Highlights of COP26 Climate Summit – One Minute to Midnight?

By Michael Sales. At a recent meeting of the ECA Mass Leadership Team, I asserted that it was “two minutes to midnight.” The planetary boundaries work done by Johan Rockstroem makes it clear that humanity’s ignorance of science, its socio-economic systems, and its excessive patterns of consumption are exhausting our Earth. We are getting closer to a full breakdown daily.  

But the intention of the United Nations Conferences of Parties (COP) is to pull us back from the brink. At the many COP global climate summits since 1992, key decision makers from 197 nations have negotiated international agreements, aiming to stop our species’ headlong rush to extinction. They succeeded and they failed.

The most recent COP26 in Glasgow was no exception. There were important achievements, including:

  • Reversing Deforestation – 130 nations signed a protocol to reverse deforestation in 90% of the world’s forests by the end of the decade.
  • Global Methane Pledge – 100 countries joined US/EU efforts to cut emissions of methane from 2020 levels 30% by the year 2030.
  • Finance – 450 global companies pledged $130 trillion, representing 40% of global assets, to keep global temperatures from rising more 1.5C warming.
  • Zero Emission Vehicles – over 100 national governments, cities, states and major businesses agreed to end the sale of internal combustion engines by 2035 in leading markets. But a first-person report by Massachusetts State Senator, Mike Barrett, reminds us that Massachusetts was not a signatory to this agreement. (Watch a video of Senator Barrett’s presentation to our June chapter meeting here and find his full COP26 comments on a 12/3/21 post of our Facebook page.)

There were, however, important disappointments and disagreements, such as:

  • Loss and Damage – the US was one of a number of Northern, well-to-do nations that refused to agree to climate change reparations to address the condition of vulnerable Southern countries that are being severely affected by a climate crisis they did not create.
  • Fossil Fuel Agreement Without a Lot of Teeth – The words “Fossil Fuel” have never appeared in any COP agreement. So, one might say that the one signed in Glasgow constitutes progress. Not surprisingly, this most consequential COP26 agreement was also the most contentious. The final language referred to “accelerating efforts toward the phase-down of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.” (You’ll have to dig deeper – so to speak – to find out what this obtuse language means.)

Many would argue that the real action at COP26 didn’t take place in the halls of power but in the streets, where scores of thousands of mostly young people agitated angrily against those at the conference as a bunch of greenwashing polluters. An experienced legislator and negotiator, Sen. Barrett, makes the case that it’s terribly difficult to arrive at agreements of any sort when each of the representatives of the 197 countries at the COP held “a Joe Manchin [veto] card,” to which one can easily imagine the demonstrators and the millions of anguished people they represent responding with “So What?! Too Slow is No Go!”

When I said it is “Two minutes to midnight” at the Leadership Team meeting, a colleague disagreed. “One minute.” He’s probably right.