Five vital lines in the COP26 climate agreement

COP26 president Alok Sharma oversaw the completion of a climate agreement that didn’t satisfy everyone but made progress on many key issues.
COP26 president Alok Sharma oversaw the completion of a climate agreement that didn’t satisfy everyone but made progress on many key issues.
Image: Reuters/Yves Herman
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

COP26, the biggest climate change summit of the last five years, concluded in Glasgow on Nov. 13. The agreement it produced—10 pages known as the Glasgow Pact that outline the next phase of the world’s fight against climate change—left many activists disappointed but nonetheless represent forward momentum on key issues.

This pact is a follow-up to the 2015 Paris Agreement and doesn’t change the basic Paris structure: The agreement itself isn’t legally binding but requires each signatory—which now includes every country on earth—to come up with its own domestic laws and policies to cut emissions. Everything in the pact is voluntary—the words “urges” and “requests” appear a lot—but since it required unanimous consent, countries are on the record as committing to its directions and should expect to come under scrutiny by other countries and civil society groups ahead of COP27 next year in Egypt if they don’t live up to them.

Every word was painstakingly negotiated and contingent on every other; delegates often compare climate diplomacy to three-dimensional chess. Here are some of the most important lines, in the order they appear.

Informal commitments get a turn in the spotlight

Expressing appreciation to the Heads of State and Government who participated in the World Leaders Summit in Glasgow and for the increased targets and actions announced and the commitments made to work together and with non-Party stakeholders to accelerate sectoral action by 2030.

Every COP features various climate-related commitments from public and private sector (“non-Party”) entities, some more serious and impactful than others. But COP26 was particularly notable for the deluge of these commitments, which technically fall outside the formal structure of the agreement. These include pledges by some countries to curb deforestation, reduce coal consumption, and eliminate foreign aid financing for fossil fuel projects, among others. On one hand, acknowledging these commitments in the pact is a reward for the entities that made them. On the other hand, some environmental groups warn, the reference to informal, non-binding commitments gives them an undue veneer of formality despite there being no way to enforce accountability for them.

Countries should come back next year with stronger commitments

Requests Parties to revisit and strengthen the 2030 targets in their nationally determined contributions as necessary to align with the Paris Agreement temperature goal by the end of 2022, taking into account different national circumstances.

The heart of the Paris Agreement is a concept called the “ratchet mechanism”—essentially, a requirement that countries periodically update their national climate plans with stronger targets. The original timeframe for these updates is every five years, but given the pace of the climate crisis many developing countries pushed for an annual ratchet. The inclusion of a reference to the year 2022 was a major win in Glasgow for this bloc, even though the Pact is vague about what should happen after that.

Fossil fuel phaseout

Calls upon Parties to accelerate the development, deployment and dissemination of technologies, and the adoption of policies, to transition towards low-emission energy systems, including by rapidly scaling up the deployment of clean power generation and energy efficiency measures, including accelerating efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, recognizing the need for support towards a just transition.

The pact is the first time in nearly three decades of global climate negotiations that the words “fossil fuels” or “coal” have been specifically mentioned in a document like this. Earlier drafts of the pact were even stronger, leaving out the words “unabated” and “inefficient.” And in one of the COP’s most dramatic moments, the India delegation changed “phase-out” to “phase-down” at the last possible minute. Still, the fact that powerful fossil fuel exporters like Saudi Arabia signed off on language targeting fossil fuels represents groundbreaking progress.

Shaming rich countries on climate finance

Notes with deep regret that the goal of developed country Parties to mobilize jointly USD 100 billion per year by 2020 in the context of meaningful mitigation actions and transparency on implementation has not yet been met, and welcomes the increased pledges made by many developed country Parties and the Climate Finance Delivery Plan: Meeting the US$100 Billion Goal and the collective actions contained therein.

Developing countries only agreed to the Paris Agreement because it made clear that rich countries had an obligation to help them pay for the transition to clean energy and for adapting to climate impacts. But those payments still fall far short of where they should be. Climate adaptation finance was among the most contentious issues at COP26, and although developing countries would have preferred to see much more cash on the table, they were at least able to work in a formal condemnation of the shortfall.

A loss for “loss and damage”

Urges developed country Parties, the operating entities of the Financial Mechanism, United Nations entities and intergovernmental organizations and other bilateral and multilateral institutions, including non-governmental organizations and private sources, to provide enhanced and additional support for activities addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change.

In addition to typical climate finance, developing countries have also repeatedly asked for payments for “loss and damage”—essentially, reparations from rich countries for those climate impacts that can’t be adapted to, which could amount to hundreds of billions of dollars per year. The Paris Agreement created a system to facilitate the delivery of loss and damage finance, but it remains almost entirely unfunded and unstaffed. The fact that the pact even mentions loss and damage is a win, but it provides little additional guidance on how to make it a reality, and no new cash.