The Future of Our Planet After COP26

The outcome of the recent COP26 meeting in Glasgow can be summed up in the words of United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres in his wrap up message to the conference, “It is an important step but is not enough, Our fragile planet is hanging by a thread. We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe. It is time to go into emergency mode — or our chance of reaching net-zero will itself be zero.”

The consensus of groups analysing the conference outcomes suggests that current policies will lead to a best-estimate of around 2.6 C to 2.7 C warming by 2100. Scientists have repeatedly warned that a 1.5 C rise in temperature above pre-industrial levels will have serious consequences, but could be manageable, whilst a 2.0 C rise would be catastrophic.

One encouraging outcome was the agreement to ‘revisit and strengthen’ the 2030 targets in Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) by the end of 2022, and accelerate efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. However any optimism about that is tempered by the fact that the process is based on voluntarism and peer pressure, without any binding sanctions for non-compliance. Not only are the pledges self-determined, but they can be repudiated without consequence, as demonstrated by the US when it withdrew from the Paris Agreement. (which it has since rejoined).

Similarly, the net-zero long-term commitments by countries to reach a particular goal are 30-50 years in the future, when none of the leaders making these promises will still be in office. As only around a dozen of the 74 countries with net-zero commitments have actually formalised them into law, it is unclear how seriously these commitments should be taken, or how likely they are to actually be achieved.

There is also fear, particularly from indigenous communities and civil society, that the agreement – which calls on 197 countries to report their progress towards more climate ambition next year at COP27 in Egypt – is too little and too late. As Ugandan climate activist, Vanessa Nakate told leaders, “We are drowning in promises. Only immediate and drastic action will pull us back from the abyss.”

The challenge for all of us is to continue to do all we can to hold our governments to account on the commitments they have made, and to demand stronger revised targets ahead of COP27 next year. With important elections scheduled in 2022 for Australia, Kenya, the Philippines, Northern Ireland and the USA, there is also an opportunity for those of us living in those countries to speak up and voice their concerns.

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