Joshua Matthewman, Director, Temple Scott Associates Inc.
The campus for COP26 screams big event – sprawling across a few square miles of downtown Glasgow, with the security perimeter extending even further, essentially taking over a portion of the city for two weeks. And in terms of attendance by national political leaders – a useful proxy for political prioritization – this was the biggest COP since the 2015 summit that led to the Paris Agreement. But, upon hearing my accent, the immediate reaction of most Glaswegians that I interacted with during the last few days was to ask, “are you here for COP?” and then a question that likely made any self-critical attendee of the summit feel small: “Is it working?” The second question was always impossible to answer during the course of buying coffee or lunch, but I have a chance of doing so in the coming paragraphs.
After decades of COPs, most attendees of this summit that I spoke to said that they hadn’t come to Glasgow expecting to solve climate change in two weeks and that the event’s most powerful function is to build international momentum around major policy announcements. Variations of that statement always came off to me as a highly-reasonable recognition that much of the work to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change is done domestically by individual countries. But it could also be easy cynicism and an implicit indictment of the international community’s very slow progress towards agreeing on a shared approach to fighting climate change – something that COP26 only partially alleviated.
That said, during the first week of this COP, a flood of policy pledges made by national leaders and climate/environment Ministers substantially increased the global community’s stated ambitions for fighting climate change. Included in those announcements were global agreements on reversing deforestation, $100 billion in public finance to help developing countries fight climate change, $130 trillion in private finance, through various banking and big business vehicles, to bolster the fight against climate change; and multi-lateral agreements to phase out coal-fired power and halt investment in global fossil fuels projects that don’t have a carbon abatement component.
Partially as a result of those announcements, a new report published last week indicated that if all policies in countries’ existing Nationally Determined Contributions (the periodic emissions targets and reports for each country under the Paris Agreement) and new pledges made at COP26 are fulfilled, global warming would be limited to 1.9 degrees Celsius, or 0.3 degrees more than the target set out by the Paris Agreement. The problem lies with fulfilling the pledges fully and on time – but that report inspired real optimism amongst the COP delegates
Most stakeholders that I spoke to conceded that delivery on those pledges by individual countries is the real test, and this is notably where Canada faces some real challenges, due to the split Federal-Provincial jurisdiction of environmental and energy policy. That said, Canada played a large role in one of the signature issues and announcements of this COP, with Jonathan Wilkinson, the new Federal Minister of Natural Resources, notably spearheading the campaign to secure $100 billion in financial commitments to support climate change adaptation in the developing world.
A recurring joke at COP that the Ministers themselves will even acknowledge is that Ministers Guilbeault and Wilkinson are like Batman and Robin – the punch line being the question “which one is Batman”. The joke points to the truth that, after the post-Election 2021 Cabinet appointment, Canada increasingly has a multi-departmental approach to the climate change file, with Minister Wilkinson given the Natural Resources portfolio in order to make changes that will incorporate that Department more fully into the Federal climate plan. Going forward, climate and environment stakeholders should ensure that their Federal government relations include outreach to both these Ministers, as Natural Resources Canada will no longer have a predominantly economic policy lens.
It was also very notable at COP how Wilkinson continues to lead alongside Minister Guilbeault on the international stage. For example, Minister Wilkinson was also tasked with announcing Canada’s commitment to end new direct public support for international unabated fossil fuel projects by the end of 2022 and with profiling Canada’s Hydrogen Strategy as a key tool for achieving the Federal climate targets for 2030 and net-zero by 2050. It’s clear there is a belief – or hope – at the political level of government that hydrogen development can help deliver on the Liberal Party’s Election 2021 pledge to cap emissions from the oil and gas sector while still maintaining growth of the Canadian energy sector.
The Rest of COP
Political stakeholders at COP are very conscious that the first week of the summit saw a flood of aspirational announcements that the national negotiators will have to figure out how to operationalize during the second week when many Ministers and national leaders have gone home.
On Saturday, my first full day at COP26, 100,000 people marched three miles through downtown Glasgow to demand that the political leaders and government negotiators at the Summit do more to combat climate change. Negotiators and delegates inside the COP venue could hear the policy helicopters observing the march from inside. Looked at from a certain angle, it could be said that the march was the single biggest event associated with COP, and that’s before considering similar marches that occurred the same day in London, England, and elsewhere across the world.
It’s clear then that some political and public will for COP to succeed at establishing a framework to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming exists. And that’s what makes it all the more frustrating to many stakeholders that six years later (with one COP cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic), the COP26 negotiations are in large part about agreeing upon rules of operation for an obscure and extremely technical section of the COP21 Paris Agreement. If and when formalized, Article 6 of the Agreement would create global carbon markets and credit trading and other forms of international public-private cooperation to tackle climate change.
In my mind, the single biggest thing to watch for the remainder of COP26 is the outcome of those negotiations. For Canada, interest in finalizing rules for Article 6 lies in part in bringing along more of the world – and of our economic competitors – with carbon pricing. Early in the Conference, Prime Minister Trudeau made a strong public push for a global minimum carbon price, but the pitch seems to have fizzled. However, any framework for Article 6 that emerges out of COP26 would go some way to determining the global financial, and economic parameters for fighting climate change and the kinds of innovation opportunities can arise from that.