by Matthew Paterson
30th November 2021

Most observers, especially climate campaigners have been profoundly disappointed with the outcomes of COP26. For Greta Thunberg it was more ‘blah blah blah’. George Monbiot called it a ‘pathetic, limp rag of a document’.

Billed as the ‘last, best chance’ to get greenhouse gas emissions on a rapid downward trajectory, it’s hard to see how it doesn’t engender this sort of frustration. There were no proposals which would have led to limiting warming to 1.5°C, and most assessments of the various initiatives was that if they were fully implemented, then warming would be significantly higher than that, as in Climate Action Tracker’s figure of 2.4°C, widely regarded as catastrophic.

While small improvements over previous UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreements can be identified in the ‘Glasgow Climate Pact’ – the mention of phasing down (not phasing out) of coal, the mention (the first ever in a formal UNFCCC agreement) of fossil fuels, which Saudi Arabia has vetoed consistently for the last 30 years, as well as the completion of the ‘Paris Rulebook’, in particular – that these improvements are inadequate to the scale and urgency of the climate challenge is clear.

But we do need to go beyond outrage and anger at this failure. It is worth considering how the COP works and how both the expansive expectations about what could have been achieved were created, and why these expectations have not been met. One way to do this is to think about there being three different COPs in Glasgow, reflecting shifts in how the UNFCCC has worked over its 30-year history.

One, COPv.1, is the space of the intergovernmental negotiations, in the heart of the ‘Blue Zone’ (where full COP accreditation is needed to get access). These are the formal meetings to discuss the agenda set out in the UNFCCC programme of work: agreeing the remaining unsolved issues in the Paris Agreement (the ‘Paris Rulebook’); receiving the revised Nationally Determined Contributions and starting the ‘global stocktake’; and working on ongoing issues such as loss and damage and climate finance (the $100bn-a-year goal). The ‘Glasgow Climate Pact’ was the result of these negotiations. COPv.1 did in fact deliver what it was supposed to do (a surprise to many of us).

COPv.2 is the space of partnerships, initiatives and networking. Some of this is associated with UNFCCC programmes directly – the Marrakech Partnership for Global Climate Action, notably. But it also goes on in the Presidency-organised events (the UK government organised these into themed days on energy, finance, transport, etc.) with a barrage of announcements of new initiatives, plans and actions. And it is the bread and butter of the ‘Pavilion’ area, with booths run by national governments, international organisations, business groups and a handful of NGOs, all holding continuous side events, receptions and film showings, generating a sense of general busyness. This aspect of COP also overflowed into the ‘Green Zone’, a 15-minute walk away at the Glasgow Science Centre as well as at some additional smaller venues.

COPv.3 is the space of protest by social movements, rapidly expanding in recent years. Mostly outside both Blue and Green Zones, it entails more or less constant activity seeking to put pressure on politicians to act, as well as many events to generate ideas for alternative approaches to climate change, from different treaty designs to artistic and cultural endeavours to community action. It also entailed large demonstrations, with around 100,000 joining the march in Glasgow, and over 250 others around the world.

From the outside, all these elements appear intermingled. But it’s worth separating them out clearly. As the COP progressed, COPv.1 took over. But COPv.2 and v.3 had already generated expectations for what the COP as a whole might achieve that in practice were wildly out of sync with what was going on within COPv.1. After a week and a bit of spectacular announcements on various issues and constant pressure from social movements, the draft cover decision released on Wednesday of week two looked spectacularly modest.

No wonder there was widespread disappointment. Those looking on reasonably wondered why the governments that seemed to be boosting and promising so much were suddenly producing such a ‘limp rag of a document’?

The answer lies in part in understanding the different logics of these three aspects of the COP. The myriad promises on finance, forests, coal, etc., that were central to COPv.2 were all composed by self-selecting groups of countries (and their corporate allies) committed to specific types of climate action and engaged in boosterism about them. The UK government explicitly used the COP to promote its own image and activities through COPv.2 logics. It became trapped by this logic – as it helped to generate spectacular expectations for what the COP overall might achieve, it was then doomed to fail as those expectations could not be delivered in any plausible way by COPv.1.

The dynamic in COPv.1 is structured by the formal rules of diplomacy, focused on the much more restricted agenda within the Paris Agreement. Specifically, COPv.1 entails consensus decision making among all parties to the Convention. We shifted from an arena where Saudi Arabia (on oil), Australia (on coal) or India (on the climate finance/coal linkage) could be ignored, to one where they had a veto. As India did at the final hour, with the last-minute shift from ‘phase out’ to ‘phase down’ regarding coal. The Australians were happy to let India take the flak.

The implications for this are to focus more on the various initiatives developed in COPv.2 than on the text of the Glasgow Climate Pact. That is, focus on whether the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero actually shifts investment practices, on whether the Powering Past Coal Alliance countries are actually moving rapidly away from coal, with more countries joining it, or on whether the 141 world leaders who signed the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use actually do reverse deforestation by 2030 as they have pledged. That is where there was some ambition at Glasgow, not in the Pact itself. It is in the potential of these initiatives, but only if constantly pushed by social movement pressure, in which hope might remain thinly alive.

Matthew Paterson is Professor of International Politics at the University of Manchester and Research Director of the Sustainable Consumption Institute. 

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