Core COP26 realities:
This pact is utterly human, a triumph of imperfection
Energy ethics is part of climate ethics
COPs mark changes more than produce them
Innovation - for clean energy, monitoring, connectivity - boosts ambition
Two weeks of climate treaty negotiations, demonstrations and proclamations in Glasgow ended Saturday night with another non-binding nudge toward climate progress even as heat-trapping gases and climate impacts accumulate.
Is humanity's climate and energy future safer now than it was the last time world leaders met on climate a year ago?
I'd argue, marginally, yes, but not because of anything that happened in the negotiators' Blue Zone at the conference complex.
And of course that is a qualified yes. It'll take hard, sustained work to build progress where it's needed most - in countries with the fewest energy choices and greatest vulnerability to today's climate impacts, let alone what's coming on this human-heated planet. That's also where the most emissions growth is coming.
It's up to nations that gained power and wealth burning fossil fuels to invest for change in the under-energized world even as they cut emissions at home.
I'll lay out several signs of progress, and warning signs, below. But first here's a bit of context.
The surge of "act now" rhetoric around Glasgow gave the impression some grand outcome might emerge, but as climate-diplomacy veteran Morgan Bazilian wrote in the Financial Times before the meeting began, the world should "make COP boring again."
In Glasgow, he pretty much got his wish.
Social media feeds and news headlines are filled with competing proclamations of failure, dangerous compromise and success in the wake of COP26, the 26th round of negotiations aimed at avoiding dangerous global warming under the 1992 global climate treaty, the Framework Convention on Climate Change. (For context, I began reporting on global warming in 1988, so I've watched this long strange trip unfold from the start.)
The Glasgow Climate Pact, the main resulting document (link below), includes the first direct mention of a commitment to move away from fossil fuels in any of the post-1992 agreements. That's the kind of incremental tweak, overcoming longstanding opposition from countries like Saudi Arabia, that counts as progress.
One last-minute adjustment, from "phase-out" coal and subsidies to phase down coal, was highlighted by critics. The tweak was necessary to gain full consensus - a requirement since 1992. And I'd argue it was justified. See why below.
The pact did not solidly address a prime demand of the world's poorest countries - establishing a commitment from established powers, which thrived on a fossil-fueled diet for generations, to pay for "loss and damage" from climate impacts related to global warming. (That will be worth a full future post; explore my Twitter flow for hints.)
The pact also acknowledges the utter inadequacy of national pledges to cut emissions of heat-trapping gases and the failure of rich countries to make good on a 2009 pledge to pay at least $100 billion a year starting in 2020 to poor ones to foster clean-energy adoption and resilience facing rising seas and disrupted weather patterns.
Negotiators made progress on climate-finance mechanisms and methods as required by the 2015 Paris Agreement, which was the last truly pivotal addendum to the original treaty. But, as always, key details remain to be negotiated on the path to COP27 in Egypt, COP28 in United Arab Emirates and on and on.
So where's the success?
Despite the dodges and gaps I just described, I see the results in Glasgow, as was the case in the Paris round of talks in 2015, as a triumph - a triumph of human imperfection.
In my 33 years on the climate beat, I've learned that directionality matters more than specific numbers and also that these meetings memorialize, far more than determine, what happens - and also that these meetings, while essential, are not where change happens.
But signals have grown ever stronger that high-emission fossil fuel use is ending, that development and deployment of, and finance for, clean energy is accelerating (albeit insufficient), that business as usual is indeed history.
Global Witness garnered heaps of headlines for its report tallying more than 500 fossil-industry reps at the talks, with environmentalists arguing that this signaled a corporate takeover aimed at sustaining the carbon status quo.
But others in Glasgow pushed back, saying this surge showed how profoundly the picture is changing toward decarbonizing economies. "The train has left the station and everybody is trying to get on board," said Antoine Halff, president of Kayrros, a company that monitors and cross checks energy and natural resource dynamics using machine learning and other methods. (Disclosure: I work at Columbia and Halff is also an adjunct senior scholar at Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy.)
Fred Pearce, covering the corporate presence for Mother Jones, described environmentalists's concerns, but added, "Still, the corporate chiefs may mean it this time. And who, other than them, is going to deliver the cheap, clean power, electric vehicles, green steel, and sustainably sourced commodities that the world so badly needs?"
It's worth noting that there were also thousands of environmentalists on hand, in both formal and informal roles, centering the COP delegations's mission, over and over, on the moral responsibility to sustain a livable climate for today's youth and generations to come and concretely integrate the rights of people who've been historically excluded or marginalized.
This conference, far more than past COPs, elevated the visibility and integration of indigenous communities, many of which have demonstrably slowed the loss of carbon-absorbing forests and other ecosystems but have seen little credit for that role. At a side event, philanthropists and governments pledged $1.7 billion for Indigenous groups and local communities acting as ecosystem and carbon guardians.
Overall, COP26 successes lay in sustaining and building on the transformational structure that emerged in Paris - a shift from two decades spent futilely trying to craft a 20th-century-style contractual carbon-controlling treaty to building an iterative process through which countries convene regularly and nudge each other toward better outcomes.
There was never going to be a hard pact and turning point - some kind of climate equivalent of a peace treaty where everyone beats oil wells into turbines.
To get nearly 200 countries to agree on anything when facing a multi-dimensional challenge like the climate crisis requires what Thomas Schelling, Henry Lee and others called "soft diplomacy" way back in 1991. The foundational Framework Convention that emerged at the Rio Earth Summit nearly 30 years ago is a great example, as is the Paris Agreement.
A swift energy transition, however much we would like it, is not feasible in a world where nearly all economic development has been underpinned by the availability of abundant energy (think mobility, industry, refrigeration, internet, fertilizer...) and where fossil fuels still dominate the global energy mix.
Glasgow was the first of the required five-year check-in sessions after Paris at which countries are invited (not required) to offer ever stronger near-term and long-term emission commitments. Most did, using the "net zero" carbon calculus that grew out of this key line in Article 4 of the Paris deal:
"...achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century."
That "net zero" approach is an enormous fudge factor given that most of the carbon-drawdown methods identified to achieve it only exist at prototype scale compared to the billion-tons-a-year level any solution has to reach to be a meaningful tool for CO2 stabilization.
It's an impossible paradox really - consensus with deep compromise - but one we'll have to live with if this diplomatic process is to be sustained.
And that's why basic science, technological development and large-scale testing reman a critical imperative. Net zero is in fact where humanity needs to go to avoid a never-ending slide to more heating and disruption.
It does not have to remain a fudge factor.
What about demands for a total phaseout of fossil fuels?
Those griping about the last-minute revision of "phase-out" for coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies to "phase down" may have missed the last part of Article 4 in the Paris Agreement, which says all actions must be done "on the basis of equity, and in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty."
A host of African leaders have warned that a rapid shift away from supporting development of the continent's fossil fuels, particularly gas, will amplify dangers for their populations, limit their capacity to adapt to climate change and is unethical given they have contributed almost nothing to the atmosphere's greenhouse burden so far and that rich countries still have not constrained their own use of gas. Here are a few:
Their point, that energy justice must be part of climate justice, was reinforced in an online presentation during the conference by Zainab Usman, Africa program director at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Katie Auth of Energy for Growth. The talk title was "Reframing Climate Justice to Support Equitable and Inclusive Energy Transitions" and drew on a September paper with a host of co-authors from the region. I encourage you to read it and weigh in.
The paper asks, Why do we need to reframe climate justice for development? Three answers are here:
Because low-emitting energy-poor countries face unique challenges: Since they are energy-poor, they produce extremely low emissions per capita. Power is often too unreliable and expensive to enable job creation. These countries have contributed very little to climate change, but are among the most vulnerable to its impacts.
Because prevailing definitions of climate justice rarely address energy poverty: Terms like ‘environmental justice,’ ‘climate justice,’ the ‘just transition,’ and ‘common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities’ are important and valuable. But few of them address energy poverty explicitly or fully account for the ambitions of low-emitting energy-poor countries.
Because climate justice must achieve just and equitable energy outcomes: In addition to decarbonization, energy transitions in low-emitting energy-poor countries must:  provide universal electricity access;  power job creation and economic diversification;  enhance climate resilience; and  set the stage for a prosperous low-carbon future.
These points were bolstered by a presentation on 10 New Insights in Climate Science made early in the conference by Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and co-chair of the Earth League. A key insight was that "Global climate action must be just."
He illustrated this by showing how the poorest half of the world's population was responsible for just 7 percent of cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide between 1990 and 2015.
A key conclusion? "The richest 1 percent must reduce emissions by a factor of thirty while the poorest can actually increase emissions by a factor of three for the world to stay within the global budget in a fair way.”
There is carbon space for this half of humanity if the rich half gets busier on cutting its own carbon.
For all of the well-intended actions by the world leaders, their surrogates and more than 30,000 other participants who went to Glasgow, the scope of commitments their countries made, both in the main pact and side announcements, was shaped mostly by actions or innovations already under way elsewhere - dozens of discrete steps taken by technologists, philanthropists, investors, scientists, campaigners, industry leaders, community organizers, journalists, elected officials and others around the world.
This is vital to remember, because it means everything you do matters, from voting to working in your community to advance clean energy to shaping your scholarship, activism, innovative zeal, artistry, teaching and the rest toward a contribution advancing global climate and energy goals.
In many ways the Glasgow side agreements mattered more than the COP decisions, which require consensus of all 196 parties to the Framework Convention. The targeted projects and partnerships announced at and around the conference, taken together, generate momentum on specific challenges that can be tracked, supported or revised far more easily than any global goal.
The US-China Joint Glasgow Declaration, despite its vagueness, has a calendar and specific tracks for work on methane reduction, a key to slowing warming on short time scales, and also promises at least one way for the countries to collaborate even as they compete and clash on other critical issues like Hong Kong, Taiwan and human rights.
The British government's announced sector-by-sector Glasgow Breakthrough Agenda will required enormous effort to turn focused dialogues into actual emission reductions. But it offers welcome specificity, and accountability:
Much of the effort globally that advances global climate goals is happening without a direct connection to the treaty process. China's plan to add 150 new nuclear power plants in the next 15 years is driven far more by power challenges at home than carbon tracking abroad.
The infrastructure bill signed by U.S. President Joe Biden today is mainly driven by the need to restore this country's ailing vital systems. But, as Jesse Jenkins of Princeton University said via Twitter, it constitutes "the largest investment in clean energy innovation since the Carter Administration."
Jenkins added: "These programs represent a major, historic expansion of [the Department of Energy's] mission into critical areas beyond R&D, and they passed with bipartisan support. If enacted well and if they endure, these programs will become a veritable Clean Energy Deployment Administration like we've never had before!"
That is how global progress is made.
Do you want to raise ambition and outcomes at these climate treaty meetings in the years ahead?
Innovation, particularly, involving technology, has been an underpinning of much that happened in Glasgow and will be happening in the years ahead.
The good news is you can help wherever you live and whatever you do.
Lower the cost of change, as has happened to renewable energy technologies at an extraordinary pace. You can help whether you're a chemical engineer or community organizer spreading clean-energy access.
Two of the boldest new agreements unveiled in Glasgow - key groups of nations pledging to end deforestation and cut emissions of heat-trapping methane by 2030 - were enabled by extraordinary advances in remote sensing, computing power and machine learning in recent years.
During the Glasgow meeting, a private-government consortium including Kayrros, the company I mentioned that monitors energy and natural resource dynamics, launched the Biomass Carbon Monitor, a platform that goes beyond monitoring forest acreage and accurately estimates the carbon content of ecosystems.
This provides a way to put a more precise value on forest-conserving projects, a key need as international carbon trading spreads.
Remote sensing also plays a role in spotting harmful failures through imposed transparency, as is happening with a new suite of satellites monitoring emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane.
Government satellites are increasingly doing this, as with this image of a methane plume from a leaking gas line at an oil field in California spotted by a NASA sensor in 2020.
But that's just the start. When I wrote my first book on global warming in 1992, it accompanied an exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History co-organized with the the Environmental Defense Fund. I never would have imagined that EDF and partners would go on to develop a methane-tracking satellite set to launch next year.
At Glasgow, attention was centered not just on technologies spotting methane, but also new ways to remove this gas from the atmosphere by accelerating natural processes that break down this potent planet heater. Read this Washington Post op-ed article by Rob Jackson, a longtime methane researcher at Stanford University, and Daphe Wysham, who heads a nonprofit called Methane Action, for more.
Other innovations are social, and particularly centered on making the most of the new communication environment.
The smartphone and social media have created an unbelievable capacity for amplification, coordination and creativity. There is an upside to these technologies, if we all work hard to diminish the downside. This is the prime focus of my initiative and Sustain What webcasts at Columbia's Climate School.
Climate activism, particularly from young people and communities most at risk, has helped widen public understanding that this an issue of justice and the social climate as much as the physical properties of certain pollutants.
Social media can be a morass, but would #FridaysForFuture be what it is without Twitter, Instagram and YouTube?
Some activists are working to peel away the social license of those undermining climate progress and raise the profile of those whose lives and futures are at sake through innovative activism and creative use of social media and global connectedness.
Think about what Greenpeace's Unearthed affiliate did in exposing ExonMobil's ongoing doublespeak. (Read my story on the recent House hearing on fossil fuel climate disinformation efforts and my interview with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse for more.)
I'm deeply encouraged by all of this ferment, even recognizing the profound challenges we all face.
As I tweeted almost a decade go, "Facing consequential complexity, the trick is to pursue practices that result in falling forward without falling down."
Tradeoffs are inevitable.
There is no clean win in trying to build a sustainable relationship between nearly 8 billion people, their shared global atmosphere, biosphere and oceans and each other.
And there's no clean resting spot weighing the wrenching real-time energy needs of today's poorest billions, some of which have to be met using fossil fuels, against long-term risks driven by the so-far-relentless buildup of human-emitted carbon dioxide, methane and other heat-trapping gases.
It's a long path ahead, requiring an uncomfortable mix of urgency and patience, and simultaneous work reducing greenhouse emissions for the long-haul benefit and advancing human and ecosystem capacities to deal with momentous change.
I recognize and respect all reactions to this situation - from grief to anger to withdrawal.
Personally, my reaction is relentless engagement. There are a host of actions we can all take locally that create more potential for success globally. (Read this piece for examples: "Behind Global 'Climate Emergency' Rhetoric, Solvable Vulnerability Emergencies Abound.")
The initiatives launched on the sidelines of COP26 in critical sectors of global industry and finance demonstrate that the new architecture of global climate diplomacy born in Paris is working as designed - always utterly inadequate but nudging the world's societies and systems toward helping each other endure unavoidable climate hard knocks, spread clean energy and slow the buildup of heat-trapping pollution.
Do read The Glasgow Climate Pact (pdf), the leadership's proposed distillation of key points as of Saturday 13 November. Let me know what you think.
Ian Bremmer, a veteran global governance analyst and Bulletin writer, weighed in with an excellent deep post-COP26 dive on technical questions. His two core nuggets:
But I recommend this trenchant pre-COP piece even more: "Climate justice: An ethical dilemma of existential proportions." One key line:
David Wallace-Wells wrote a fine New York Magazine essay on the deep danger when the gap between pledges and realities keeps widening: "The New Politics of Climate Hyperbole." He asks, are the world’s leaders talking a big game on climate because they want to take action, or because they don’t?
Jason Bordoff, founder of the Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy and co-dean. of the Columbia Climate School, wrote an important Foreign Policy essay before the climate talks noting this tough reality:
After COP26 ended, Bordoff (@jasonbordoff) posted an equally vvaluable Twitter thread deconstructing the cheery and doomist takes and offering grounded nuance:
Amy Harder at Cipher (Breakthrough Energy): "Despite success that the world has had since 2015, it still risks failure on a time scale only trees can holistically judge. Therefore, humans—living far shorter lives than our forested counterparts—should keep up ambition and action indefinitely, as tiring as that may sound."
Sophie Mbugua's Africa Climate Conversations podcast is a vital source of insights from that continent.
Todd J. Moss of Energy for Growth created a graphic that conveys the deep hypocrisy of rich, climate-heating, natural-gas-guzzling nations seeking to cut financing for emerging nations with no carbon legacy:
Meg Boyle, an independent scholar focused on climate diplomacy (and former youth climate activist), posted a valuable Twitter thread noting the fundamental constraints on the UNFCCC process:
Watch sustainability scientist Johan Rockstrom's November 4th Glasgow presentation on 10 new insights from climate science:
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Winter is coming. The Hudson River, February 20, 2021