What the final COP26 agreement really means

A somewhat bitter end to two long weeks.
Protester in Glasgow, Scotland, at COP26 holding a "pledges are not action" climate change sign
COP26 climate change discussions and protests are now behind us. Here's what the world to show for it. Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert for Insure Our Future

After two long weeks of discussion, dialogue, protests, and promises, COP26 in Glasgow has finally come to an end—with a lukewarm conclusion filled with climate pledges and promises left on the table. Nearly 200 countries signed the final deal to come out of the summit, the Glasgow Climate Pact. And while it brushes on some of the most important aspects of climate action going forward, many leaders are less than satisfied. 

“It is an important step, but [it] is not enough. We must accelerate climate action to keep alive the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees”, UN chief António Guterres said in a video statement. “We did not achieve these goals at this conference. But we have some building blocks for progress.”

Ending fossil fuel consumption is still a longshot—but the world is getting there

For the first time in COP history, the Glasgow Climate Pact finally mentions slashing fossil fuels—something even the Paris Agreement couldn’t do. The exact wording came down to “accelerating efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, recognizing the need for support towards a just transition.”

This language is crucial, as originally the pact held much tougher standards for fossil fuel by calling for a “phase-out” instead of a “phase-down.” A phase-out would bring about the eventual decimation of fossil fuel consumption, while a phase-down suggests a few cuts and reforms. Pushback from governments like China and India sealed the change, which allows for some countries, especially developing ones, to hold on to fossil fuels for the time being citing justice issues. 

“How can anyone expect that developing countries can make promises about phasing out fossil fuel and coal subsidies?” Bhupender Yadav, India’s cabinet minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, said to NPR. “Developing countries still have to deal with their development agenda and poverty eradication.”

[Related: To prevent catastrophic global warming, we need to leave fossils fuels in the ground]

But not everyone was pleased with the change, including a visibly upset Alok Sharma, the British COP26 president, who apologized for “the way the process unfolded” on Saturday. 

“It hurts deeply to see that bright spot dim,” Marshall Islands climate envoy Tina Stege said at the conference. “We accept this change with the greatest reluctance. We do so only, and I really want to stress only, because there are critical elements of this package that people in my country need as a lifeline for their future.”

With this new wording, the Paris Agreement’s 1.5-degree threshold is alive, but on serious life support. “It’s meek, it’s weak … but a signal has been sent that the era of coal is ending. And that matters,” Greenpeace International Executive Director Jennifer Morgan told CNN.

Carbon market rules from the Paris Agreement are more final now

The agreement from Saturday allows countries to finally start trading and offsetting carbon emissions to meet climate goals, something first brought to the table at 2015’s Paris summit. Still, some leaders and activists are critical—offsetting, after all, is controversial business, and they see the carbon market as a way for some countries to take advantage and put on false pretenses of action.

For example, the carbon trading section of the pact, officially known as Article 6, has been called “a Brazilian victory” because it allows the South American giant to export carbon credits from the Amazon. Other countries like the Marshall Islands have called it out as potential greenwashing—a way for countries with offsetting opportunities to rely on planting more trees instead of cutting emissions. 

It also grandfathers in credits registered since the 2013 Kyoto Protocol, which includes 320 million offsets that each represent a tonne of CO2, into the new market. This is despite warnings that flooding the market with old, irrelevant carbon credits could lead to devaluation. This is almost like turning in a paper written for high school to a college English class—it may fit the bill in some ways, but it’s also already been more or less counted for, so it doesn’t stand for much now. 

That’s on top of questions about double counting, which could happen if the country that sells the credits and the country that buys them both claim those reductions towards their goals. But according to Reuters, the pledge specifies that the responsibility for deciding who gets to take that climate-target win comes from the country that generates the credit. That way, only one party in the transaction is claiming the benefits of the trade.  

“Today’s agreement on Article 6 provides the rules necessary for a robust, transparent, and accountable carbon market to promote more and faster climate ambition and create a further avenue for finance flows from developed to developing countries,” said Kelley Kizzier, Environmental Defense Fund Vice President for Global Climate, in a statement. “The decision eliminates double counting for compliance markets and establishes a strong framework to ensure appropriate accounting for voluntary carbon markets that also supports emission reductions in countries hosting carbon market activities.”

Adaptation finance for developing countries fell way short

Poorer nations are suffering the brunt of the climate crisis—and that fact was reiterated over and over at COP26. Leaders have have continued to speak out and demand reparations for the damage being done, and that will be done, to their countries. Scotland, notably, offered the first donation for a fund to protect and adapt developing nations in the face of climate change; but not many other governments stood up. 

[Related: The people hit worst by climate change get the least airtime at COP26]

Instead, the final agreement opened the door for what will be called “Glasgow dialogue,” which will allow nations to begin talking about how to fund damages caused by climate change, NPR reported. In light of all the climate disasters already plaguing the planet, this addition rings hollow to some activists and officials. For example, Keriako Tobiko, ministry of Environment and Forestry in drought and starvation-stricken Kenya, called the compromise a disappointment

The $100 billion of climate financing offered to poorer nations also never came through. “COP26 was a failure, and the main failure was on financing,” Jeffrey Sachs, an economist and climate expert at Columbia University, told the Washington Post. “The rich countries couldn’t even come up with the meager $100 billion per year after 12 years of promising.”

Governments will have to work harder on climate action

Another notable change between the Glasgow Climate Pact and the Paris Agreement is that countries now have to update their climate plans every year instead of every five years. This means that this time next year in Egypt, the 197 nations that participate in the United Nation conference will have to show up with new goals. 

This is crucial because with the current COP26 goals, the Earth’s temperatures will still likely exceed 2.4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, according to research out last week from Climate Action tracker, a research group funded by the European Climate Foundation and the German Ministry for Environment, Nature Conservation, and Nuclear Safety. “Even with all new Glasgow pledges for 2030, we will emit roughly twice as much in 2030 as required for 1.5 degrees,” a press release from Climate Action Tracker stated. “Therefore, all governments need to reconsider their targets.”

The new wording gives countries another year to get their goals for greenhouse gas emissions on par with the ever-crucial 1.5-degree threshold. Until those recallibrated targets are locked in, the true impact of Glasgow will still be a mystery.