COP26 Final Observations: The Long and Winding Road

The 26th United Nations Conference of the Parties of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, better known as COP26, has made dozens of headlines in the last three weeks. Many observers have pointed to insufficient progress to keep global climate change to under 1.5 degrees Celcius, while others take heart in a number of high-profile commitments and announcements that point towards greater progress. The many insightful summaries of COP26 now available on the web include those of the World Resources Institute and Harvard Professor Rob Stavins.

No one is anywhere near claiming that global climate change will be kept to non-damaging levels. Many ecosystem indicators are already flashing red, and the prospects for a smooth transition to a planet of peace and sustainability are objectively bleak. The least-developed countries and island states continue to experience the worst effects of climate change and need many more adaptation and mitigation resources.

Yet at the same time, COP26 did yield some real progress and genuine grounds for hope. Focusing on the positive, three of the main new pledges to come out of COP26 are nicely summarized here by climate leader Aimée Christensen:

For a longer list of all 12 such pledges, see the International Emissions Trading Association’s (IETA) report.

Of course, these pledges are far from guaranteed outcomes, and may well fall short. However, they are backed up in some cases by significant funding, and that helps ensure both the ability to act and civil society oversight. For example, $18 billion was pledged to implement the Forestry agreement, including $3 billion from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

In addition to these pledges, the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) announced that owners and managers controlling $130 trillion in assets had agreed to steer their investments towards net-zero emissions by 2050 or sooner. There is real evidence of a tectonic shift in the global financial sector as it recognizes that climate change is a threat to economic prosperity (and therefore the value of their investments) while mitigation is also a gigantic opportunity for new investment and commerce.

Beyond these headline-grabbing positives, there were other less visible developments that were also significant. First, the delegates unanimously agreed to change the framework adopted in Paris so that every country must report its mitigation commitments on the same annual and five-year cycles. Several experts I spoke with said that this was more significant than most people realized because the prior process did not impose any schedule on nations updating their commitments. Benito Mueller of Oxford Climate Policy, who fought tirelessly to adopt these changes, describes their significance in a recent post.

Second, climate policy is broadening out in important ways. Whereas policy has historically focused mainly on emissions from energy sources, the discussion has now widened to place nearly equal emphasis on the links between climate change and biodiversity, land use, agriculture, water systems, and other dimensions of the natural and physical world. The forestry and methane pledges were examples of this, but the evidence was everywhere if you looked carefully. On stage at a side event, one longtime forestry activist who’d been to many COPs said that “this was the first COP to put nature at the center.”

This is significant because a safe climate will clearly require changes far beyond the decarbonization of energy supplies, and it is time to give the non-energy dimensions of climate policy their due. It is also significant, though, because eliminating greenhouse gas emissions is not the sole guarantor of a sustainable future. Because the climate crisis has become a visible threat to millions of people across the globe, it is becoming sustainability’s main forcing function. We can only hope that climate policy is not only a lever to decarbonize the global economy, but also to leave the global ecosystem functioning at sustainable levels on all key dimensions.

Third, it is evident that global environmental justice is also moving to center stage. As the developed countries make greater progress towards net zero, the least developed countries need more low-carbon development options and assistance. The need to create stronger financing mechanisms, and fund the ones already established, seems an essential next step towards a global solution. New ideas for climate financing, such as one proposed by BU Professor Laurence Kotlikoff, need more work and more attention. COP26 advanced the discussion, but not by much.

Fourth, the delegates to COP also adopted new rules that advance carbon markets and trading. These rules will promote carbon emissions trading with greater transparency and integrity. In the words of the IETA, the new rules “provide clear accounting guidance for emissions trades between countries and launch a new crediting mechanism that will give market access to all countries interested in attracting green investment through the global carbon market. Other forms of non-market approaches are also encouraged, with the creation of a new Glasgow Committee on Non-Market Approaches to begin work in 2022.”

Finally, in the still-vital energy sector, COP26 displayed another important broadening of focus. While it is still essential to transition away from high-emitting sources as quickly as possible, there is a growing recognition that this transition involves more than renewables-and-storage clean power systems. There was much more discussion of hydrogen as a clean energy source than I expected, coupled with still-insufficient dialog on industrial decarbonization. The Rocky Mountain Institute and the World Economic Forum both had high-profile events in this topic area. Meanwhile, in line with the methane pledge, the main environmental groups in the U.S. actually labeled their joint headquarters the Methane Pavilion and the EU called COP26 the “methane moment.”

On our sports-obsessed planet, there is a distinct tendency to want to describe COP26 as a success or failure, glass half empty or full, expectations-beater, or any one of a dozen ways to express the outcome as a game score. I’m thinking of it more as a step along a path—the long and winding road, to quote Sir Paul—that leads us to sustainability’s door. We don’t have many years to spare, but the path to sustainability will be taken in many more steps than one single conference, as large and important as COP26 clearly was. Our task is to raise the pace and press forward, hoping each stride will get larger as well as faster, and that we’ll make it in time to maintain peace, human advancement, and a healthy planet for everyone.

Read Peter Fox-Penner’s earlier post from COP26 >>

Dr. Fox-Penner is the Founding Director of the Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy and Professor of Practice at the Questrom School of Business, where he co-directs the Impact Measurement and Allocation Program (IMAP) of research in sustainable finance. In addition, he is a Partner and Chief Strategy Officer of Energy Impact Partners, one of the largest dedicated clean energy private equity fund groups in the world, and an academic advisor to The Brattle Group.

The opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Boston University Institute for Sustainable Energy.

Dr. Fox-Penner holds equity in Energy Impact Partners, a utility-backed energy investment and innovation firm, and consults for Energy Impact Partners and The Brattle Group on energy technologies. Dr. Fox-Penner also conducts research in areas of interest similar to the business interests of Energy Impact Partners and The Brattle Group. The terms of this arrangement have been reviewed by Boston University in accordance with its financial conflicts of interest in research policies.