COP26 outcomes aren’t satisfying, but they should leave us hopeful. Here’s why

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Antonia Gawel, Head, Climate Action; Deputy Head, Platform for Public Goods, World Economic Forum


  • The COP26 climate summit in Glasgow this November gathered global leaders from government, business and civil society to drive progress for climate action.
  • The COP26 summit was expected to deliver on several key outcomes related to limiting global temperature rise, climate finance and carbon markets.
  • The resulting Glasgow Pact offered few wins against expected COP26 outcomes, but there were critical signs of progress seen beyond the negotiation tables.

The COP26 summit focused the world’s attention on the urgent need to tackle climate change. It was the first large-scale multilateral gathering since the start of the pandemic, one drawing global leaders and more than 20,000 delegates from nearly 200 countries. The two-week event also saw a massive mobilisation from business and finance – as well as tens of thousands of citizens and activists, with many who took to Glasgow’s streets in protest.

Expectations for the conference were high and a week on, many are still asking themselves whether COP was a success. I personally have mixed feelings – but I still left Glasgow feeling optimistic and hopeful. https://www.youtube.com/embed/1PWO7_7Npvw?enablejsapi=1&wmode=transparent

COP26 outcomes: Expectations and reality

Glasgow was expected to deliver a few critical outcomes:

  • First, the world looked to governments to ratchet up their national commitments in order to maintain global temperatures to no more than a 1.5 degree rise, a target set by the Paris Agreement intended to limit some of the worst impacts of climate change.
  • Second, wealthy countries were expected to deliver on the $100 billion annual contributions committed to at the COP15 summit in Copenhagen in 2009. This finance was intended to help developing countries address climate change mitigation as well as provide resources for adaptation.
  • Third, progress was anticipated on key elements of the Paris agreement, such as Article 6, crafted to provide the foundation for a credible and global carbon market to help deliver on emissions commitments.

The summit’s resulting Glasgow Pact was short on easy wins. There was, for the first time, an explicit call to phase down (though not phase out) coal and fossil fuel subsidies. There was critical progress on Article 6 which provides positive clarity about the role of carbon markets. At the same time, work remains to put in place strong guardrails that ensure environmental and social integrity of these markets.

Putting the world on track for a 1.5 degree pathway remains a critical target not landed in Glasgow, with current commitments putting us on anything from a 1.8 to 2.4 degree pathway, depending on whose analysis you review.

Lastly, delivery on climate finance was somewhat kicked down the road with developed nations admitting that they would not meet the $100 billion goal until 2023. Delivering on this promise remains absolutely critical to ensure a just and equitable climate transition.

All in all, significant gaps remain. However, what I saw happening alongside the negotiations made me hopeful true change is emerging.

Protestors marched and demanded key COP26 outcomes.
Protestors at the summit marched and demanded key COP26 outcomes. Image: UN Climate Change

Signs of progress

My team and I have attended our share of summits, climate conferences and many previous COPs. In the past, these have gathered a rather niche crowd of experts discussing policy tools and technical details about the negotiations. We have never seen such an incredible mobilisation of business, citizens, academia and others in both pushing for bolder outcomes, but also taking action themselves at broad economy wide scale.

The Race to Zero campaign, the largest-ever alliance to rally leadership for a zero-carbon recovery, has grown to more than 700 cities, 30 regions, 3,000 businesses, 170 of the biggest investors, and 600 higher education institutions and more – all committed to achieving net-zero-carbon emissions by 2050 at the latest.

The Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, a group of more than 90 CEOs dedicated to public-private work to slash emissions, made clear their commitments this month alongside their willingness to collaborate to help drive action and impact faster and further.

These same actors have also launched an incredible number of commitments and initiatives, that, if delivered, will drive true progress –

  • We saw companies commit to decarbonise industry with the launch of the First Movers Coalition, a partnership between the World Economic Forum and the US government, announced by US President Joe Biden at the summit to drive innovation and create early markets for emerging clean energy technologies;

These are just a few examples in a very long list of commitments that came from stakeholders to progress action on everything from standards, finance, methane and more, showing that an economy-wide mobilisation is emerging. The mood has changed. People are poised for action.

But alongside these announcements, we also literally heard a vibrant drumbeat in the streets of Glasgow with activists and protesters working to keep both governments and companies in check – as they should.

Where do we go from here?

To be sure, commitments can only take us so far. Impact is only possible if each initiative is actioned: if funding committed is invested; if purchasing commitments translate into contracts; if targets set become national policies and regulations; if partnerships have the support they need to transition value chains in the near-term.

These steps will require massive public-private collaboration and Glasgow showed us that the full system of actors is now geared-up.

The drumbeat or 2022 will be measurable and near-term action, action, action. The World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos will help set that rhythm and tone as leaders gather again to craft agendas and priorities to take existing commitments forward. This dedication to action and collaboration is what those marching on the streets of Glasgow and around the world have been rightfully calling for. This is what the science demands. This is the only way to retain trust and deliver on a just and equitable future.

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