After over-time negotiations the Glasgow Climate Pact was agreed on Saturday 13 November. But can the outcome of the two-week gathering be hailed as a success? Our directors Prof Dave Reay and Prof Pete Smith offer their take-aways from the talks, concluding that the assessment really depends which parts of the agreement – or not – you focus on.

Welcome agreements

COP26 saw notable successes in terms of agreement on the ‘rule book’ that underpins the Paris Agreement. Through the so-called ‘Paris Rule Book’, covering issues such as the transparency and consistency of reporting, common time frames and, crucially, carbon trading, COP26 delivered some major successes. For all the justified chagrin that mitigation commitments by individual nations still don’t equate to sufficient global action, having a robust ‘Paris Rule Book’ that actually allows assessment of success (and failure) down to national and sub-national scales is crucial. Agreement on transparency, such as how and when emissions, finance and adaptation actions in each country are reported, was therefore a major win for the Glasgow COP – as ever, ‘You can’t manage what you don’t measure’.

Likewise, agreement on how emissions reductions can be traded at national and sub-national levels was a big step forward in terms of opening up financial flows for projects, and (mostly) dealing with gaping double-counting loopholes. These loopholes, such as selling credits to someone else while still claiming the same reductions yourself, could have badly undermined many of the commitments made before and during COP26.

Other notable steps forward included the pledge by more than 100 national leaders to stop deforestation and begin restoring the world’s forests by 2030, and the Global Methane Pledge which aims to limit methane emissions by 30% compared with 2020 levels.

That India has set a net zero by 2070 and the agreement to support South Africa to transition away from coal are both very welcome developments. The latter may be expanded to other developing countries shortly. There is also the new US-China cooperation on climate change which in the next few years may help deliver important short term actions.

The Glasgow Climate Pact

The Glasgow Climate Pact – the final cover text for COP26 – was itself a step forward in terms of areas such as:

  • ramped up finance for adaptation, a push for increased national commitments in 2022;
  • agreement that countries must come back every year with updates on their ambition;
  • overt acknowledgement (though no mechanism to address it) of the ‘loss & damage’ already occurring, and which will occur in the future; and
  • the widely reported ‘phase down’ of coal.

The emphasis on ‘just transition’ is to be found several times in the COP26 outcomes and was brought into a stark light by the commitment of the US and others to support the transition away from coal in South Africa. Internationally, safeguarding against negative impacts arising from the Paris Climate Goals – such as risks to livelihoods in high carbon industries – will become an ever-more pressing issue.

Addressing this globally, through so-called ‘Response Measures’ like international finance, is important, but even more important is the domestic response and the embedding of just transition principles into national targets and actions. Ultimately, it is a make-or-break issue for the sustainability of national and sub-national efforts on climate change, and is therefore fundamental to the Paris Climate Goals as a whole.

Nowhere near enough

However, the progress made was nowhere near enough, and ultimately COP26 fell well short of delivering the national commitments that would together limit warming globally to 1.5°C.

It is inexcusable that the $100 billion per year promised by rich nations to poorer countries in 2009 has not yet been delivered, and will not be until 2023.

Likewise, while it is good news that China has a target of net zero by 2060, it is disappointing that the country didn’t announce any new ambition at COP26.

Australia’s ambition on climate action, meanwhile, is simply woeful.

Delivering in Scotland

Closer to home we see the same picture of notable successes and significant shortcomings:

The launch of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (led by Denmark and Costa Rica) is a big step forward, but it is disappointing that neither Scotland nor the UK have signed up. We have to stop burning fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Global governments subsidising fossil fuel production and consumption to the tune of $420 billion per year makes absolutely no sense, and firmly moves us in the wrong directly. Scotland, and other oil producers, should be investing in ensuring a just transition away for oil and gas – providing new opportunities and retraining of workers in the industry to enable them to contribute to the net-zero transition.

However, it is worth celebrating that Scotland is ahead of the global curve when it comes to grappling with exactly this challenge of a just transition.

For Scotland, like all nations, the full implications of COP26 will play out in the coming months and years. Our domestic climate targets, actions and progress continue to receive a huge amount of attention from other countries, states, cities and institutions – sharing our successes, as well as our failures, in the transition to net zero represents a vital leadership role for Scotland internationally.

So, was COP26 in Glasgow a success? Yes, if you regard a major steps forward on a basket of key climate issues as success. However, if you were looking for the giant leap forward required to limit warming to 1.5°C, then it has to be a resounding no.

Watch Dave Reay’s evidence to the Scottish Parliament on COP26 outcomes