The 5 Most Significant Promises Made At COP26 & What They Actually Mean

A lot of promises were made at COP26, but which ones can be kept?

by Sophie McEvoy
A general view of the Action Hub is pictured during the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgo...

If you’ve picked up a British newspaper in the last two weeks, it’s likely you’ve come across stories about COP26, the global climate conference that has seen more than 120 world leaders and 20,000 delegates arrive in Glasgow to discuss the future of our planet.

Some of the most widely-shared stories have centred on the Queen’s absence, David Attenborough’s powerful speech at the opening ceremony, Boris Johnson’s lack of mask, and Leonardo DiCaprio’s surprise appearance. But what about the conference itself?

While the substance of what is being discussed at COP26 couldn’t be more pressing, the truth is that the quotas and statistics can be hard to keep up with. On top of that, promises from world leaders about saving the planet can often feel empty, leading lots of people to disengage with the subject altogether.

With this in mind, I have scoured news outlets and official documents from COP26 to try and find out what’s really going on. Below, I have highlighted five of the most noteworthy pledges to emerge from the conference and dug deep into the detail, trying to figure out whether what’s being promised can ever actually be achieved. While some of this information may leave you feeling anxious, I hope others (like the promises on cheap green tech) will give you hope that, if our world leaders stick to their word, we may see the tide turn on climate change.

On Ending Deforestation

The promise: More than 130 leaders pledge to end deforestation by 2030.

What it means: Leaders from countries that collectively lay claim to over 85% of the world’s forests have pledged to commit to halting and reversing forest loss and land degradation by 2030. These include countries with the highest rates of deforestation such as Angola, Brazil, Columbia, Indonesia, Ghana, Peru, and Papua New Guinea. The 137 countries have commit nearly £14 billion of public and private funds in total to fund protection and restoration of forests around the globe.

Will it work? While leaders like Prime Minister Boris Johnson, U.S. President Joe Biden, China's Xi Jinping, and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro have signed the deal, it has not yet been determined how it will be enforced. Scientists have pointed to previous, failed deforestation pledges, suggesting that without concrete, legal commitments, this one may go the same way. For example, the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests, which was launched at the 2014 UN climate summit, was unable to meet its objectives of halving deforestation by 2020. In fact, according to Professor Simon Lewis, an expert on climate and forests at University College London, it “failed to slow deforestation at all.”

On UK Firms Hitting Net Zero

The promise: UK firms and financial institutions have to show how they plan to hit net zero by 2023.

What it means: Under proposed rules from the UK Treasury, “most” firms and financial institutions in the country will have to produce plans as to how they’ll become net zero by 2023. This will be part of the UK government’s wider aim for the whole country to be net zero by 2050.

The standards for these plans will be set by an expert panel of industry leaders, academics, regulators and civil society groups. This task force will reportedly try to prevent the “greenwashing” of plans, which is when a company or organisation dedicates more time and money on saying they’re environmentally friendly rather than implementing actual initiatives.

Will it work? While the plans are mandatory, any commitments made won’t be. The government argues that the proposals aim to “increase transparency and accountability of businesses” rather than “making firm-level net-zero commitments mandatory.”

Despite trying to avoid the label of greenwashing, some critics have argued that, if the committments aren’t legally binding, this promise will end up being exactly that.

On Quitting Coal Power

The promise: More than 40 countries pledge to quit coal power by 2030.

What it means: Some of the heaviest coal producers in the world have pledged to phase out the fossil fuel, including the world’s fourth-largest emitter Indonesia. These countries have also agreed to the UK-led plan to “speed up affordable and clean technology worldwide by 2030.”

In a separate pledge, the likes of Italy, Canada, the United States, and Denmark have promised to stop financing overseas fossil fuels by 2022 and divert money to clean energy.

Will it work? Again, as the BBC notes, none of the commitments are legallh binding, so there won’t be any consequences if countries don’t stick to this pledge. And with the world’s four biggest coal producers – China, India, the U.S., and Australia – not lending their names to the pledge, it’s unlikely to make the required impact.

On Making Green Tech More Affordable

The Promise: Leaders plan to make green tech cheaper than alternatives.

What it means: Leaders representing more than 40 nations and two-thirds of the world’s economy have signed up to The Breakthrough Agenda, which aims to make green tech more affordable and available to all nations by 2030.

“By making clean technology the most affordable, accessible and attractive choice, the default go-to in what are currently the most polluting sectors, we can cut emissions right around the world,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said at the event. “The Glasgow Breakthroughs will turbocharge this forward, so that by 2030 clean technologies can be enjoyed everywhere, not only reducing emissions but also creating more jobs and greater prosperity.”

Will it work? Renewable energy is already the cheapest way of producing energy across the globe, and it shows no signs of slowing down. A 2019 report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) found that the cost of installation has continued to fall on a downward trajectory, which has are “expected to propel the mass adoption of renewables even further” according to Forbes. As such, this promise appears to be the most achievable in this list.

On Limiting Global Heating

The promise: COP26 participants will aim to limit global heating to below 2C for the first time in history.

What it means: According to a new assessment from the Climate Resource, the pledges put forward at COP26 puts the world on track for under 2C global heating for the first time in history. If all pledges are followed through, there’s potential that the “best-estimate peak warming” would be 1.9C this century.

Will it work? It all hangs on whether the COP26 participants follow through with the pledges and commitments they made this week. As Dr Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist and energy systems analyst at the Breakthrough Institute in California, told the Independent, “It’s easy for countries to pledge to do something in 30 to 50 years; the real test of how seriously we should take these commitments is the extent to which they are reflected.”