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The COP26 Climate Summit Succeeded One Key Way: Spurring Action

Dec. 6, 2021, 9:00 AM

Analysts have spilled considerable ink debating whether the Glasgow Climate Summit (COP26) was successful. There is no simple answer.

By the most important measure, the summit fell short: delegates failed to adopt a formal goal of keeping the global average temperature increase below 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.

Scientists warn that warming above that level poses existential threats—more extreme heat waves, fires, droughts, and coastal inundation; irreversible loss of stored carbon from vast areas of thawing permafrost (and consequent acceleration of warming); warming and acidification of the world’s oceans (and resulting collapse of fish stocks); and significant increases in poverty and associated geopolitical instability.

Glasgow delegates, however, merely reaffirmed the 2015 Paris Agreement’s goal of holding warming below 2 °C and “pursuing efforts” to further limit it. The delegates could not agree to a firmer commitment, let alone to enforceable implementation measures.

Yet the summit nevertheless offers reasons for hope. To see why, one must view the outcomes through the eyes of an internationalist—someone comfortable with the often-equivocal language of international diplomacy.

International agreements like the one emerging from COP26 can feel frustratingly indefinite, but such agreements (and the meetings that produce them) nevertheless operate to define rules for further engagement, to encourage policy changes within nations, to catalyze private actions as well as side agreements among subgroups of nations, and—perhaps most importantly—to incentivize activism.

COP26 succeeded in all of those ways.

Rules for Further Engagement

Commentators identify delegates’ adoption of rules for international carbon markets as a signature achievement of the summit. The term “carbon markets” encompasses myriad bi- and multilateral arrangements under which one party reduces its net carbon emissions and others pay for and “bank” those credits against emissions goals.

This simple idea raises numerous difficult questions, including how to account for the transactions in a way that avoids double counting and advances other environmental objectives. COP26 delegates hammered out such a framework.

National Policy Change

COP26 also drove changes in climate policy within individual nations. For example, India committed to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2070, and—even more encouraging because so immediate—to generate 50% of its energy requirement from renewables by 2030.

China likewise committed to reach net-zero emissions, setting a target of 2060, and the U.S. and European Union pledged to reach the same goal a decade earlier, in 2050.

These commitments are not themselves enforceable internationally (though they may be enforceable under the domestic law of some countries, such as The Netherlands). Under the Paris Agreement, however, making such a commitment triggers enforceable emissions-reporting requirements, so there is a mechanism for keeping countries on track toward their self-adopted goals.

Further, falling short of a publicly announced emissions target exposes a country to criticism both internally and on the world stage—not a position that world leaders relish.

While it is therefore true that COP26 will not itself require countries to achieve net-zero emissions by a date certain, associated national commitments bring the world considerably closer to that goal.

Private Actions

Further, the summit served as a trigger for private actions to address emissions. Of most significance, an alliance of 450 banks, insurers, and asset managers in 45 countries pledged to use the $130 trillion in assets under their control to push the companies in which they invest to reduce emissions, toward a goal of net zero by 2050. The largely voluntary agreement stops short of promising divestment from fossil fuels, but does commit the companies to annual emissions reporting and to undergoing an every-five-year review of progress toward the net-zero target. Individual donors also used the occasion of the summit to announce significant investments in climate-related initiatives, such as Jeff Bezos’ $2 billion donation aimed at “restoring nature and transforming food systems.”

Again, COP26 in no way required private entities to take such steps, but the summit created a favorable political moment for private parties to act.

Side Agreements Among Nations

Bringing nations to a worldwide negotiating table also creates opportunities for side agreements, and the Glasgow summit is no exception to this rule. The side agreements emerging from COP26 are numerous, varied, and important to the global climate effort.

To take just three such agreements: 127 countries pledged to “halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation” by 2030; over 100 countries pledged to cut 30% of their methane emissions by 2030; and 23 countries promised to stop building and permitting new coal-fired power plants.

Climate Activism

Finally no discussion of COP26 is complete without mention of the activists of all ages who swarmed Glasgow with colorful and poignant signs demanding action. Perhaps the single most important function of a global meeting like the summit is the political momentum it generates for future global conversations, and the associated pressure on individual nations and private actors to meet the moment.

So was COP26 successful? Not fully. But it advanced international climate policy more than a domestic lawyer or policymaker might at first assume. Will that be enough, for present, to keep the world on track to avoid catastrophic warming? We must hope so.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Amanda C. Leiter is a professor and the senior associate dean for faculty and academic affairs at the American University Washington College of Law.