Industry Insights – November 2021: Reflecting on COP26

By Jen Heil | December 6, 2021

At the beginning of November, Glasgow played host to COP26, which was heralded by many as ‘humanity’s best last chance’ to combat the climate crisis. Prior to the conference, there were doubts and hopes in equal measure, not just in the construction industry but across every sector and around the world. But did COP26 live up to expectations? What was achieved and what comes next? In this month’s Industry Insights, we take a look at some of the key takeaways and what they indicate for future global climate action.

Carried out over 12 days, COP26 explored the state of our climate through nine themes, each informing the climate negotiations and resulting global agreements. Whilst there’s no denying that a lot of ground was covered, you’d be forgiven for not being quite sure what was achieved. Despite little flurries of announcements practically every day, it was sometimes difficult to separate actual progress from regurgitated promises that have already been made (and broken) in the past.

Before we dive into the main outcomes, it’s important to note that COP26 was never going to be a ‘solution’ to the climate crisis. There is plenty of collective frustration around the conference but we can’t allow that to prevent us from driving action where we can, holding our leaders to account and demanding better for our future. And, regardless of the disappointments, there is plenty to offer hope as well.

What were the key outcomes from COP26?

The 12 days of COP were peppered with announcements, commitments and pledges both big and small. Some highlights include:

Contentious commitments

The various announcements received mixed reactions and some of the ‘historic pledges’ were met with scepticism. Take, for example, the deforestation pledge that was announced with great fanfare in the opening days of the conference. Whilst it may indeed be unprecedented to get so many world leaders to pledge to end deforestation, this is a promise that has been made by others before. A promise that has not been delivered. The 2014 New York Declaration on Forests, which also set a target of no deforestation by 2030, has failed to meet its interim goal of a 50% reduction by 2020. In fact, tropical deforestation alone increased by 13% between 2019 and 2020. Furthermore, mere days after the COP26 deforestation pledge was announced, statements emerged from some signatories questioning the terms of the deal. Not a promising start.

Somewhat predictably, climate finance also remained a point of contention. Despite previous commitments from developed countries to mobilise $100 billion in climate finance by 2020, this has not been fulfilled, leaving many developing nations without the means to enact their own commitments for mitigation and adaptation. Frustratingly, COP26 still did not deliver what is needed on this front. One of the prevailing problems is the lack of clarity around what counts as climate finance. Currently, the lack of a working definition means that financial streams such as high interest loans are included in climate finance reports, driving developing nations deeper into debt. Far from helping, this impedes vulnerable nations further as they fight to survive the impacts of a climate crisis they did not create. Despite this being a known issue, throughout the negotiations wealthier countries persistently resisted agreement of a working definition of climate finance. In a similar vein, wealthy countries also resisted vulnerable nations’ collective call for appropriate finance mechanisms to support communities impacted by irrevocable damage from climate change – seemingly out of fear that they may be forced to pay ‘compensation’ due to their historic responsibility for climate change.

These issues paint a bleak picture but there were some shining stars to come out of the conference as well and it is to these that we should turn our attention.

Cause for hope

Without doubt one of the most powerful and positive outcomes from COP26 is the Global Youth Statement. Developed during COY16 – the conference of youth, which preceded the opening of COP26 – and presented to negotiators by youth climate leaders, the full statement is impressive. It is comprehensive and ambitious in scope, clear in its demands and rooted in concern for equitable progress and climate justice, achieving much that the Glasgow Climate Pact, and the conference as a whole, was lacking.

It’s hard to deny that youth and public engagement must be one of the cornerstones of climate action going forward. Individual actions can seem insignificant in the face of the scale of the crisis we are facing but, collectively, we have so much power to influence and hold decision makers to account. Reading the Global Youth Statement, one can’t help but feel hopeful that the future of our planet will pass into the capable hands that crafted it. We must call for those in charge here and now to act on its demands, decisively and in the interests of all.

In addition to the hopeful voice of youth, there are points of concrete progress to pull out of the negotiations. Firstly, Parties have now agreed to revisit their commitments by the end of 2022 to limit the temperature rise to 1.5°C. Under the Paris Agreement, the official aspiration was, rather vaguely, “well below 2°C”. Half a degree may sound inconsequential, but for many of the world’s poorer, more vulnerable communities and coastal cities, it could mean the difference between destruction and survival. And it isn’t just talk. Countries demonstrated a renewed sense of urgency, agreeing to return next year (at COP27 in Egypt) to ‘revisit and strengthen’ national plans for more ambitious climate goals – rather than submit them in 2025, as previous agreements dictate. Although some have criticised this as ‘kicking the can down the road’, it’s undeniably better to revisit this in 12 months than in five years – at which point it really would be too late.

Furthermore, whilst the language used around coal and fossil fuel has been criticised as weak, it is the first time there’s ever been a COP reference to the need to move beyond them. Despite concerns around timeframes, the significance of this must be acknowledged – the idea of such a widespread commitment to phasing out coal was deemed ‘unthinkable’ only a few years ago. Progress has to start somewhere, after all.

What now?

COP26 was never an end point and, whether you’re left feeling disappointed or hopeful, what matters is what we do next. World leaders have made their commitments. We must hold them accountable for seeing these fulfilled, and do whatever we’re able to enable progress. Rather than feeling overwhelmed by the scope of the problem, we must remember that every action we take – as individuals, businesses, communities and countries – contributes to a greater whole.

There are many ways to confront the climate crisis without becoming overwhelmed. When we started our own Impact Assessment process here at SG, it seemed like a dauntingly big task but we soon realised that the most important thing was to keep going – taking small steps, doing what we can with what we have, and being honest about that journey.

Whatever your role or your business, whether you’re in a position of power or working at the grass roots, you can make a difference here and now. COP26 may be over but the journey to safeguard our planet and create a brighter, fairer future is just beginning – imagine what we could achieve if we work together.