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COP26: The Planet Is Saved! Actually, Not Quite


Tom Hale

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

Senior Journalist

COP26 Alok.

COP26 President Alok Sharma said he was "deeply sorry" for how the negotiations had ended as he held back tears. Image credit: UK Government/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The COP26 climate talks in Glasgow are over. Have the inhabitants of Earth finally agreed that making their planet less livable is not the best long-term survival strategy? Well, kind of, but not quite. While some praised the steps made at the conference, many condemned the end product as "disappointing," "empty words," and a parade of "greenwashing" by richer nations.

COP26 came to a close way past its official deadline of 6 pm on Friday, ending late on Saturday evening with 197 parties signing what will be known as the Glasgow Climate Pact. Getting dozens of global powers to agree on a single pact is no small feat and this difficulty is reflected in the final text, which appears vague and somewhat limp in parts.


This is the first climate agreement that explicitly states the need to reduce coal, the very worst fossil fuel for greenhouse gases. Host country, the UK, and COP26 President, Alok Sharma, said “consigning coal to history” was a central objective of the climate talks. It's also the first time an environmental agreement explicitly recognizes that climate change and biodiversity are tightly linked, highlighting the urgent need to protect and restore natural ecosystems.

However, the coal pledge was heavily watered down, switching the language from a "phase-out" of coal to a comparatively wimpy "phase down." Sharma was clearly disappointed by this last-minute alteration, which was agreed through a deal with the US, China, India, and the EU (the EU later condemned the change in language, despite supporting it). On Saturday, Sharma said he was "deeply sorry" for how the negotiations had ended as he held back tears. Similarly, weakened language was also introduced in segments on the end of fossil fuel subsidies, which could potentially act as a loophole to allow the continued financial support of fossil fuels. 


UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was somewhat downcast about the pact, saying it was an “important step,” but still “not enough.”

“The outcome of COP26 is a compromise. It reflects the interests, the contradictions, and the state of political will in the world today,” Guerres said on Saturday. 


“Our fragile planet is hanging by a thread. We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe. It is time to go into emergency mode. We must end fossil fuel subsidies. Phase out coal. Put a price on carbon. Protect vulnerable communities from the impacts of climate change. And make good on the 100 billion USD climate finance commitment to support developing countries,”

Glasgow was billed as the "last best chance" to keep the global temperature rise of no more than 1.5°C (2.7°F) target — beyond which the worst impacts of climate change will be unleashed. An official press release for the climate talks boasts that the pact saw “nearly 200 countries agreeing to “keep 1.5°C alive.” While the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C (2.7°F) is still just about in sight, many are not convinced the pact provides any meaningful promises to achieve it.

“It’s meek, it’s weak, and the 1.5°C goal is only just alive, but a signal has been sent that the era of coal is ending. And that matters,” Jennifer Morgan, Executive Director of Greenpeace International, said in a statement.


The COP26 climate talks have also been criticized for protecting powerful countries and ignoring the concerns of poorer countries, many of which will be hit with the most acute impacts of the climate crisis. Developed countries failed to deliver the $100 billion promised annually by 2020 to help developing countries mitigate their emissions and adapt to climate change. There was also little real action on "loss and damage," which would provide funding for more vulnerable nations experiencing the impacts of climate change. 


“Even if leaders stuck to the promises they have made here in Glasgow, it would not prevent the destruction of communities like mine. Right now, at 1.2° of global warming, drought and flooding are killing people in Uganda,” commented Vanessa Nakate, an activist in Uganda from Fridays for Future, in an email. 

“For the first time, we have a COP decision calling for efforts towards the phase out of coal and fossil fuel subsidies,” added Mohamed Adow, the head of Power Shift Africa. “The narrowing of the language to just cover ‘unabated’ coal power and ‘inefficient' subsidies leaves room for untested technologies such as CCS which only the rich world has access to. We need a global phase out that is fast, fair, and final for all fossil fuels.”

With this regard, one important point that COP26 did manage to get all parties to agree to is reducing the time between each nation's 2030 emissions target review, known as the "ratchet mechanism". Previously, countries would only need to report and raise ambitions of their emission targets every five years, but now they will have to do so each year, which will hopefully up the pressure to cut emissions faster.  


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