Photo by Craig McKay on Unsplash
The Scottish national dish of haggis warrants the attribute of an acquired taste. The notion of a sheep’s stomach primarily filled with offal of the same ruminant sounds repulsive to many while connoisseurs praise its savoury flavour. Either way, delivering a haggis makes for an inscrutable mess. Much the same can be said of the outcome of “COP26”, the 26th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which convened in the Scottish city of Glasgow under the presidency of the United Kingdom. It also was the first such meeting after the COVID-19 imposed hiatus of 2020 – eagerly awaited to get global climate governance back on track and to boost the implementation of the Paris Agreement of 2015.
Success or failure?
As unsurprisingly as legitimately, the outcome of COP26 is decried as insufficient by proponents of ambitious climate action, even as “an utter betrayal” by social movements like the Global Campaign to Demand Climate Justice. Equally unsurprising the flagbearers of climate multilateralism, like COP26 President Alok Sharma, insisted that COP26 delivered and that its Glasgow Climate Pact “charts a course for the world to deliver on the promises made in Paris”. Notwithstanding either verdict, it was foreseeable that a single COP, even at the best of times, would not be able to single-handedly solve all issues that require solving to effectively halt global warming at 1.5°C.
Yet, the times are hardly the best for multilateral diplomacy. The UK Presidency was not to be envied to have to pull off COP26 under pandemic conditions and it was no mean feat to get it done. All the same, the execution of the task raised many questions and, indeed, considerable frustration among country delegations and observer organizations. Welcoming some 40.000 participants when the venue could host a maximum of 10.000 under the given hygienic regulations seemed haphazard at best. Advising countless duly accredited badge holders to “please come prepared with appropriate gear” to stand the Glaswegian weather while queuing in vain, added the proverbial insult to injury.
Still, for the COP to take place and to resume its work was good news. Only then could it be expected to deliver normative signals and guidance, technically as well as politically, on the further implementation of the Paris Agreement as well as means and resources to that same end. The questions to ask in its aftermath, therefore, are not so much whether the COP has been running smoothly or whether it makes for a success or failure, but rather what it has actually delivered, why and how so, and at what scale or strength. Like with the enigmatic haggis, this warrants a closer look at the ingredients and also at the side dishes to go with it – the neeps and tatties, if you will.
While recipes may vary, the list of ingredients to look out for was rather clear from the outset. First and foremost, COP26 was challenged to conclude the technical rulebook to operationalise the implementation of the Paris Agreement. Overdue issues to be solved in the Paris rulebook applied notably with a view to market mechanisms to boost mitigation action as well as with regard to rules that ensure transparency and common timeframes to facilitate more accountable and comparable reporting on national ambitions and implementation efforts. Moreover, climate finance represented a whole bouquet of ingredients: closing the gap towards the USD 100 bn per year (as originally promised by developed countries at COP15 in 2009 to support climate policy in developing countries from 2020 onwards); clarifying expectations on the expansion of international climate finance as of 2025; improving the balance between finance targeted towards mitigation and adaptation respectively; and finding a way forward to ensure additional resources to address climate-related loss and damage. Related, yet distinct from these ingredients, Glasgow was to advance the operationalisation of a global goal on adaptation. Not least, countries were expected to weigh in spiced up national climate plans (so-called nationally determined contributions, NDCs) and long-term strategies (LTS) that are consistent with net-zero emissions objectives to be reached by mid-century and, therefore, to be consistent with keeping 1.5°C within reach.
A rich mix…
The Glasgow haggis entails almost all of these ingredients, albeit with varying quality and quantity. A bitter aftertaste lingers especially where crucial wording, such as on phasing out coal and fossil fuel subsidies, has been watered down at the last moment. However, a universally agreed text that essentially implies to discard coal and fossil fuel subsidies for good is unprecedented. Its abated language notwithstanding, it provides valuable nutrients for the comprehensive economic transformation that is at stake and should free billions of public resources that can be redirected to just transition policies and sustainable development. A delivery plan on international climate finance and the pledged doubling of adaptation finance by 2025 (from 2019 levels) also enriched the mix, facilitating agreement and promising essential resources. Not least, COP26 actually managed to conclude negotiations on the Paris rulebook. While some compromises were made to that end, the most damaging loopholes in emissions trading, such as double-counting, appear to have been closed now and the rules on transparency and common time frames can be expected to strengthen accountability and, through improved comparability, conducive peer pressure.
…with ambivalent side dishes
Add to this the side dishes. A whole bunch of declarations and initiatives that were announced during the Glasgow COP address key sectoral mitigation challenges such as deforestation, methane emissions or post-fossil automobility. While the true mitigation potential of these initiatives needs to be soberly assessed, they are in themselves cases in point for the COP to serve as a catalyst for climate action that goes beyond the cumbersome and highly formalised intergovernmental processes of the UNFCCC. Void of key players, like Russia in the case of methane or Germany with regard to automobiles, and susceptible to greenwashing these side helpings may still amount to brown sauce rather than healthy greens. Still, on aggregate they cater to a growing recognition that the tide is actually turning against the fossil-fuelled status quo.
Hence, in spite of all the anger and frustration that was palpable especially during the final iterations of the Glasgow cover decision, it would be too bleak to consider COP26 as a mere waste of time and effort. Much rather, the Glasgow package delivered a hefty lump for all Parties to chew on. As of now, it remains hard to tell how palatable individual Parties will find their haggis once they take it to their domestic tables. But if they now act even upon the half-hearted words of the Glasgow Climate Pact, the implementation of the Paris Agreement could finally gain traction. Ultimately, the proof of the haggis will be in the eating.
Those who stomach it may likely develop an appetite for more. To make this scenario more probable, the order for COP27 in Egypt next year is pretty straightforward: Lavishly sprinkling the Glasgow pudding with commensurate climate finance. This would certainly help whetting the appetite of middle-income countries, who are crucial to bending the global emissions curve. It would also help to invigorate small island states and other climate vulnerable developing countries, who left Glasgow with a few crumbs on their plate in view of the climate-induced losses and damages they are facing already. That, indeed, is the lasting embarrassment and disappointment of the Glasgow COP. No streams of brown sauce can gloss it over.