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COP26: A "fragile win" and a political legacy for the year ahead

Fifteen tortuous days of meetings, negotiations and wrangling are over, and disappointment hangs in the air after the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow fell short of delivering a substantial increase in the level of ambition over the decade ahead.

COP26 President, Alok Sharma, called it a “fragile win” and apologised in his closing remarks on Saturday for not having been able to secure a stronger outcome.

To be fair though, getting 197 countries to agree by consensus to ratcheting up action was never going to be easy, and particularly when there was so much at stake for so many. As observed by the UN Secretary-General, the Glasgow Climate Pact “reflects the interests, the contradictions and the state of political will in the world today”.

Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to dismiss Glasgow as a waste of everyone’s time. Indeed, it has already changed the operating environment for governments and businesses everywhere.

The intense worldwide attention on COP26 over the past two weeks has brought the risks of climate change and the urgency of action to the forefront of public consciousness, and we can be certain that it will only hasten the transition already underway.

As US Special Envoy on Climate John Kerry noted, never before have there been so many initiatives or money on the table at a Conference of the Parties, and it was all going in one direction – the phase out of fossil fuels and investment in clean solutions. These include:

  • around 450 financial services firms agreed to align a whopping $130 trillion of spending with the intent of the Paris Agreement
  • over 100 countries committed to reducing methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030
  • more than 40 countries announced their commitment to shift away from coal in the 2030s or 2040s
  • more than 100 national governments, cities, states and major companies signed a declaration to end the sale of internal combustion engines by 2035 in leading markets, and by 2040 worldwide.

Other important measures announced at COP included the creation of the International Sustainability Standards Board, which will require transparent, reliable and comparable reporting on carbon and environmental standards by companies. And after a six-year wait, the broad framework has now also been agreed for the global trade of carbon credits, which opens the door to an international emissions trading scheme.

All these developments show that the ground is moving beneath the feet of governments, like Australia’s, who are still desperately trying to protect the status quo. The domestic and international pressure experienced over the past few months will not relent. Under the new text of the Glasgow pact, the Australian Government – be it Coalition or Labor – will be expected to return to COP27 in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt with a new, more ambitious 2030 target ‘aligned with the Paris Agreement temperature goal’.

So while Glasgow may not have secured the goal of 1.5°C, its legacy will be well and truly felt in the politics of the year ahead.