COP26 – the ‘Glasgow summit’ - was trailed as a pivotal moment in the world’s fight against climate change. The summit opened with dramatic warnings from world leaders about the scale of the crisis and the urgency of the action required.

Boris Johnson, prime minister of the UK and the summit’s host, said it was ‘one minute to midnight’ on the ‘doomsday clock and we need to act now.’ The US president Joe Biden described it as ‘the challenge of our collective lifetimes’ saying that ‘every day we delay, the cost of inaction increases’1. António Guterres, UN secretary-general went further, arguing that we are ‘digging our own graves’ and that inaction is a ‘death sentence’ for small island developing states.2

Did COP26 live up to the billing? The outcomes secured in Glasgow have been variously described as ‘worth more than six out of 10’3 by Boris Johnson, to a ‘suicide pact’4 by the summit’s critics. The reality is perhaps somewhere in between – a ‘fragile win’ as the COP26 president, Alok Sharma, describes it in this edition of progressive review.

"The outcomes secured in Glasgow have been variously described as ‘worth more than six out of 10’ by Boris Johnson, to a ‘suicide pact’ by the summit’s critics."

The Glasgow Summit was never going to ‘fix climate change’. Only a concerted global effort over the next decade and beyond will achieve that. But, there were some important wins as Sharma and Ben Goldsmith, both point to: net zero emission targets now cover 90 per cent of the world’s economy; a commitment was made to accelerate efforts to phase down unabated coal power and end inefficient fossil-fuel subsidies; and a new commitment to halt and reverse deforestation was made covering 91 per cent of the world’s forests.

Equally, if not more important, was the commitment enshrined in the agreement for all countries to strengthen their ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’ (NDCs) – their climate action plans– in 2022 instead of 2025. With analysis showing that NDC commitments made prior to COP26 would still deliver a disastrous temperature rise of 2.4C5, this pledge was essential to keeping alive the goal of holding temperature increases within 1.5C.

Yet for all these moderate successes, there were also significant omissions and failures. As Dorothy Guerrero argues, rich nations continue to ‘sidestep culpability’ for their contribution to the climate and nature crises. And nowhere was this more evident – as Rishikesh Ram Bhandary and Katie Gallogly-Swan argue – than in the discussions, and ultimately outcomes secured, in relation to climate finance, adaptation, and loss and damage.

“Welcome progress was made, but it was woefully inadequate to the scale of the challenge we face”

The facts are stark. In 2009, developed nations committed to mobilise $100 billion to support climate action in developing countries – yet, despite this sum now being totally inadequate to that which is needed, it still hasn’t been delivered. Moreover, in 2015 loss and damage were included in the Paris Agreement, but half a dozen years later and developed nations are still holding out on creating a loss and damage facility. It is no wonder that some say, as Noga Levy-Rapoport does, ‘the post-COP26 world is one of disillusionment’.

Perhaps both the enthusiasts for the outcomes of the summit and its detractors have a point. Welcome progress was made, but it was woefully inadequate to the scale of the challenge we face. For all the rhetoric of world leaders at the beginning of the summit, COP26 was never going to be the moment where climate change was ‘solved’. After all, no summit, however important, can deliver a transformation of the world economy, and how we live our lives, overnight.

This edition of progressive review asks ‘what now?’. What now for the UK presidency, and what now for future COP summits – are they still up to the task or are they in need of reform? What now for public engagement? Now that the major moment of the summit has passed, can we translate broad public concern on climate change into public support for day-to-day policies? The UK has set its targets, so what now for delivery? Nature got a higher than usual billing at COP26 and 2022 will see the holding of the COP15 biodiversity summit, so what now for nature and wellbeing? Whatever the merits of the outcomes secured at COP26 it is hard to argue that climate justice was well served, so what now for climate and environmental justice?

“the argument for addressing climate changewill never be ‘won’ in a single moment in time”

COP26 brought the focus of the world media onto the need to address climate change, building on the increased attention and coverage given over to the issue over the past few years. But such attention often moves swiftly on. This year began not with questions of how to build on the agreements made in Glasgow but how to deal with rapidly rising energy prices and the cost of living. It has led to an increasingly fractious debate in the UK with a small but vocal minority of politicians and commentators blaming the climate agenda for the energy crisis. Even if such claims are palpably false, the debate only serves to demonstrate that the argument for addressing climate change will never be ‘won’ in a single moment in time, at a climate summit or otherwise, but must be sustained over time with policies that both rapidly reduce emissions, restore nature, and see the costs, benefits and opportunities of the green transition spread fairly at home and abroad.

Our contributors for this edition of progressive review have different assessments of the success, or not, of COP26. However, all put forward concrete proposals on where we should go next and offer some hope for the future, whether that be found in the actions of governments, businesses, civil society, climate activists and the wider movement, or in the public themselves.

Where next for UK climate leadership and international climate diplomacy?

Alok Sharma argues that 2022 must be the year where climate promises are kept. He pledges to keep up the pressure on countries around the world ‘to come back to the table’ with enhanced NDCs and to make the necessary progress on adaptation, loss and damage, and finance. This focus on ensuring promises are kept is taken up by Richard Kinley, who argues that now is the time for reform of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC). The UNFCCC, Kinley argues, must be brought into ‘the age of implementation’. He sets out a series of reforms which would see the UNFCCC play a much bigger role in overseeing transparency and accountability, providing support to developing countries to implement their climate targets, and formalising the approach taken at COP26 to side negotiations on specific issues to help governments accelerate climate action.

From net zero targets to net zero delivery

The mantle of implementation is taken up by Professor Emily Shuckburgh, who argues that the principal challenge for delivering net zero at home is ‘one of delivery on an accelerated timeframe’. She sees three crucial ingredients – investment, innovation, and infrastructure. But she argues that to be successful these ingredients must be accompanied by a new economic value system that moves us on from GDP. In a similar spirit, Lee Waters argues that we must seize the opportunities of net zero. He lays out the case for reducing emissions in a way that also increases prosperity, improves quality of life, and addresses social injustice.

“Public support will be crucial to delivering net zero”

Bernard Jenkin argues that if we are to deliver on net zero then we must achieve the right balance between a liberalised energy market and state regulation. His contribution is a timely reminder that despite the loud noises from net zero sceptics in some parts of the Conservative party, there remains broad support across the party for delivering the net zero agenda. Sara Reis and Anna Johnston argue, in contrast, for a more holistic approach to the climate crisis, one which centres ‘gender, racial and social justice alongside transitioning to a low-carbon economy’. They argue for a ‘green caring economy’ that can only be delivered through significant state intervention in the form of a Green New Deal.

Maintaining public support for climate action

Public support will be crucial to delivering net zero. John Curtice provides a stocktake on the current state of UK public opinion on climate change. He lays out how it has grown as an issue of public concern - particularly over the past decade, and how – contrary to how it is often portrayed – it is an issue of concern across the generations and most demographic groups. Curtice also issues a note of caution that such generalised concern does not necessarily translate into consensus for the policy solutions, particularly for higher taxes or bans on carbon-intensive products.

In their pieces, Jacob Ainsborough and Professor Rebecca Willis, and Sam Hall, take up the gauntlet laid down by Curtice on how to maintain public support. Ainsborough and Willis argue for public engagement to be put at the heart of climate policymaking and for the costs and benefits of net zero to be fairly shared. Hall places an emphasis on the need to deliver on good, well-paid jobs and to bring nature closer to people to sustain and build public support.

Nature and climate are two sides of the same coin

Ben Goldsmith continues the theme of bringing nature closer to people as he highlights the closer relationship that humans have to nature following the pandemic. Goldsmith argues that for too long action to address climate change has been separated from the challenge of restoring our natural world. He contends that the UK must take a key international role after COP26 to ‘hold nations’ feet to the fire’ on their commitments to improve nature. He also recognises that the international promises made at the Glasgow Summit must drive more ambitious action on nature here at home.

In a similar vein, Sophie Howe argues that tackling climate change is too often seen as a ‘single ticket item’ that needs specific attention, when in truth so much more can be achieved if we break out of our policy silos. Howe points to the merits of the approach taken in Wales where the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act forces policymakers to ‘make decisions that work for our communities today and will also benefit our future generations tomorrow.’

No justice without climate justice

Rounding off this issue, Dorothy Guerrero, Rishikesh Bhandary and Katie Gallogly-Swan, and Moustapha Kamal Gueye focus their contributions on where next for international climate justice and the just transition. Guerrero argues that while COP26 itself was a failure, the global justice movement left Glasgow strengthened. She finds hope in the actions, protests and strategising that took place on the streets of Glasgow and around the world. This, she argues, shows that many ‘are connecting the dots and getting the message clearly that the fight against climate change is a fight for system change’. Focusing on the contribution of younger generations’ contribution to climate justice movements, Noga Levy-Rapoport makes the case for the importance of grassroots activism that embraces hope and ‘mutual aid’. They argue that it is it only through ‘developing continual and sustainable networks’ that ‘we then protect one another from the very real and grievous harm we are facing’.

“the actions we take collectively in 2022, andevery year this decade and beyond, will be crucial in determining humanity’s fate”

Kamal Gueye argues that if the quest for climate justice is to be fulfilled then countries around the world need to ‘walk the talk’ on the just transition. He points to the inadequacy of current plans, with only one in 10 countries ensuring social dialogue when developing their climate action plans. He calls for comprehensive policy frameworks, financing, and genuine social dialogue to be put in place for a just transition to become a reality. Bhandary and Gallogly-Swan also highlight that COP26 saw a ‘resistance to equity in climate talks’. They argue for climate finance to be based not on arbitrary targets but on actual needs, for a resolution to the sovereign debt crisis among low-income countries brought on by the pandemic, for reform to the International Monetary Fund, and for the regulation of private finance.

Is this how our story is due to end?

Whether one takes an optimistic or pessimistic view on what the Glasgow Summit achieved, it is impossible to ignore the fact that humanity’s hopes of avoiding the worst impacts of the destruction of natural world hang by a thread. At COP26 David Attenborough asked ‘Is this how our story is due to end? A tale of the smartest species doomed by that all too human characteristic of failing to see the bigger picture in pursuit of short-term goals.’[6] In truth, though it may have offered some insight as to where we are headed, the Glasgow Summit didn’t provide an answer to Attenborough’s question.

What is clear is that the actions we take collectively in 2022, and every year this decade and beyond, will be crucial in determining humanity’s fate. It is the task of progressives to ensure that we not only deliver accelerated action to address climate change and restore nature, but also create a fairer and more just world in the process.

Luke Murphy, Becca Massey-Chase, Josh Emden

  1. Milman O and Walker P (2021) ‘We are digging our own graves’: world leaders’ powerful words at Cop26’, The Guardian, 1st November 2021.
  2. ibid
  1. Maguire P (2021) ‘Cop26 gets ‘more than six out of ten’, The Times, 15TH November 2021.
  1. Monbiot G (2021) ‘After the failure of Cop26, there’s only one last hope for our survival’, The Guardian, 14th November 2021.
  1. Harvey F (2021) 'Cop26: world on track for disastrous heating of more than 2.4C, says key report', The Guardian, 9th November 2021.
  1. Attenborough D (2021) ‘David Attenborough COP26 Climate Summit Glasgow Speech Transcript’, Rev, 1st November 2021.