known as the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA), the  group now includes France, Sweden and Ireland – joining the initial leaders, Denmark and  Costa Rica. At the moment BOGA doesn’t include any countries that produce significant amounts of oil and gas but such alliances do tend to grow over time, so if campaigners  keep up the pressure, it may well be that more countries will join.  

Also 25 countries have agreed to shut off new international finance for fossil fuel projects  by the end of 2022. This is to be welcomed, even if the countries involved are still able to  finance fossil fuel projects within their own borders, as it still sends a “really, really  powerful market signal”, which was highlighted by Emma Pinchbeck at trade group Energy  UK.  

On a negative note, a push to get rid of subsidies for fossil fuels has been watered down  and ended up only referring to “inefficient” subsidies, whatever that means.  


At COP26 more than 130 countries pledged $19.2bn towards ending deforestation by  2030, but critics pointed out the similarities to the New York Declaration on Forests, which  was signed in 2014 and also pledged to halt deforestation by 2030.  

Also, in the wake of the announcements governments were already starting to fudge the  issue. For example, Indonesia’s vice foreign minister, Mahendra Siregar, stated that they  interpreted the commitment as “sustainable forest management…not end deforestation”.  And as Brazilian environment minister Joaquim Pereira Leite announced that the country  was committing to end illegal deforestation by 2028, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro  pushed for legislation to legalise deforestation – undermining the spirit, if not the letter, of  the pledge.  

On a positive note 28 of the largest consumer and producer countries of beef, soy, cocoa  and palm oil discussed a roadmap identifying areas of work to tackle deforestation in  commodity supply chains, although they didn’t agree on a final approach.  


In the search for carbon neutral energy sources, nuclear featured quite heavily in pledges.  China is building “at least 150 new reactors in the next 15 years, more than the rest of the  world has built in the past 35”. Closer to home the UK government has committed £210  million to support the development of new “small modular reactors” or SMRs, each  capable of powering 1 million homes. Although smaller and more efficient, these SMRs still  produce radioactive waste and are vulnerable to natural disasters like traditional nuclear  reactors. 

Financial Support 

At COP26 attending countries pledged to double the money given to help lower-income  countries adapt to climate change to $40 billion by 2025. This could be a positive move,  even if previous commitments haven’t been fully realised, but it does depend on whether  funding is made available in the form of loans or grants.

Developed countries, led by the US and EU, resisted taking any liability for loss and  damages arising from the climate crisis ,and vetoed the creation of a new way of  supporting vulnerable nations, called the “Glasgow Loss and Damage Facility”. Despite this,  Scotland itself offered 2 million pounds in funding for a loss and damage scheme.  

Financial Markets 

In a move that will hopefully bring about systemic change, the International Financial  Reporting Standards (IFRS) announced a draft climate standard, which will help companies  measure and report clearly on their climate strategies. The hope is that companies which can show they’re ahead on their plan will be seen to be better prepared and therefore attract  more investment, while those behind in the plans will most likely have to invest to catch  up, meaning additional debt, making them less attractive. So immediately, the valuation of  companies in the stock market will be impacted. 

In the past, 140 countries agreed to be part of the IFRS metrics so it’s likely they will adopt  this new climate strategy. Hopefully this will mean that by 2023, all companies will be able  to—and in some cases compelled to—report under these new standards. Hence if a  company is ahead of its plan, the market will look at this positively. If you’re late, it means  that there are some capital expenditures that you need to do in the future, which means  additional debt.  


It’s fair to say there were positive and negative outcomes from COP26. In addition to the  ones listed above there was a notable absence of conversations around food, a huge  generator of emissions and deforestation, and an over dependence on unproven  technology to deliver zero emissions. That said, according to Christiana Figueres, a former  executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, there  is “much more urgency in the language, more alarm, more than I have seen in any previous text”. 

Ultimately, UN climate summits alone can only do so much. The battle to keep 1.5°C alive  will be won at ballot boxes, on the streets, in courts and in boardrooms. In the words of our lighthouse Greta Thunberg “Instead of looking for hope – start creating it.” 

*Estimates are within a range of error from 1.8 – 3.3°C, which is worrying to say the least. Sources: The New Scientist, Green is the New Black, Carbon Brief, The Conversation