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COP26: The Good, the Bad and the Politics

16 September 1987 was known as the landmark moment that brought the world together in agreement to protect the environment. It was the day the Montreal Protocol was signed in what is still largely recognised as one of the most successful global environmental treaties. To date, it is the only United Nations (UN) treaty to be ratified by every country in the world. 

For nearly 3 decades since then, the UN has been bringing together countries all over the world for annual global climate summits - known as COPs or ‘Conference of the Parties’ - to build on actionable steps towards tackling climate change. 

Few of these summits have ever been touted as game changers, but the most recent COP26, which was held in Glasgow in November 2021, was heralded as one. But why is it so important? To gain an understanding of its significance, it is first crucial to gain some insight into the COPs that have transpired before.

Actionable Steps: The Kyoto Protocol of 1997 (COP3)

Following closely behind the Montreal Protocol was the 1997 Kyoto Protocol that became the next significant step towards curbing global warming. It set a binding target for industrialised nations to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. By setting such targets, it created market mechanisms for emissions, allowing countries to ‘give and take’ amongst themselves, while still abiding to the common goal of reducing emissions as a whole.

However, while the architecture of the agreement was sound, it lacked an effective enforcement structure. Penalties for failure to comply had loopholes that rendered them ineffective, and conversely, these market mechanisms became mere financial tools for making profits, with the original goal of reducing GHG emissions being relegated to the wayside.

As a result of the glaring deficiencies in the Kyoto Protocol agreement, it was deemed to be a failure and terminated. It was only in 2015 that its spirit was revived in the Paris Agreement of 2015. 

Landmark Commitments: The Paris Agreement of 2015 (COP21)

The Paris Agreement, often referred to as the Paris Accords or the Paris Climate Accords, is an international treaty on climate change, adopted by 196 parties at the twenty-first Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris, on 12 December 2015. Its goal was to limit global warming to well below 2°C, if not 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels.

The Paris Agreement was a landmark and transformational international agreement. It was the first binding agreement that brought all nations together with a common objective to tackle climate change. It was transformational as the details of what and how each nation could contribute to the initiative could be revised and updated as they progressed.

The implementation of the Paris Agreement required economic and social transformation from all countries involved, which needed these nations to submit their ambitious climate action plans by 2020, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). 

However, their NDC pledges have been criticised as incompatible with the commitment to limit global warming to well below 2°C, preferably to 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels. And these criticisms have proved themselves valid. In retrospect, those commitments actually resulted in a 3°C temperature rise instead.

Keeping the Paris Agreement Alive: The Glasgow Climate Pact of 2021 (COP26)

The Paris Agreement was thus, staring down termination in the face as well. However, it was given new life at the twenty-sixth Conference of the Parties (COP26). At COP26, plans were made to secure the goals of the Paris Agreement, and finalise any outstanding elements.

On plans to limit emissions, an all-inclusive 11-page document entitled the Glasgow Climate Pact, highlighted that GHG emanations must be reduced by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 for temperature rise to be sustained at 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. It also noted that with present emanation reduction commitments, emissions will be almost 14% higher by 2030, as compared to 2010. Extensive reductions in emissions are needed and must happen soon. But for COP26 to be effective, the goals and targets needed to be reinforced and consolidated to keep the ambitions of the Paris Agreement alive. 

This sentiment was echoed by COP26 President Alok Sharma, who gave a speech at the conference shortly before negotiations concluded. He mentioned that even though they were well aware that ambitions have fallen short of the commitments made in Paris, the 1.5°C goal was very much still alive. However, he took note to raise the point that “its (the goal) pulse is weak, and it will only survive if we keep our promises and translate commitments into rapid action.”

A ‘Fragile Win’

While COP26 was seen as the last chance to finalise carbon market rules, researchers have demonstrated comfort and consolation that the climate change meeting in Glasgow did not fall short of producing agreements. But still, some attendees left the COP26 summit disappointed with the inadequacy of stronger allegiance to reduce emanations. 

Although elimination of fossil fuels was brought to the forefront of negotiations for the first time, the words ‘phase out’ were changed to ‘phase down’ upon request from China and India, watering down the impact of one of the key goals of the Glasgow Climate Pact.

In addition, developing nations failed to include an agreement on a loss and damage funding mechanism for countries susceptible to or harmed by climate change. They argued that developed nations had their opportunity to build their economies, thanks to cheap energy and unchecked greenhouse gases that were freely emitted before. And they questioned their responsibility for the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and global warming - which has been called the original sin of developed economies - for the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. 

Even the consensus to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C faced questions. One of the authors of this commentary conducted a simulation study that evaluated the impacts of energy research and development (R&D) investments against different emissions abatement policies in the global context. Four abatement policies were used for this study - No policy, the Optimal policy, the 2°C policy and the most restrictive 1.5°C policy. The results in fact, revealed that meeting the goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C was the most costly, without necessarily being more effective[1]

The Verdict

Science sends the world an unequivocal warning about climate change, and economics provides efficient and fair tools for coping with the global bad. What remains in coping with the global bad is political will. But COP26 appears to have kept both the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement alive, sowing a seed of hope for politics to deal with the global bad. 

The immediate effects of climate change and global warming is just the tip of the iceberg, and the world must all learn to live within its planetary boundaries. Negotiations should focus on more ambitious targets for 2030 to avoid reaching a tipping point.

This article is written by Associate Professor Chang Young Ho, Head, Business and Management Minor, SUSS School of Business, and Dr. Christopher Toh, a recent Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) graduate from SUSS.

[1] Energy R&D Investments and Emissions Abatement Policy, Energy Journal (2020) -


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