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Protester at Cop26 in Glasgow

"Cop26 only delivered incremental progress when we clearly need big breakthroughs"

This month's Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow made disappointing progress on the built environment and excluded the voices of ordinary citizens, writes attendee Hélène Chartier, head of zero-carbon development at international network C40 Cities.

It has been quite an exhausting two weeks and in the end, like many, I have quite mixed feelings. I think that despite new momentum (and not only for the nations: cities, businesses, and citizen groups are definitely more mobilised than ever), COP26 only delivered incremental progress when we clearly need big breakthroughs.

Amidst a difficult geopolitical context and the Covid-19 crisis, countries reached an agreement on the outstanding issues of the Paris Rulebook, which sets out how signatories of the 2015 Paris Agreement should achieve their decarbonisation commitments.

They also outlined a process for accelerating ambition on mitigation, adaptation and finance that keep the target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels within sight.

However, they fell short of achieving new immediate action in many areas related to climate finance and the phasing out of fossil fuel and coal as well as "loss and damage," which describes compensation paid by richer countries to poorer countries to compensate them for the impact of climate change.

I also personally think that this COP proved that we cannot rely on COPs and nations to save the world. Okay, we already knew that: the five years that followed the Paris Agreement have already proved this and this COP makes it very, very clear.

First, because the method is not good: an agreement that must be accepted by all cannot be bold; you can only reach a lukewarm consensus and include vague formulation, so in the end, no nation is really forced to change.

Also because it is mainly about nations where we would need the mobilization of all – we would need parallel official negotiations from all the different groups of the society. The nations cannot do everything but also the nations are probably the most conservative entities and so the most complicated ones to move compared to cities or businesses for example, which could be more progressive and more operational in their approach.

In addition, I think it is terrible how citizens were not involved in the discussion. Compare this to the way nations have dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic. In France, president Emmanuel Macron put together a group of scientists to advise the French government on how to deal with Covid-19. Every couple of months, Macron gives solemn speeches to explain the decisions and explain to people how they must adjust. This is not perfect, but at least people are informed and empowered.

Yet on climate change, there is nothing. This is terrible because we know that we need people to change. We won't avoid the climate breakdown using only finance and technology but the nature of the COP discussions made ordinary people think that it is not about them.

Finally, I think the announcements on the built environment at the much-heralded Cities, Regions & Built Environment Day were quite poor compared to transport, for example.

There was also very little on consumption-based emissions and imported emissions [emissions that happen in one place when people consume imported goods and services but which originate somewhere else]. On these two aspects, I am particularly disappointed.

Below are more details on where C40 Cities feels progress was made and what was not achieved.

Where progress was made

All parties are requested to come back with new 2030 emissions reduction pledges (known as Nationally Determined Contributions) that keep us on track for 1.5° degrees Celsius before the end of 2022.

Parties agreed to a finalised Paris Rulebook which, among other provisions, commits countries to report detailed data on emissions by 2024, forming the baseline from which future reductions can be assessed. The Rulebook also includes less than ideal outcomes regarding carbon markets, timeframes for NDC submissions, and transparency regimes, but these elements would have been unthinkable only two years ago.

Parties reached an agreement on 2025 as the date by which developed countries need to double their collective funds for adaptation, based on 2019 pledges. This will not provide the necessary billions for adaptation finance that poorer countries need – with Parties noting the "deep concern" of not having met the US $100 billion goal – but is a major improvement on the state of climate finance.

Sector-specific agreements on forests, coal, cars, methane and pledges to stop overseas fossil fuel finance have the potential to make significant inroads into cutting emissions but will require translation from national governments into policies and plans that have to be presented to COP27 in Egypt next year.

The number of local and regional governments taking action for 1.5 degrees Celsius has dramatically expanded and, contrary to national governments, cities and regions showed a united front around action by 2030 to keep 1.5 degrees Celsius within reach.

Despite Covid-19 and high costs preventing the participation of many activist groups, we still saw diverse groups of all ages and from all walks of life come together at this COP, all echoing a strong wave of support for climate action and climate justice.

What was not achieved

Although it includes the first explicit mention of fossil fuels in a UN Climate Agreement, the Glasgow Pact was watered down at the last minute, following a push by India and others, from an ambition to "phase out" unabated burning of coal to a weaker pledge to "phase down" coal This resulted in countries overall only agreeing to reduce but rather than eliminate fossil fuels and coal.

Many vulnerable countries called for national governments to more clearly recognise their needs, in particular in the context of loss and damage, in order to allow them to fully contribute to keeping 1.5 degrees Celsius within reach, decarbonise their economies, and rebuild back after climate impacts.

However, their needs and requests only found partial answers, at best. More promises to achieve the unfulfilled climate finance goals in the future, a failure to agree to a vehicle to provide financial support for loss and damage, and new technocratic processes in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) pay significant lip service to the palpable economic hardship vulnerable countries face and which promises to deepen as a result of climate impacts.

Ongoing debates and next steps forward

It is very clear there remains an important divide between efforts of the Global North and Global South to raise ambition to accelerate 1.5 degrees Celsius, promote transparency and increase accountability. The various sectoral pledges will be viewed by the Global North as positive gains.

However, voices from the Global South, youth activists and indigenous peoples will no doubt criticise these efforts on the basis that they pale in comparison to the range and magnitude of immediate actions needed given the ever-alarming urgency of the climate crisis. As with the Covid-19 pandemic, global solidarity to save lives has not been on display in Glasgow.

To bridge the disconnect between the inside and the outside, addressing the need for accountability is a clear next priority. COP26 highlighted the need for much clearer transparency, tracking and accountability mechanisms for sectoral commitments that are not yet clearly linked into the UNFCCC reporting system, as well as non-state actor commitments; and to ensure that country promises actually move the needle towards achieving the 1.5 degrees Celsius target.

The Expert Group announced by the UN Secretary-General could help develop these standards, building on the work the Marrakech Partnership for Global Climate Action will complete over its improvement plan in the next five years.

Loss and damage has really gained prominence, thanks to the mobilisation and leadership of vulnerable countries. Despite not ultimately translating into a funding facility to explicitly support loss and damage, it is clear that this major political issue will be carried upfront to the next COP.

This question of loss and damage is extremely important for the cities in both the Global North and Global South who already suffer from intense climate impacts and should start looking at this as a new frontier for city climate leadership in the lead up to COP27.

In this context, an alliance between cities and vulnerable countries to jointly advocate for climate justice and climate ambition could be forged soon.

This work on loss and damage can draw on existing work C40 Cities and its member cities have done to promote a green and just recovery from Covid-19, as both strive to provide a resilience framework.

The photograph is by Toby Parkes via Shutterstock.

Hélène Chartier is head of zero-carbon development at C40 Cities, an organisation coordinating the climate strategies of almost 100 cities around the world.

Her team develops programmes and activities that connect cities and progressive players within the built environment sector to push forward low-carbon and resilient building design, as well as urban regeneration projects.