Sometimes progress is only visible in hindsight. Such may prove to be the case with 2021—an important year in the fight against climate change, but a year whose ramifications may not be felt until much later.
2021 was the year of COP26, a conference viewed by many as a key opportunity to address the crisis, and perhaps the most consequential climate summit since Paris in 2015. This year’s conference occurred amidst a surfeit of climate change-driven disasters, including a record-breaking heat wave in the Pacific Northwest, catastrophic flooding in China, and a devastating drought in East Africa. It also followed a raft of ambitious climate pledges, including net zero commitments from countries like Russia and Turkey, and from companies like Coca-Cola and GM.
With both alarm and ambition over climate change mounting, delegations from 197 countries convened in Glasgow, Scotland in November for what U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry called “the last best chance” to avert climate catastrophe.
This characterization of COP26 as a “make or break” moment reflected both the urgency of the crisis and a collective frustration over decades of inaction. Climate leaders may understandably credit this framing with having motivated the historically ambitious agreement that emerged from the conference. But with COP26 now in the rearview mirror and the most difficult work still to come, it is worth considering whether the conference was ever likely to be a “turning point” for climate action—and whether such moments are even identifiable in the difficult and ultimately incremental work of solving the climate crisis.
1.5˚C, and Beyond
In some respects, the problem of climate change can be reduced to simple math. Since the Industrial Revolution, global average temperatures have risen 1.1˚C, primarily due to human influence. Allowing temperature rise to surpass 1.5˚C, the scientific consensus tells us, could have dangerous effects on the planet and our way of life. Allowing temperatures to rise more than 2˚C would be calamitous. Unfortunately, humanity is on track to exceed both limits. The International Energy Agency (IEA) projects that the “announced pledges” of the world’s governments (effectively, the global ambition to combat warming) would, if met, result in 2.1˚C of warming by the end of the century, a terrifying outcome. What’s more, most of these pledges remain unsupported by concrete policies. Stated climate policies, the IEA projects, would allow warming to escalate to 2.6˚C by 2100, and to continue rising after. In that scenario, the world faces a truly catastrophic outcome.
Figure 1: Under stated policies (“STEPS”), global average temperature is projected to rise 2.6˚C by the end of the century. Announced pledges (“APS”) would limit warming to 2.1˚C, and getting on a path to net-zero emissions by 2050 (“NZE”) would likely keep warming below 1.5˚C. Source: International Energy Agency.
Bending these curves to 1.5˚C depends on two monumental achievements. First, governments must enhance the ambition of their climate pledges such that reaching their targets would successfully limit global warming to 1.5˚C. Second, and much more difficult, they must match these pledges with the policies and funding necessary to reach them. In essence, solving the climate crisis requires both more ambition and more action from all countries.
Time is running out to achieve this. The remaining available carbon budget—the amount of carbon dioxide that can plausibly be released without exceeding 1.5˚C of warming—is 400 gigatonnes. At its current rate, humanity will emit that amount by 2034.
It is understandable, then, that COP26 emerged as a focal point for the climate community. In a year of elevated alarm and ambition, Glasgow shone as a potential venue to chart a cooperative path forward, a so-called “turning point” (in the words of Prime Minister Boris Johnson) in the fight against climate change.
A Mixed Bag
Two months on, the outcome of the conference appears decidedly mixed. After a flurry of early announcements, negotiators reached an agreement that was simultaneously more ambitious than any before it, and not ambitious enough to credibly resemble a “turning point.” Activists, experts, and policymakers alike left Scotland with the unsatisfying taste of a summit that was neither a total success nor a total failure.
Through the final agreement and through ancillary pledges at the conference, COP26 broke new ground in terms of global consensus over addressing the climate crisis:
110 countries signed onto a pledge to cut methane emissions 30 percent by 2030. Methane, a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide, is responsible for around 30 percent of global warming since the Industrial Revolution. Though methane emissions are readily traceable and addressable with existing technology, global efforts to reduce them have largely fallen to a patchwork of national regulations and voluntary corporate commitments. Experts at the Climate Action Tracker project that meeting the Glasgow target could reduce warming by 0.12˚C through 2100.
Elsewhere, a cohort of 141 countries signed onto a pledge to “halt and reverse forest loss” by 2030. Deforestation is responsible for 10 percent of human-caused carbon emissions via fires and lost carbon drawdown capacity. Recently, mounting concern over forest loss has generated stricter deforestation laws, but with more than half of the world’s forests concentrated in only five countries (Russia, Brazil, Canada, China, and the U.S.), progress depends heavily on these five varyingly sympathetic governments. With all five having signed the Glasgow pledge, signatories hope it will restore forests as a “carbon sink,” absorbing emissions produced elsewhere.
Private corporations also played a role at Glasgow. A coalition of national governments, regional and local governments, financial institutions, and manufacturers pledged to make all new car sales zero emission vehicles by 2040 (up from 19 percent in 2019). And 450 financial institutions, collectively, the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, managing a total of $130 trillion pledged to align their financing activities with net zero by 2050.
The final agreement—signed by all 197 countries—broke new ground in terms of global ambition to combat climate change. For the first time at a UN climate conference, it called for a reduction in fossil fuel use, committing signatories to “phase down” their consumption of coal. In another first, it formally acknowledged the “loss and damage” that wealthy nations have wrought on the developing world through their carbon emissions. It recommitted wealthy nations to providing $100 billion in annual climate finance to developing countries, after their failure to do so by 2020. It finalized the rules for an international carbon credit market, resolving the thorny issue of Article 6. And it committed signatories to strengthening and resubmitting their emissions reduction targets (referred to as “nationally determined contributions” by the Paris Agreement) in 2022.
These pledges collectively made COP26 the most ambitious climate summit to date. In fact, preliminary modeling from the IEA suggests that the pledges made in Glasgow would, if met, shave a full 0.3˚C off global warming, limiting it to 1.8˚C by 2100.
Figure 2: The pledges secured at COP26 would, if enacted, shave 0.3˚C off of the IEA’s initial “Announced Pledges Scenario,” limiting warming to 1.8˚C 2100. Source: International Energy Agency.
Despite this, critics of the final agreement rightly point to certain shortcomings. Against the urging of many activists, governments refused to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, which amounted to $5.9 trillion in 2020. Nor did the agreement establish a body to disburse compensation for the “loss and damage” visited upon developing countries. The notable absences of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin (respectively representing the first and fourth largest emitters of carbon dioxide) undermined the narrative of global cooperative commitment. And an eleventh-hour disagreement saw the language regarding coal change from “phase out” to “phase down,” an edit many found emblematic of the “lowest common denominator” approach to international climate agreements.
A Turning Point?
The final agreement, announced to some fanfare on November 13, elicited a broad spectrum of reactions from climate experts. For some, it was a “flop” and a “cop-out,” for others an “historic agreement” and an “important breakthrough.” The bulk of the reception, however, fell somewhere in the gray area between outright success and utter failure. Rife with caveats and qualifiers, the responses to COP26 largely evoked a guarded optimism, tempered by the failures of past summits. Looking back, the enhanced ambition of the main agreement—in tandem with the ancillary agreements on methane, deforestation, and more—seems to have insulated the conference from the harshest potential criticism. Yet few could credibly conclude that COP26 markedly accelerated the transition to a low-carbon economy. “Could have been better, could have been worse,” seems to have been the consensus. Or, more accurately, “Wait and see.”
In reality, it is too soon to assess the outcome of COP26. Glasgow’s true impact will be decided in board rooms and legislative chambers from Beijing to Brasilia to Washington, DC. In the years to come, national and subnational governments will face the daunting task of matching their ambition in Scotland with tangible policy. The pledges that emerged from Glasgow’s spacious event pavilion collectively have the potential to reshape the outlook for global climate action. If, in fact, governments around the world make good on their commitments, we may rightfully look back on COP26 as a “turning point.”
This is, as the saying goes, a big “if.” Reducing greenhouse gas emissions consistent with these commitments will require a raft of new policies, ranging from carbon taxes to efficiency regulations to financing for clean technologies. If the past is any guide, it seems unlikely that governments will adopt stringent enough policies in a short enough time to meet their targets. All the while, the gap between ambition and action stretches ever wider, undercutting these governments’ already limited credibility on the issue.
Recent events cast further doubt on the future of the COP26 pledges. With the apparent failure of the Build Back Better Bill in the United States Congress, which contained $555 billion in climate-related provisions, the U.S. pledge to reduce emissions 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 seems nigh on impossible. Even more worrying is the prospect that the U.S. failure to act might provide other governments with cover to delay action on their own pledges.
All of which should call into question the narrative of COP26 as a “turning point” altogether. The pledges made in Glasgow reflect a growing global concern, particularly among younger generations, over the dangers of the climate crisis. They also represent a high-water mark for multilateralism, with unprecedented, across-the-board consensus over the causes, impacts, and potential solutions to climate change. But as the ink dries on this ambitious agreement, the future of climate action remains exactly where it was before: in the hands of a disjointed phalanx of activists and policymakers battling against inertia to turn promises into action.
Glasgow was perhaps only ever about promises—a collective acknowledgement of the goalposts, coupled with an understanding that each country would decide on its own path towards them. To the extent that it was an exercise in ambition, we may be relatively pleased (though not fully satisfied) with the outcome. But with 2021 in its waning days, the fight against climate change looks much the same as it did before. The next step—as we always knew it would—falls to governments and private corporations. Can they cobble together the right combination of policies and actions to quickly reduce emissions? The legacy of Glasgow depends on it.
Was 2021 a turning point? Probably not. In all likelihood, 2022 (and COP27) won’t be either. In fact, if we do, as a society, reach 2100 having successfully limited global warming to 1.5˚C, we may still look back and fail to identify a turning point. Rather, we may reflect with satisfaction on the many years of grinding, painstaking work that we put in, never fully turning the corner but never giving up either. With COP26 in the rearview mirror, we can look at it for what it was always likely to be: another in a long series of efforts to deal with a problem that is not going away any time soon.
Daniel Propp is special assistant to the director at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University (Twitter: @danieljpropp)