Why We Shouldn’t Write Off COP26 Before It’s Even Started

As we approach the COP26 climate talks, I’m reminded of a Chinese proverb. It is not appropriate to interrupt someone who does it. In other words, it’s easy to give up, but having a go is better.

Two camps emerge as world leaders, CEOs, and activists get ready to meet in Glasgow. My fellow prisoners of hope believe that humanity can prevent catastrophic temperature rises. Many cynics have already declared COP26 a failure since its inception.

It’s certainly true the talks won’t deliver everything. Rarely do these events deliver everything. Notably from China or Russia, important heads of state won’t be there. It is possible to expect too many empty words, greenwashing, and overemphasis of 2040-2050 targets when there are real opportunities for cutting emissions.
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But while all this must be called out, let’s not write-off the talks prematurely. We’re in even deeper trouble if healthy cynicism tips into lazy fatalism. It is a matter of life and death for humanity. We simply can’t throw in the towel.

Glasgow will need to determine if recent climate momentum is continuing. There are more countries and industries moving in the right direction than ever before. We must accelerate this transformation.

One would not have thought that the world would make greater strides in tackling global warming during COVID-19 than it did over the past five years. Although it was predicted that the pandemic would bring down the global climate agenda, and allow polluters to get off the hook, the number of net-zero targets adopted by 21 countries has increased to 131. It has tripled the amount of large companies who have adopted net zero targets.

Through coalitions such as the U.N.’s Race to Zero we’re seeing powerful groups of business leaders backing decarbonisation across key sectors, including food, fashion, travel and tourism, and even high-abatement sectors such as aviation and steel. The financial markets have begun to move. The net zero goal was achieved by $5 trillion worth of private financial assets last year. It’s now $90tr.

None of this is yet enough and we shouldn’t be self-congratulatory or naïve. The summer’s IPCC report made clear that speeding climate change is a ‘code red’ for humanity, to quote the UN Secretary General. Now, we know that global emissions have to drop by 45% within the next nine-years. Current forecasts indicate a rise. Indeed, the goalposts are now shifting.

You have even more reason to profit from the positive shifts that are occurring. A world without government and C-suite is not a good idea. The world might finally get on the right track if we were to double our current rate of progress over the next 18 month. Even the visceral frustration felt by many young people—on display when a young Scottish activist recently tore into Shell’s CEO—is ultimately a good thing. It’s cause and symptom of a world waking up.

Ex-Greenpeace Head Paul Gilding puts it well: “we [humans] wait for a crisis to be underway and then respond dramatically,” whether WWII or the 2008 credit crunch. The best innovation happens in the last minute. “It’s inefficient, its expensive, it’s frustrating,” Gilding says. With climate change, it was inevitable that things would continue to be this way.

A way to see potential progress beyond the national emission commitments is by looking at it from a different perspective. There are deadlines. For example, 2025 and 2030 should be widely recognized milestones in the shift to electric cars and stopping deforestation. The steps taken to eliminate coal from the planet will also be important.

It is urgent that we take action against methane. This gas threatens the earth’s ability to heat faster than carbon. There is growing support for limits. So is support for vital ‘nature-based solutions’, in which we protect and regenerate our natural environment, including forests and soils, to renew our planetary health.

We need a COP which places partnership at the core of all our efforts. Andrew Winston, a leading sustainability thought leader, and I discuss in Net Positive how overhauling the world economy within the available time will require unprecedented speed and scale. Incrementalism and siloed thinking won’t cut it. For transformational change to occur, we need large, coordinated actions from all parts of society. This includes governments, businesses, and civil society.

We can’t yet say that Glasgow will move us forward on all these fronts, and we can’t say it won’t. Most likely we’ll be left a mixture of disappointed and encouraged: buoyed by the fact we are doing more than ever, and still terrified it won’t be enough.

It is the imperfect, messy and fragmented process by which humankind wakes up to climate crisis. Our species has reached a unique moment in its history when it is asked to fulfill a higher purpose. Defeatism is easy, but it’s an abdication of responsibility and it won’t get us anywhere. Only optimism, coupled with a sense of urgency and tempered with realism, will change the trajectory of our lives.


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