The UN climate summit in Glasgow was a torrent of lofty talk and pledges, side deals, urgent protests and last-ditch negotiations, all leading to a watered-down agreement that represents both progress and failure.
History’s verdict on COP26 will depend on how we all respond to its promise and its shortcomings. Whether we will act on its expressions of alarm and urgency or find ourselves trapped in its compromises and foot-dragging.
It will be up to all of us to ensure difficult decisions don’t give way to good intentions and greenwashing.
How to make sense of the voluminous and often conflicting narratives since the pact was finalized on Saturday? I’ll start with three basic points.
The accord achieved at COP26 is woefully inadequate given the target of limiting the increase in average global temperature to 1.5°C. Every 10th of a degree of the agreement’s insufficiency will mean additional suffering for hundreds of millions and eventually billions of people as well as intensifying species loss. Grieving for the planet on Twitter, Lauren Latour of Climate Action Network Canada described the Scottish city as “the Glasgow necropolis.” Environmental groups were discouraged by the insufficient ambition in national targets and the failure to urge the phase out of coal-fired power and subsidies for fossil fuel use.
And yet, it is amazing that 197 countries signed on to an agreement that is underpinned by fundamental climate science, acknowledges the need for urgent action, highlights the importance of nature in the fight, and commits everyone to do more, fast. In Policy Options, Velma McColl, principle at Earnscliffe Strategy Group, took an optimistic view while acknowledging the failings. The Glasgow summit, she wrote, shows we’re at “a tipping point where progress accelerates, [and] outcomes come faster than conservative estimates suggest.”
The third point, and perhaps the most crucial one: To meet even the inadequate commitments from Glasgow, we will have to dramatically accelerate the job of aligning our public and private institutions, finances and procurement; our regulations and standards; our data collection and analysis; our consumer habits; our everything with a net-zero world. That includes a robust, well-funded effort to conserve and recover natural ecosystems that store carbon and serve as habitat for threatened species.
Without that work, the Glasgow climate pact’s demand that countries strengthen their 2030 targets by next year’s COP summit is meaningless.
Building a net-zero society represents an unprecedented challenge, greater even than the mobilization for the Second World War. However, Canadians have a responsibility, and a moral obligation, to lead. To put it another way: We have a sacred duty to care for Mother Earth and her children.
We need to hold collective feet to the fire, and we need to have zero tolerance for greenwashing. Data collection, transparency and accountability are key to ensuring that the “blah, blah, blah” – as Greta Thunberg called the high-level promises – results in a lifesaving transformation of our societies.
There is an enormous responsibility on media organizations, civil society, academia and others to act as watchdogs and hold business and governments at all levels to account on their commitments.
While the Glasgow climate pact falls short of what is required, COP26 certainly provided momentum. It leaves us with some hope we can limit the rise in average global temperatures to 1.5°C, or at least well below 2°C.
Two leading groups, the International Energy Agency and Climate Action Tracker, concluded that if all the promises made by governments and business at Glasgow were fulfilled, we would be on course for 1.8°C of warming.
We need to hold collective feet to the fire, and we need to have zero tolerance for greenwashing.
However, Climate Action Tracker calculated that the level of ambition in countries’ official 2030 targets is more consistent with a 2.4°C temperature increase by 2100. The group says that most countries are well off the pace for meeting their formal nationally determined contributions (NDCs), as the 2030 targets are known.
The raft of other commitments made in Glasgow would bring us to 1.8°C, but they have less official weight and will be tougher to monitor. Of those, the biggest impact would come from the post-2030 emission reductions required for the net-zero targets announced by virtually all major emitting countries, with dates ranging from 2050 for the United States and Canada to 2070 for India.
The beginning of the Glasgow conference was like a pledge-a-palooza: countries and corporations made new promises to protect forests and nature, and to cut methane emissions, while leading companies in the financial industry committed to a 2050 target of net-zero emissions in their lending and investment portfolios.
To limit the prospects of greenwashing, all of those agreements and pledges will require new structures that ensure transparency and accountability, including the creation and dissemination of credible and comparable scientific and financial data.
Take, for example, the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ), which, under the leadership of former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney, brought together most of the world’s largest banks, insurance companies, pension funds and other asset managers.
The alliance has no formal standing under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which runs transparency and accountability efforts arising from the Paris Agreement and now the Glasgow pact. Monitoring the alliance’s progress is outside the scope of the UNFCCC.
Under GFANZ, financial institutions made certain commitments, including establishing a 2030 target consistent with their goal of net-zero by 2050. They will also publish annually their emissions – both operational and those attributable to their financing business – in line with best practices. The GFANZ work will be taken up within media giant Bloomberg L.P. and will be co-chaired by founder (and former mayor of New York City) Michael Bloomberg and Mary Schapiro, former head of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
To hold the banks and other financial institutions to account, we will need more comparable, transparent and consistent standards to measure emissions and carbon intensity. GFANZ will work with the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) – a group created by the Financial Stability Board – to achieve those goals. However, every national government will have to drive the effort in their home markets.
Similarly, national net-zero commitments remain outside the ambit of UNFCCC, although the Glasgow agreement asks countries to come back next year with new 2030 targets that are more in line with those longer-term goals. At the same time, the Paris-based International Energy Agency says it will provide regular monitoring of countries’ progress toward their mid-century targets.
The transformation to a net-zero-emissions society will bring enormous change and uncertainty. It will entail myriad costs but also benefits, and we will need governments to ensure that the burdens and opportunities are fairly distributed.
However, it’s also clear that those costs and disruptions pale in comparison to the impacts that climate change itself will bring if the world can’t act with urgency to cap the increase in global temperatures.