Life after COP26

The 26th UN Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP26) in Glasgow was a qualified success. It was a success in part because it was not a failure—the conference ended with an agreement and with several high-profile initiatives that, in their own right, are elements of progress. More broadly, COP26 marked a new era for climate negotiations, away from the multilateral consensus, and toward the coalition of the willing. In that sense, it redefined what success looks like in the context of a multilateral meeting. That might be the most enduring legacy of COP26.

COP26 firmly established net zero by midcentury, or soon thereafter, as the new international objective. The Paris Agreement set a target of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” The 1.5°C target had been broadly perceived as an impossible stretch, but it had real pull at COP26. This shift was enabled by the 2019 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change showing that the damages resulting from warming over 1.5oC were significant (current warming is already around 1oC).

The pull of 1.5oC is evident in the number of countries that made pledges to reach net-zero emissions by midcentury or thereafter. The United Arab Emirates set a target to be net zero by 2050, Saudi Arabia and Russia by 2060, and India by 2070. (China made a similar pledge for carbon neutrality by 2060 in 2020.) Just a few years ago, no one would have expected to be making such announcements. Of course, these are just pledges. They have to be realized to mean anything for climate change. But the fact that these economies are willing to contemplate net zero is a major win for the climate.

It is also a major win for the theory of change of the Paris Agreement: peer pressure. These net-zero announcements have come largely as the result of countries wanting to be on the frontier. (In some cases, of course, sticks have helped too—Europe’s proposed carbon adjustment mechanism appears to have influenced Russian policy.) This change is not coming as a result of direct negotiations between all the parties but due to signaling, nudges, and informal pressure. These levers seem capable of shifting ambition for countries from which few people expected ambition.

Alongside these net-zero pledges came a large set of commitments—bilateral, plurilateral, and multilateral—on key fronts. The United States and the European Union pledged to negotiate the world’s first trade agreement on steel and aluminum that would incorporate carbon intensity. The U.S. Department of State and the World Economic Forum announced the First Movers Coalition, where companies in “hard-to-abate” sectors commit to purchase lower carbon alternatives and thus help grow these markets. (An initiative exists alongside the Clean Energy Demand Initiative.) The Global Methane Pledge set an ambitious target to curb methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. A coal phaseout pledge managed to get some surprising signatories.

There were also several initiatives around finance. The Rockefeller Foundation, IKEA Foundation, and Bezos Earth Fund announced the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet, which “aims to unlock USD100 billion in public and private financing” in order to grow renewable energy, reduce emissions, and create jobs. An agreement between South Africa and several countries pledged more resources to help that country phase out coal and implement a just transition, one of several coal initiatives announced at COP26 (by the Asian Development Bank, by the Climate Investment Funds, and by Michael Bloomberg).

This record speaks to another unexpected success: U.S. diplomacy. Going into COP26, even going into the Leaders Summit on Climate in April, there was a lot of skepticism about the role of U.S. leadership. Without credible policy at home, the argument goes, who will take the United States seriously in a multilateral forum? Yet U.S. leadership still makes a difference. Glasgow was a triumph for the climate envoy’s office and role, and for his ability to coordinate U.S. policy at this stage. The ability to nudge and push and convene and press—only the United States can do that on the international scale. And with Xi Jinping not making the trip to Glasgow, the road was wide open for U.S. leadership.

The United States pushed on many fronts—with private industry, with financiers, and with coalitions of the willing—showing how this new stage in climate diplomacy will be more issue-specific and more incremental across multiple fronts. It was even able to make a modest improvement on U.S.-China engagement on climate by focusing on specific measures like methane, carbon capture utilization and storage (CCUS) and direct air capture, and electrification. The fact that so much international progress can be made while the two biggest emitters are at loggerheads with each other is a big shift, as even the big economies do not have total veto power. That too is the legacy of COP26, a continuation from Paris.

The world comes out of COP26 having shifted the projected emissions trajectory. The International Energy Agency (IEA) calculates that meeting the pledges made at Glasgow would limit temperature increases to 1.8oC. This marks a significant shift from the IEA’s Announced Pledges Scenario, which put warming at 2.1oC. Of course, these are just pledges, and the emissions trajectory should not be confused with actual reductions in emissions. Much of the progress since the Paris Agreement has been on bending the future curve rather than reducing emissions today, at least on a global scale. Reducing emissions is hard and requires state-level action—what countries do in their borders is more important than what they pledge in Glasgow. Even so, what happened in Glasgow was meaningful. And it showed what to expect next year in Egypt and the year after that in the United Arab Emirates. It’s a new era of climate diplomacy.

Joseph Majkut is director of the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Nikos Tsafos is the James R. Schlesinger Chair for Energy and Geopolitics with the CSIS Energy Security and Climate Change Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Joseph Majkut
Director, Energy Security and Climate Change Program

Nikos Tsafos