COP26 Highlights & Missed Opportunities

COP26 was meant to be this year’s big climate event. But were there really any COP26 highlights? Over the last 14 days, world leaders convened in Glasgow, Scotland, to debate climate policy and set new goals and targets to prevent the global temperature rising by more than 1.5 °C, as set out in the Paris Agreement.

In addition to world leaders, COP26 played host to activists, indigenous peoples, and organisations with a stake in environmental concerns. However, it did so little of this that Greta Thunberg called it the “Global North greenwash festival”, and even world leaders with disabilities were turned away. It also played host to fossil fuel companies, which made up the largest delegation of any industry or country.

So with that being said, what good came out of COP?

What Is COP26?

COP26 stands for Conference of the Parties #26. It’s an annual event held by the United Nations and continues their annual Climate Change Conferences that started in 1995 (although this one had been delayed from 2020 due to the pandemic).

The main aim of COP is to further each nation’s commitments to reduce the global temperature from rising and create a more sustainable future for their peoples. It does this by compiling each country’s Nationally Determined Contribution (or NDC). Most NDCs prioritise:

  • Reducing emissions as soon as possible,
  • Ensuring financing for activities and industries that enable low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development, and
  • Planning to adapt and build resilience to the adverse impacts of climate change.

What Were The Aims of COP26?

For COP26 to be deemed successful, it needed to meet the following aims:

  1. Update its 191 parties’ Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs)
  2. See a reduction in greenhouse gas production by 25% for 2030, as was highlighted in the IPCC report

Unfortunately, these two aims saw a meagre response. In the new NDC Synthesis report, data from all parties was shared, but much of it had been held off by a year, with many new NDCs not being submitted at all.

In terms of greenhouse gas production, the new NDCs are predicted to create a 16% reduction by 2030, rather than the required 25%. This means that there will be a 2.4°C temperature rise by 2030, pushing us past the desired 1.5°C and upper limit of 2°C and into a true climate crisis.

It’s also worth noting that many of the developing nations’ NDCs are reliant on climate financing from more developed nations. When it came down to setting up better climate financing, many developed nations pushed back. Only one demand made by developing nations was met – to double funds for climate adaptation.

Upon the publication of the updated NDCs, President of COP26, Alok Sharma, shared a hypocritical ‘Call to Action’ “asking all countries, particularly major emitters, to submit ambitious 2030 emission reduction targets.” This is the same Alok Sharma that couldn’t commit to stopping the development of Cambo Oil Field west of the UK’s Shetland Islands when confronted by Andrew Marr on live TV. (Psst… Support Stop Cambo).

Were There Any COP26 Highlights?

On paper, it seems that COP26 was a failure. But was it ever going to really be anything but? Here’s eight positive takeaways from the event…

1. Bridging The NDCs Gap

According to Professor Michael Jacobs, an expert on economic and climate policy, this year’s climate summit was “never going to see new and stronger commitments during the conference“. Each country’s targets had already been decided within their domestic political systems beforehand, so there would be no real negotiation or strengthening going on during talks. Instead, COP26 was an opportunity to analyse all parties’ NDCs together and highlight the areas that needed work, which did happen.

On this basis, COP26 ended with the commitment that each country would aim to ‘strengthen NDCs’ by 2022. This 12-month span is short, and if I’m honest, I won’t be holding my breath. But at least the gap was identified, and UN parties committed to increasing commitments in just one year’s time.

Despite this, it seems that the hope for keeping global temperature rise to 1.5°C is on its last legs. We’ll find out for sure in 2022…

2. Fossil Fuels = Bad

Did you know, COP26 was the first time that phasing out fossil fuels was mentioned in writing? Despite having the largest delegation at the event, it appears that the fossil fuel industry is finally being recognised as bad for the climate (which we all knew, but hadn’t seen in writing).

This year, parties agreed to the aim of coal to be phased out (or rather, phased down, as India and China pushed back last minute on the commitment to end coal completely). Unfortunately, it’s feared that this commitment won’t be acted upon, but hey, it’s in writing I guess.

3. Increased Climate Awareness & Resources

One thing that does seem to have improved this year is the overall interest in climate policy. Previous years’ COPs did not get this same level of attention in mainstream media, although British media does like to focus on British events…

Either way, I think the increased awareness does count as one of my COP26 highlights, and has also given way to more accessible data. For example, Climate Action Tracker’s Country breakdown can help anyone better understand how each country’s NDCs are helping or hindering progress. There’s also a new set of academic climate heating papers made available by publishers. And from my perspective as Director of Ethical Influencers, more campaigns are focusing on collective action rather than individuals “doing their bit”.

4. The End Of Deforestation

One big policy that did come out of COP26 was the historic declaration to end deforestation by nations that cover around 85% of the world’s forests. This includes countries such as Brazil, China, and the U.S. Some nations went further, pledging to remove products borne from deforestation such as palm oil, soya and cocoa. They were joined by 30 of the world’s biggest financial companies promising to end investment in activities linked to deforestation. Now, the question is, how will this be properly implemented and monitored?

5. (Start Of) The End Of Climate Misinformation In Media

In addition to more awareness, there has been a shift in rhetoric around climate denialism. With the UN’s IPCC report published earlier this year plainly stating that “it is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, oceans and land”, the crack down on climate misinformation has been strengthened. To build on this, one of my COP26 highlights from Week 2 was when over 250 businesses, including media companies like Sky and Virgin Media, shared an open letter calling for the UN and social media companies to clamp down on climate misinformation.

We’re yet to hear whether Facebook and the likes will do anything to reduce climate misinformation on their platforms, but it’s a start.

6. Fossil Fuel Hypocrisies Get Called Out

On the flip-side of climate misinformation has been the fossil fuel industry’s continued rhetoric around drilling in the UK and other activities that continue their chokehold over dirty energy production and exploitation of people and planet. It’s been a delight to see these arguments actively refuted by activists and journalists alike. Three COP26 highlights for your viewing pleasure:

7. Fashion Gets Accountable (Or Does It?)

One of my COP26 highlights specifically related to fashion was how business leaders in the fashion industry pushed away greenwashed promises to instead champion more science-based targets. While cross-industry open letters signify the direction that many fashion industry leaders are taking, it was the Progress Report from the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Change that made me feel more hopeful. This is the first sector-specific coalition to join the Race To Zero campaign and unites huge fashion brands in an effort to reduce carbon emissions and source ‘environmentally preferred materials’ through market incentivisation.

(That said, new data from Good On You shows that 69% of large brands with greenhouse gas emissions targets do not state whether they are on track to meet them, and even worse, only 6% of large brands have a science-based greenhouse gas emissions target. Just like we saw activists shout down fossil fuel businesses, I have a feeling we may need fashion activists to do the same here…)

This may still be a capitalist, growth-oriented measure, but it’s better than nothing. If paired with better industry regulation, as called for by Stella McCartney among others, and the new Green Claims Code to make greenwashing a thing of the past, this could be the start of sustainable fashion becoming the norm.

8. Marketing For Climate

While on the topic of marketing, it was also good to see a light shone on the marketing and advertising industry during COP26. While scrolling through the copious COP26 highlights on YouTube, I did find an insightful talk by Futerra and Purpose Disruptors, two agencies that recognised their role in increasing consumption and carbon emissions through successful marketing campaigns. It sounds like a humble brag, but if applied to the entire industry, could support the suppression of dirty industries and move towards more sustainable alternatives.

This accountability falls in line with a move away from carbon footprints to instead look at carbon shadows, and is also spurring on the current #EdelmanDropExxon campaign, led by Clean Creatives.

But, COP26 Was Always Going To Be A Disappointment

If I’m honest, I feel like COP26 was always going to be a disappointment. It provided a two-week window for shouting about climate policy, when in actuality it should be a 52-week priority. And from the failed aims, it once again highlighted how desperate world leaders are to continue the status quo and push global temperatures to the most profitable limit, while still saying the right thing.

From my side, the two-week event was incredibly difficult to keep track of virtually, and seemed to be a similar story for those who attended in person too. There were a lot of talks, a lot of events, and not much in the way of action. I felt burned out simply scrolling through my YouTube subscriptions list and seeing how much I had missed every day. It took me more than two full days to put this summary together, and I still don’t know if I caught all the main points…

Overall, I think it’s important to note that COP26 continues to be a political, government-level event. It always has – and always will be – centred around the UN’s parties and their commitments, as seen through a political lens. It will never address decentralisation of power, de-growth, and re-instating indigenous practices to work with nature rather than exploit it, even though it should.

For my own version of COP26, I tuned in to activists’ content who were attending the event, and took away the focus that we need to join collectives to really see any action happen. So, if you have any energy left after COP26, channel it into local collective organisations.

During the two weeks, I also read Naomi Klein’s book On Fire*, a follow on from her previous titles No Logo* and This Changes Everything*, where she discusses the urgency of the climate crisis, and how it must be approached now from all angles. It was a breath of fresh air that cut through much of the hot air disseminating from Glasgow, so if you’re looking for deeper understanding of climate policy and action that goes past COP26, I recommend giving it a read.

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links (denoted '*'). Photography by Lauren Shipley.


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