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COP26 Was a Firm Step Forward, AND We Actually Need a Sprint

Compromise was inevitable, but still the conference increased the speed of action with three important developments.


If a bus were hurtling towards a child in the middle of the road, no one nearby would merely take one step to get that child out of the way. They would rush, at speeds previously unbeknownst to them, using every muscle in their body to get that child to safety.

On climate change, a bus is careening towards us and we still have not flexed all our muscle power to get ourselves or future generations to safety. 


Emissions continue to rise. The loss and damage are devastating. Trust has been breached. The resulting frustration, anger, and incredulity at the pace of progress are warranted. As activists of all stripes remind us constantly一we need systems change, not climate change. And they are absolutely right. 

At the same time we should understand our double predicament.  First, we are actually in the midst of a systems change and it is precisely the systemic nature of the change that slows the pace for now一until we hit positive tipping points. If we only had to transform one sector, or move one country off fossil fuels, we would have done so long ago. But that is not what it takes. All sectors of the global economy have to be decarbonized, even the hard to abate ones, and all countries must switch to clean technologies, especially those that have depended on exporting or importing fossil fuels for decades. It is a deliberate metamorphosis that is more complex and far reaching than any transformation we have ever attempted.  

Second, just as the transition gathers pace moving from gradual to exponential, the window within which we need to achieve it constantly shrinks. The speed of change foreseen in Paris in 2015 has been superseded by improved scientific understanding and the shocking escalation of impacts felt by the most vulnerable. We now know that we must halve global emissions no later than 2030. It is as though the bus suddenly accelerated as we were approaching the child. 

And yet, none of the above can keep us from doing what needs to be done一the consequences are simply too dire. 

COP26 had to reset the pace of transformation to be commensurate with the increasing urgency we face. And it was challenging. Diametrically opposed interests were exposed. Pressure inside the negotiating rooms was intense. Common ground was elusive. Compromise was inevitable. And still, the COP increased the speed of action with at least three resets: 

  1. 1.5 is the new 2. The final decision reflects the intention to keep 1.5ºC not just alive, but front and center of our efforts. The first set of reduction commitments registered in Paris brought the almost 6ºC trajectory by end of the century to a 3.7ºC path, better but catastrophic for humanity. The second set of reductions committed to in Glasgow has taken us down to a 2.4ºC course, better again but still dangerous. We are still far from where we need to be, but we now know that the task is to not surpass the ceiling of 1.5ºC. No one in their right mind is talking about ‘well below 2ºC’ anymore. The science is undisputed, and this understanding will continue to force us to accelerate all efforts over time.

  2. The yearly ratchet. Thanks to a strong push by the most vulnerable countries, the third
    set of national efforts to reduce emissions and contribute to climate solutions is now scheduled for the end of 2022, instead of waiting another 5 years. This is a much needed tightening of the multilateral system: ratcheting commitments annually to ensure we are halving emissions by 2030 is what will keep 1.5ºC in sight. It comes with complications一including with emissions accounting一but this accelerated pace already makes the previous 5-yearly schedule look outrageously out of whack. 

  3. Nature is finally recognised for its solution potential. All the emissions reductions in the world will mean nothing to future generations if we do not also protect and restore nature. Nature is our greatest protector from the worst impacts of the climate crisis and this was recognised with $20 billion in commitments of public and private money for forest protection一a first for a climate COP. In addition, more than 100 countries pledged to reverse deforestation by 2030 at the latest. The decision text rightly emphasises the importance of protecting, conserving, and restoring nature in order to achieve the Paris Agreement temperature goal. So while the energy revolution一from coal to clean一is already well underway, COP26 marks a new push to achieve the necessary land use revolution this decade: from degeneration to regeneration if we are to keep1.5ºC in sight.
There are remaining areas of deep disappointment. The “phase-out of coal” was weakened to a “phase-down of unabated coal.” The intended finance facility for developing countries was reduced to a dialogue. But the most acutely felt, glaring void is the lack of support for the most vulnerable nations to cope with quickly accelerating loss of homes and livelihoods and damage to lands and infrastructure. Much work needs to be done to address this before nations reconvene in Egypt for COP27一as the climate crisis is hurtling towards us at terrifying speed.  


The success of COP26 lies in the eyes of the beholder. Many will say that we continue to irresponsibly spin the political wheels, and from some vantage points that is true, but no one can deny that COP26 has hastened the speed of the wheels of change. However, the question still remains, will we ultimately throw ourselves under the bus or will the added speed of action sprint us and our descendants to safety? The answer to that is up to all of us.

This article was originally published by The Guardian

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