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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)


15 November 2021 - Eliot Whittington, Director of the Corporate Leaders Groups, argues COP26 was not the failure some have accused it of being - but now the onus is on businesses to prove their critics wrong

I don’t know if COP26 was a success, but I would argue that it wasn’t a failure.
Of course, there are deep failures at the heart of the COP process and its politics. The level of debate prompted by the most anodyne efforts to name the fossil fuels that are causing the problem and to commit to ending fossil fuel subsidies and phasing out coal is a disgrace. The eleventh hour watering down of language was a devastating blow to the need for urgency.
The slow progress on financing for vulnerable countries indicates a lack of global solidarity in the face of a slow-motion global climate catastrophe that is already exacting a terrible toll.  The lack of further progress on the $100bn commitments again leaves vulnerable countries unable to plan and deliver climate programmes at the scale required while the growing need for loss and damage support is unaddressed by anything more than a dialogue.
And indeed overall, the discussions on adaptation, resilience and damage illustrate how far we all have to go to reckon with the disruptive, damaging effect that climate impacts inevitably involve. 
All of this needs far greater focus and far greater action. 
But the Paris Agreement promised to deliver global action through a new ratchet mechanism, pushing countries into successive rounds of commitment making, leading to increased ambition. And that’s exactly what we’ve got.  
Even after 6 years that have involved an unprecedented global pandemic and the world’s biggest economy quitting the agreement, the Paris Agreement’s framework has brought countries back to the table with new commitments and actions. 
151 countries have tabled or re-tabled their ambitions for 2030. 135 countries representing 90% of the global economy and 85% of the world’s population have a net zero goal – and while there are clearly examples of goals that come without the intermediate plans and goals to give them credibility there’s a powerful sense that this has now been established as an essential global aim. All of which has ‘bent the curve’ of emissions and lowered the likely future temperatures we will face. 
And to bring these goals alive countries have developed a range of new collaborations and coalitions of the willing – whether to phase out coal, to move beyond oil & gas, to cut deforestation, to end methane emissions and the internal combustion engine, to deliver support in order to secure a more just transition and more and more and more. While frustratingly these goals are absent in the UN texts, Glasgow has seen an explosion of new initiatives taking aim at most of the things we know need to happen.
Paris also created new mechanisms for businesses, investors, subnational governments and civil society to contribute.
These mechanisms have invigorated global action. We have a growing race to zero and race to resilience, and a new financial alliance with commitments to shift the tens of trillions. 
The milestone of Glasgow has provided a forcing and rallying moment without which most of this would not have happened. 
So taking all of this I suggest COP26 wasn’t a failure. But was it a success? 
There’s a very strong case to say no. This is not the response to climate action that science has prescribed. 1.5degrees C has become the north star of the talks, but looks all but out of reach. 2030 targets look nothing like the 45% global cut we need, and while countries debate the level of international support climate impacts are biting now all around the world. And without the balance and solidarity needed to enable a global response to a global problem we all run the risk of slower action in isolation.
We all deserve more. 
The actual negotiations have grasped at a final thin straw of asking countries to come back next year with stronger targets. By that point we’ll be a fifth of the way to 2030 – without transformed ambition we will lock in a level of warming that will be hugely more damaging and costly.
But I think there maybe another route to judging this critical question of success – perhaps the most critical if we are to judge whether Glasgow is an inadequate step or a revolutionary moment. 
So far global action on climate change has lagged behind targets - Climate Action Tracker analysed global near-term climate targets as putting us on track for 2.4degC – but global policies and measures as only putting us on track for 2.7degC. 
If we can have hope we must work to flip this relationship and see action exceed ambition. Activists on the street decry many of the announcements I’ve referred to as empty words and ask business and government leaders to prove them wrong. They are right – that is exactly what needs to happen. 
The new targets put forward in Glasgow should prompt new action, and that new action needs to over deliver – which is where the new forces of the coalitions of the willing and the non-state actors must step up. We are no longer in the early days of climate action and the case has been made for change – now we need to get really good at delivering. 

Read more about CISL's takeaways from COP26

First published in Business Green 15 November 2021

Eliot Whittington, Director of Policy; Director of the Corporate Leaders Groups

Eliot leads CISL’s team that bridges between business and policy makers to bring about a more sustainable economy. He is Director of CISL’s Corporate Leaders Groups, leading the team behind both the European and UK Corporate Leaders Group (CLG Europe and CLG UK). He also leads CLG Europe’s Green Growth Partnership with leading EU climate and environment ministers, which creates a common space for governments, businesses and parliamentarians to collaborate in support of a greener EU economy.


Staff articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.


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