What Happened at COP26? The Summit in Review

Blog Contributors: Alexandra Cotrufo and Madison Lepp

A general view of the Action Hub is pictured during the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow on November 11, 2021.(Photo by Paul ELLIS / AFP) (Photo by PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

The Earth is warming at an unprecedented rate due to anthropogenic activity, causing more extreme weather events than ever before in human history. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report, human emissions and activities have caused almost 100% of the warming observed since 1950. Climate change affects us all, but developing countries are being affected at a disproportionate rate and many of the most vulnerable communities are also the least responsible for the impacts of climate change.  

Many scientists and citizens from around the world argued that COP26 was our last chance to get the climate crisis under control. COP (Conference of the Parties) is a series of United Nations climate change conferences, which have been running since 1995. The 26th COP summit took place in Glasgow, Scotland and was attended by countries that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This year’s summit aimed to reach a national agreement on how to tackle the current environmental, social, and economic issues brought on by climate change.  

The summit took place from October 31st – November 12th, 2021 and involved discussions and presentations from world leaders. COP26 goals included improved mitigation, adaptation, finances, and collaboration. In addition, the COP26 Green Zone was open to the public which hosted in-person and virtual events including art installations, film screenings, interactive discussions, and more. 

Let’s look at some of the main changes and commitments that came out of the two-week-long conference. 

Week One Round Up

The first week of the COP26 summit brought signs of hope, but now the big promises made must be followed up with action. Indigenous activist Txai Suruí gave a powerful speech as part of the opening ceremony. Speaking on her experiences with climate change and calling for Indigenous communities to be at the center of decisions being made at the conference. Not only are Indigenous communities disproportionately affected by climate change, but their deep-rooted traditions hold the keys to invaluable knowledge that can safeguard our earth. 

A World Leader’s Summit was held on Monday, November 1st and Tuesday, November 2nd. The following days focused on themes including Finance, Energy, Youth & Public empowerment, and Nature, with new initiatives being announced for each of these themes.  

During the two-day World Leaders Summit, leaders gathered to kick start a decade of accelerated climate action. Notably, over 40 major coal-using countries, including Poland, South Korea, Ukraine, Indonesia, Vietnam, and – yes – Canada, joined the Breakthrough Agenda, agreeing to phase out their use of coal for electricity generation. Another big promise was made with over 100 leaders including Brazil, China, and Indonesia – representing over 85% of the world’s forests  endorsing the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests & Land Use to reverse deforestation and land degradation by 2030. This deal has been criticized for mirroring the 2014 New York “declaration on forests to end deforestation by 2030” which has failed thus far to even halve tree clearance.  

Genuine hope came from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who announced India’s pledge to target net-zero emissions by 2070. India is the world’s fourth biggest emitter of carbon dioxide after China, the US, and the EU, but its large population means its emissions per capita are much lower. The pledge was backed with nearer-term targets to generate 50% of its energy from renewable sources and reduce the economy’s carbon intensity by 45%. Although the target misses a key goal of the COP26 summit – for countries to commit to reach that target by 2051 – the target sent signals of strong hope and is in line with what many climate experts have modelled as the most feasible scenario for India to achieve net zero. 

Another climate promise breakthrough was made on Finance DayRishi Sunak, one of UK’s MP’s, announced new rules to make it mandatory for big UK firms to show plans on how they will achieve their climate targets. Announcements on energy day held more hope as 25+ countries and finance institutions – including the US, Canada, and the European Investment Bank – signed a commitment to end fossil fuel investments and redirect them to clean technologies.  

Week Two Round Up

The second week at COP26 focused on themes including Adaptation, Loss and Damage, Gender, Science and Innovation, and Transportation. There were more financial promises made for developing countries as government leaders pushed for compensation for damage caused by climate change. According to the World Economic Forum, the African Group of Negotiators on Climate Change called for $1.3 trillion of financial assistance per year from wealthy nations starting in 2025. In addition, the European Investment Bank and Allianz Global Investors made a promise on November 7th to raise 500 million euro for climate mitigation and adaptation in developing countries.  

An impactful presentation from the second week involved the Tuvalu foreign Minister Simon Kofe standing knee-deep in sea water while giving a speech about how his island nation is at the forefront of climate change as sea levels continue to rise. Images of Minister Kofe were circulated widely on social media as they presented a visual representation of the harsh realities many small communities are faced with. This powerful moment demonstrated how immediate action is needed to protect our most vulnerable populations. 

On November 10th, China and the United States – the world’s two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases – reached a joint commitment to make more of an effort to reduce emissions. This “Glasgow Declaration” was praised by many leaders at the conference, however, others felt it was simply not enough due to the lack of measurable targets set by both countries. That same day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a promise to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from some international shipping routes. In addition, Canada’s Transport Minister signed a pledge to make heavy trucks and buses emission-free over the next two decades. 

In the final days of the summit, one theme was clear: fear of failure. Will delegates and leaders be able to keep the promises and the pledges they made over the last two weeks necessary to cut CO2 emissions? These questions remain unanswered, as a final agreement has not been reached by all countries on what next steps will be taken to avert further global warming.  

Many activists have also been questioning the events, or lack thereof, that took place over the last two weeks. According to the Guardian, campaigners and civil society groups staged a walkout on the 12th day of the conference condemning legitimacy and lack of ambition. They created a People’s Declaration which outlines 10 demands of global northern countries to pay their climate debts for loss and damage. 

Things to Keep in Mind

Despite the conference’s efforts, space at the event was very limited. This required most delegates and journalists to watch COP26 from livestreams. Young activists from vulnerable countries have also noted that they were ignored by leaders and media coverage made a poor effort to voice their stories. Organized protests broke out through the weeks of the conference in the streets of Glasgow, calling on leaders to listen.  

It’s also worth mentioning that there were more delegates at COP26 associated with the fossil fuel industry than from any single country. An analysis found that 503 delegates (of the 40,000) with links to fossil fuel interests had been accredited for the climate summit. If nations across the globe are serious about making change, fossil fuel lobbyists should not be welcome at COP summits. While COP26 was an important moment in our path toward tackling the climate crisis, the summit itself was likely to have emitted the equivalent of 102,500 tonnes of carbon dioxide, which is double the amount emitted from the last climate summit. For reference, Canada has an annual average per capita footprint of 15.6 tons of carbon dioxide. This is a startling statistic that showcases how efforts to solve sustainability issues may actually be contributing to them. We hope more consideration is taken during the next summit to substantially reduce this number. 

Concluding Thoughts

COP26 has brought forward many ambitious agreements that will pave the way for much-needed climate action. Nonetheless, these agreements are only promises and past events have shown us that agreements are not always met. While the long-term promises made at COP26 are consistent with limiting warming below 2°C by 2100, the lack of near-term commitments is concerning. Unfortunately, long-term net-zero promises by countries are less likely to be met without tangible near-term commitments. And even if net-zero promises are met, we are still falling short of the Paris Agreement goal to limit temperature increase to 1.5°C. So far, the outcome of COP26 has proven to be disappointing with lots of talk and limited action. World leaders need to follow through with these agendas during this pivotal time in history. It’s time to put words into action.