Explainer

4 Key Takeaways From COP26

After two weeks of intense climate negotiations, here’s where progress was made—and where negotiations fell short.

By , an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy.
Delegates sit in the action zone as they attend the third day of the 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 3.
Delegates sit in the action zone as they attend the third day of the 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 3. PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images

​​​​The latest United Nations climate summit, or COP26, officially concluded Saturday, bringing an end to two long weeks of grueling negotiations in Glasgow, Scotland, among almost 200 countries. Deliberations dragged on a day later than scheduled, and the final deal that was struck—the Glasgow Climate Pact—was weakened by stubborn, last-minute compromises, such as one inserted by India that gives coal a second lease on life.

So what came out of Glasgow, really? Scientists and many policymakers stress that action on climate change now is urgently needed, especially as the dire impacts of warming have thrown entire countries into disarray. Just this summer, heavy flooding ravaged central China, killing more than 300 people; across the western United States, a searing heat wave strained power grids and the water supply. In August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which reviews climate science under the auspices of the U.N., warned that the world was experiencing unprecedented levels of warming that could produce irreversible damage—not just heat waves, floods, and shrinking glaciers but sea level rise that will continue for centuries regardless of what policymakers decide in the next few decades.

This is a “defining decade,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “If we don’t have large success this decade in bending the carbon curve … we will be producing an earth that looks very different in a few decades from now.”

​​​​The latest United Nations climate summit, or COP26, officially concluded Saturday, bringing an end to two long weeks of grueling negotiations in Glasgow, Scotland, among almost 200 countries. Deliberations dragged on a day later than scheduled, and the final deal that was struck—the Glasgow Climate Pact—was weakened by stubborn, last-minute compromises, such as one inserted by India that gives coal a second lease on life.

So what came out of Glasgow, really? Scientists and many policymakers stress that action on climate change now is urgently needed, especially as the dire impacts of warming have thrown entire countries into disarray. Just this summer, heavy flooding ravaged central China, killing more than 300 people; across the western United States, a searing heat wave strained power grids and the water supply. In August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which reviews climate science under the auspices of the U.N., warned that the world was experiencing unprecedented levels of warming that could produce irreversible damage—not just heat waves, floods, and shrinking glaciers but sea level rise that will continue for centuries regardless of what policymakers decide in the next few decades.

This is a “defining decade,” said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “If we don’t have large success this decade in bending the carbon curve … we will be producing an earth that looks very different in a few decades from now.”

As with previous climate confabs, the reviews of COP26’s achievements are mixed. While U.S. climate envoy John Kerry declared that the world was now the closest it had ever been to “avoiding climate chaos,” others have been less optimistic, with activist Greta Thunberg criticizing its promises as “blah, blah, blah.”

Foreign Policy looked into where progress was made—and where negotiations fell short.


More action is needed to keep temperatures from rising much further. 

Experts have long agreed that it’s crucial for levels of warming to stay below the pivotal threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, a key objective of the 2015 Paris Agreement and the point at which the risk of deadly climate disasters surges. (The world is currently 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.)

In Glasgow, some countries did make strides in this direction. More than 100 countries agreed to slash their methane emissions by 30 percent, relative to output in 2020—and that matters because methane is an especially potent greenhouse gas. Another 100-plus nations—holding more than 85 percent of the world’s forests—pledged to halt deforestation and land degradation by 2030. And India, one of the biggest consumers of coal, pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2070, meaning that it will no longer add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere by that point. 

But the final pact failed to outline a clear pathway to stop the world from breaching the 1.5 degree mark—or adequately answer how countries must share the responsibility of curbing emissions.

“Our fragile planet is hanging by a thread,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in a video address. “We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe. It is time to go into emergency mode.”

According to the Climate Action Tracker, existing national policies would see the world on track to heat up by 2.4 degrees Celsius by 2100. In acknowledgement of this, countries agreed to return next year with greater cuts and new targets, accelerating, in theory, their efforts to bend the curve. 


Fossil fuels were singled out—but coal is still king.

COP26 produced the first-ever international climate pact to explicitly reference fossil fuels, one of the leading causes of greenhouse gas emissions, or to broach limits on the use of coal. Widely regarded as the dirtiest fossil fuel, coal is estimated to be responsible for almost one-third of warming. “Any continued use even, let alone an expansion of coal, is extremely consequential,” Swain said.

But any excitement was quickly dampened after language in the final agreement was watered down in the eleventh hour. In an extremely last-minute change, India, backed by China, insisted on a final tweak, agreeing only to “phase down,” not “phase out,” coal use. Earlier in the summit, language in initial commitments to phase out coal and subsidies for fossil fuels was also modified to specify “unabated” coal and “inefficient” subsidies.

National pledges are voluntary, with no enforcement mechanisms, making the last-minute change especially disappointing, Swain said. Before, “even if it was very strong language, it’s still going to be voluntary language,” Swain said. “But now it’s also relatively weak and voluntary.”

The push was widely met with dismay. COP26 President Alok Sharma apologized for the change, while Swiss Environment Minister Simonetta Sommaruga expressed her “profound disappointment” in the tweak. “This will not bring us closer to 1.5 but make it more difficult to reach it,” she said.

But as in any big climate summit gathering all the world’s nations together, the lowest common denominator sets the bar. “If we hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t have had an agreement,” Kerry said afterward.


A surprising show of U.S.-China climate cooperation. 

The United States and China surprised onlookers when they agreed to work together to curb emissions and limit warming over the next decade, after Beijing previously insisted that any sort of climate cooperation would hinge on overall relations between the two countries. In the months leading up to COP26, analysts questioned whether cooperation or competition between the United States and China would spur the most action on climate. 

The move was significant, although the joint announcement was vague and neglected to include important, or almost any, details. China and the United States are the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters, jointly accounting for an estimated 40 percent of global annual carbon output. China is the world’s top emitter, exceeding all developed countries’ emissions combined, while the United States is second. 

“The U.S. and China have no shortage of differences,” Kerry said. “But on climate, cooperation is the only way to get this job done.”


The disparity between rich and poor nations is clearer than ever. 

COP26 highlighted the stark divide between rich and poor nations, both in terms of who bears the brunt of the climate crisis—and what their responses could feasibly look like. Many developing countries, such as India, still rely on coal-fired power, even as the United States and Europe—responsible for the bulk of historical emissions—urge a rapid shift to cleaner fuels. 

At COP26, one key issue was funding. More than a decade ago, at the U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen, wealthy countries pledged to give poorer nations $100 billion per year by 2020 to support climate adaptation efforts. But this target was never met. At Glasgow, donors promised to meet their original $100 billion promise—by 2023.

There was also the question of compensation. Although the global south is responsible for just 10 percent of cumulative global emissions, it is often on the front lines of the climate crisis. “It is a matter of life and survival for many of us,” said Tuvalu’s climate minister, Seve Paeniu, who noted that the small island country was “literally sinking.”

To cope with these costs, many such countries hoped to secure funds for “loss and damage” at Glasgow—but to no avail. After forceful resistance from the United States and European Union, the final pact did not include funding to compensate developing countries for the losses they are already incurring and that they will continue to incur.

Ultimately, whether COP26 is, as Kerry said, the closest the world has come to progress or whether it’s just another lost year remains to be seen. Combating climate change hinges on whether world leaders stick to their promises, especially when there are no formal mechanisms in place to ensure they meet their goals.

COP26 “moved the needle in the right direction but only by a very small increment,” Swain said. “There’s a whole lot more work that needs to be done.”

Christina Lu is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei

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