Having been involved in the climate change ‘world’ for over 20 years, I look back on another COP summit with very mixed feelings. For all the positive momentum, and there certainly is some (see my colleagues’ excellent interim observations presented last week), I’m finding it hard to get past the things that were not achieved.

The clarion calls for action are deafening - Mia Motley’s impassioned speech will stand in many memories for a long time. The scientific evidence is consistent and clear – but it has been for so very long. The technology and approaches we need are in many cases there already, and the collective will and desire for action is strong. The political ambition to make grand statements seems equally robust but, all too often, the ability to deliver on the commitments made is lacking.

Celebrating positive progress

There are of course positives to reflect on. The agreement to halt deforestation can only be celebrated – albeit potentially still too late. We can hope this will also be picked up and driven forward under the banner of part two of the (much less widely-reported, but nonetheless very important) COP15 on Biodiversity in China in the spring.

The agreement on methane is clear. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, emissions are increasing and reducing these is certainly part of the overall challenge. But praising a reduction of 30% by 2030, when it makes up only ~17% of global CO2e emissions, detracts from the main event (the 75% of global CO2e emissions which are CO2).

On overall ambitions, a very positive step was the strong and reiterated message that we need commitments that limit temperature increase to 1.5C. Strengthening the targets set out in the NDCs (Nationally-defined Contributions) is also welcome. But scientific evidence produced during COP26 showed that current commitments align at best with a 2.7C future. That only reinforces the scale of the challenge. In reality, the (significant) monies committed for adaptation are a necessity rather than something to dance about.

The ‘out of the blue’ side agreement between the US and China also looks to have potential, including on electrification. It is even more notable in view of recent past performance and the criticism of both nations. But, as with many things, the devil is in the detail and there is as much unsaid as said.

Too many disappointments 

Foremost among the disappointments has to be the fine words on ‘urgency’ still not being reflected enough in commitments and action. Most significantly this time, was the last-minute watering down of the conference text on coal power. Replacing ‘Phase Out’ with Phase ‘Down’ is such a simple change in language, but its implications are significant and will have far-reaching repercussions. 

With the heavy presence of the fossil fuel lobby – reportedly the largest group present at COP – this climbdown is unlikely to have been a coincidence. That said, there are positive commitments from a smaller group of nations to halt subsidies for coal.

That then leads to another disappointment: the lack of progress on loss and damage. These are the reparations for harm done, delivering support for developing nations for the ‘just transition’ that we should all recognise is fair and appropriate. Short-termism and the ongoing prioritisation of self-interest still remain the greatest threat to global action. It is the barrier to the foundation of positive change: collaboration. 

From frustration to cautious optimism

With hope and need running so high it’s hardly any wonder that the overall outcome was disappointing. As the dust settles, along with the contrails from the private jets, all eyes will now be on Sharm El Sheikh as the circus rolls towards COP27. But there should also be cautious optimism. 

Whatever the role and results of the COP,  private sector activity on greenhouse gas reduction gains strength and momentum all the time. There is progress in technology and practice, directly and in supply chains, driven in response to consumer expectation, commercial pressures or industry-level initiatives such as TCFD (Task Force for Climate-related Financial Disclosure, plus also the TNFD on nature/biodiversity).

These efforts are having a clear impact in areas such as decarbonisation of the built environment, through energy efficiency and conservation. We are seeing organisations acting at a global level, driven by encouragement or requirement, particularly in nations at the leading edge of large-scale, net zero and zero carbon development. 

Ultimately, as engineers, designers, planners and policymakers we must invest ourselves fully in tackling the challenges that we face at every level. There is still a long way to go, but we must drive forward the ‘solutions’ - regardless of what is being asked for - in the knowledge that it is the right thing to do. Continuing to contribute to an unsustainable status quo is unacceptable and lacks integrity. As Greta Thunberg reflected on COP26, ‘the real work continues outside these halls.

COP26 in review: now eyes must turn to the private sector | Royal HaskoningDHV