Last Saturday afternoon, all around the Scottish Events Campus in Glasgow, cleaners and construction workers were shutting up shop. In the cavernous dining area, fridges, coffee machines and tables were being loaded out through a massive opening in one of the walls. The space that held the country pavilions, which had the day before been a hubbub of conversations held in every language under the sun, was sealed off from attendees, the industrial strip lighting overhead switched to dark.

But while much of the COP’s ‘Blue Zone’ was gradually being disassembled, over in Plenary Cairn Gorm – the main UN conference hall, complete with designated seats for each of the 197 countries in attendance – the action was only escalating.

Reaching an agreement

The previous day’s discussions over what was to become the Glasgow Climate Pact had continued until around 3am that morning. At 8am, the UK’s COP President Alok Sharma published a third and final draft of the pact. This draft would end up being nearly identical to the final document.

Among the key outcomes is reaffirmation of the goal to limit global temperature rise to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C”. At least on paper, then, the pact meets UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s key ambition to “keep 1.5 alive”.

But there is more: the text promises to pursue “efforts towards the phase-out [later amended to phasedown] of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies” – a statement which, amazingly, is the first-ever explicit reference to fossil fuels in a COP decision since the Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997. The words may be measured, but they represent a breakthrough.

President Alok Sharma receives applause after giving the closing speech at the Closing Plenary of COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Other gains include a reference to a “just transition”, the first-ever mention of non-CO2 gases like methane, and a request to “revisit and strengthen” 2030 climate plans by 2022 to better align them with the Paris goals.

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The ‘Paris rulebook’ has also been completed, with cheers on the plenary floor as rules to establish a global carbon market under Article 6 were finally agreed, years behind schedule.  The text explicitly excludes double-counting – that is, one emission reduction can only count towards one climate target – and key language around respecting human rights also made it in. But campaigners remain critical over the inclusion of old carbon credits from the Kyoto Protocol era into the new system.

Rich countries “note with deep regret” they have not lived up to their 2009 promise to provide $100bn in climate finance by 2020. The pact “urges” developed countries to deliver the money by 2025, while re-emphasising the need for “scaled-up financial resources” for vulnerable countries. The share of climate finance going towards adaptation will double, and governments agreed to set up  a “dialogue” to secure funds for loss and damage.

Sharma called a plenary meeting to discuss the last draft on Saturday afternoon – but that meeting ended up being delayed by three hours and fifteen minutes, as countries huddled together to pour over words and decide if they were over-compromising.

Many developing countries were profoundly disappointed by the document, which arguably contains more platitudes than concrete proposals. Storms and droughts are already wreaking havoc across much of the Global South, while a temperature rise of more than 1.5°C will force many island nations to relocate due to rising sea levels. Tuvalu has already bought more than 5,000 acres of land from Fiji, while some 30,000 Marshallese have migrated to the US (50,000 remain on the islands). The G77 and China proposed a funding facility for loss and damage, but this was repeatedly blocked by the US and EU, who insisted on setting up a “dialogue” instead.

“Climate Change is already a matter of life or death for Africa,” said Gabon’s plenary representative Lee White. The head of Bolivia’s delegation decried “carbon colonialism”, saying “developed countries have over-used their domestic carbon space and now they are using the carbon space of developing countries”.

But the world’s most climate-vulnerable nations were not about to reject what was before them, such was their need to drive forward climate action. “We remind the world that we have 98 months to halve global emissions,” said the Maldives’ environment minister Shauna Aminath, referring to IPCC modelling that suggests emissions must fall by 45% by 2030 compared with 2010 to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C.

The humility and cooperation proffered by these countries was met with a cruel twist of fate once the plenary had concluded. India led a last-minute rebellion to soften the language on coal, threatening to pull out of the agreement if President Alok Sharma did not agree. Greg Muttit, from the International Institute for Sustainable Development, highlights how the focus on coal (which is used more in the Global South) rather than gas (which is used in the Global North) has always discriminated against poorer countries, when it is the use of all fossil fuels that ultimately must be ended. But the final change from “phase-out” to “phasedown” nonetheless triggered expressions of deep regret from both developed and developing countries.

“Commitment on coal had been a bright spot in this package… and it hurts deeply to have that bright spot dimmed,” said Tina Stege, climate envoy for the Marshall Islands.

The reaction

Many analysts in the climate and energy space have deemed Glasgow’s final agreement a “good outcome”. Beyond the various multilateral pacts announced over the course of the talks, it was always uncertain how the conference would play out, given countries’ wildly different positions on climate change and the two years that have passed since the UN’s last climate conference.

“It certainly exceeds the expectations I had,” says Kaveh Guilanpour, vice president for international strategies at US think tank C2ES. “It’s towards the upper end of what I was expecting, but towards the bottom end of what we need.”

Chief executive of UK think tank E3G Nick Mabey said: “[Leaders] have responded to rising climate damage with an action plan to keep 1.5°C within reach. [But] the real task begins now as every country must go home and deliver on their Glasgow promises.”

“The direction of travel is clear… there is such strong momentum now from governments, business and civil society that it will be increasingly difficult for any parties to delay or obstruct progress in the year ahead,” said Ben Backwell from the Global Wind Energy Council, which represents the world’s wind industry.

Towards the end of COP26, policy think tank Climate Action Tracker (CAT) released an assessment of how much warming the world would experience under current pledges and policies. The mood up to that point had been buoyant, after the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated mean global temperatures were now on track to rise by 1.8°C this century, following new net-zero pledges from India, Saudi Arabia and Australia.

CAT agreed the world could be on track for 1.8 degrees if the pledges are taken at face value – but it also found that just 6% of them are adequately supported by policies and interim targets, and therefore unlikely to be reached. Based on actual policies, the world is still on track for a much more catastrophic 2.7°C of warming.

The authors of CAT's assessment are scathing of the status quo, warning that “policy implementation on the ground is advancing at a snail’s pace”. They add that “there is a massive credibility, action and commitment gap that casts a long and dark shadow of doubt over the net-zero goals put forward”.

This criticism of empty words was echoed by many activists following the adoption of the Glasgow Climate Pact. “It’s meek, it’s weak and the 1.5-degree goal is only just alive,” said Greenpeace International executive director Jennifer Morgan. “Glasgow was meant to deliver on firmly closing the gap to 1.5 degrees and that didn’t happen.”

Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate added: “Commitments will not reduce CO2. Promises will not reduce the suffering of the people. Pledges will not stop the planet from warming. Only immediate and drastic action will pull us back from the abyss.”

The one great hope

The Glasgow Climate Pact is hard to get one’s head around because it is a self-proclaimed failure. It admits action has been lacking and the world is not set to meet its climate ambitions, stressing “the urgency of enhancing ambition and action in relation to mitigation, adaptation and finance”. It does not offer much in the way of these enhancements. Yet it shows a more mature world that remains true to the aspirations of the Paris Agreement, but now realises how significant action must be to turn those into reality.

Crucially, the pact lays out a clear pathway along which the world must now escalate its efforts to meet the climate threat – and the language suggests there will be no excuse for future COPs to fail on concrete policies that direct the world towards net zero.

The pact requests countries to revisit their climate plans next year to ensure the world is on track to the Paris Agreement. This means countries should approach COP27 in Egypt as an event that is as significant as COP26, the first time national climate plans were reviewed as per Paris's original five-yearly stocktake. With the effects of climate change increasingly severe, and the IPCC warning this summer we are at “Code Red for Humanity”, this clause may well have set a precedent for all future COPs.

Of course, some 40 countries failed to update their national climate plans ahead of COP26, and it is very possible this will happen again. Australia and the US have already suggested they have no plans to escalate their 2030 emissions targets at the moment, despite their disproportionate contributions to climate change. These and other rich countries must also boost climate finance as a matter of urgency, if there is to be any hope of an equitable energy transition.

But the direction of travel for all countries is clear, and the pressure is on. After Glasgow, there is no longer any excuse for countries not backing their intentions with a policy framework to finally turn global emissions around.