Did the Summit in Glasgow Set Us on the Path to Avoid Climate Catastrophe?

December 15, 2021
By Lori Teranishi
Characters interact with a melting Earth, some cooling it, others measuring time.

It depends on who you talk to.

The politicians and government officials who attended the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference and COP26 point to the wide-ranging agreements announced at the meeting and try to explain how they will avoid the irreversible damage that occurs when the planet crosses “the red line” — a 1.5-degree Celsius increase above the planet’s preindustrial temperature.

However, their optimistic talk cannot erase the image of the summit president’s tearful apology for the final agreement’s neutered stance on coal, the single biggest contributor to global warming. Up until the meeting’s last moments, the declaration had called for the world to “phase out” of coal but, at India’s last-minute insistence, the language was changed to “phase down.”

 

"In the real world, these kinds of expectations — often offered up by failing business leaders promising a miraculous turnaround — usually fail to materialize."

 

Environmental activists who had gathered outside the event were dismayed by this proof of inadequate political will and cohesion. They echoed Greta Thunberg’s mocking assessment that the annual meeting was simply more “Blah, blah, blah.”

The record of COP summit participants meeting their commitments is underwhelming. Defenders of the COP process, like U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry, expressed the belief that the agreements will lead to action. Those who have voiced this optimistic line over the past 25 years are, at this point, betting on a “hockey stick” surge in carbon reduction to prevent crossing the red line. In the real world, these kinds of expectations — often offered up by failing business leaders promising a miraculous turnaround — usually fail to materialize.

For those who want to calibrate their own assessments about COP26 agreements, here’s a brief description of the key achievements reported from Glasgow:

  1. Leaders from more than 120 countries, representing about 90 percent of the planet’s forests, pledged to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030.
  2. More than 100 countries agreed to cut methane by 30 percent by 2030. However, China, India, Russia and Australia — all of whom are major methane emitters — are not among the signatories.
  3. More than 50 countries agreed to a “phase down” from coal.
  4. Nearly 500 global financial services firms agreed to align $130 trillion — about 40% of the world’s financial assets — with COP goals. This means the money to fund the countless changes needed to slow climate change should be accessible.
  5. More than 100 governments, cities, states and major car companies agreed to stop selling vehicles with internal combustion engines by 2035 in leading markets, and by 2040 worldwide. At least 13 nations also committed to end the sale of fossil fuel-powered heavy-duty vehicles by 2040.
  6. Nearly 200 countries agreed to standard rules for carbon markets, which will allow countries to partially meet their climate targets by buying offset credits representing emission cuts by others. This will fund the preservation, protection and expansion of forests and jungles.
  7. The United States and China agreed to cooperate on a range of issues, including methane emissions, transition to clean energy and decarbonization. Nothing specific or binding was included but at least the world’s two largest economies are directionally aligned.

These announcements seem to indicate that the magnitude of the threat and the required response are clearly understood. Business’s role in the solution is signaled by the commitments of the financial community and the attention paid to setting up a carbon market, which could potentially channel trillions of dollars in ways that will improve the environment.

Now, it remains to be seen whether these bold ideas translate into real action and, if so, how quickly. Carbon emissions have been increasing for nearly 200 years. Some experts warn that climate catastrophe awaits unless these emissions are significantly reduced by 2030. Will the COP agreements become effective mechanisms to slow the planet’s environmental decline in just eight years?

Whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist, the world must work together like never before to bring about the hockey stick surge in carbon reduction.