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Good COP, bad COP? Matthew Savage reflects on progress at the pivotal UN climate conference

March 2022

With COP26 now two months behind us, it feels like a suitable time to reflect on the outcomes as well as the experience of the event itself. I had been at a number of COPs over the previous 15 years including Paris, but this was the first time as a member of the host government organising team. My responsibilities included designing and running campaigns in the preceding 12-18 months, ensuring that large key set piece ministerial events ran smoothly, engaging in smaller meetings across the Pavilions on key UK thematic priorities, and networking with other organisations who are also seeking to drive ambitious COP outcomes.

A total of 38,457 people attended COP26 which was an achievement in itself, given COVID-19 challenges and protocols. I was struck by the scale of the operation which felt as big, if not bigger than any previous COP. It felt like there was strong desire to take advantage of the window of opportunity and make things count. It was also perhaps the first hybrid COP, with all events streamed online and with remote participants having the opportunity to engage and provide feedback. There was a strong sense of energy, commitment and urgency to move things forward in the air.

Adaptation and resilience in the spotlight

I was surprised by the dynamism of the discussions around raising ambition and commitments, with UK government colleagues working around the clock to synthesise and publicise outcomes, field questions from a sometimes challenging and sceptical media, and feed this back into the momentum of the negotiations themselves. Senior leaders were primed to hold critical conversations with sceptical counterparts to unblock progress. COP provides a unique forcing moment to create pressure on countries to raise their commitments around finance and national commitments.

Overall, while recognising that COP26 was never going to be sufficient to solve the climate crisis, the team had a strong sense that we were able to deliver at the higher end of what was politically possible and that we were able to ‘keep 1.5˚C alive’.

The “Glasgow Pact” agreement that was reached at the end of COP26, included several key outcomes on adaptation and resilience which cemented international commitment. Developed countries agreed to at least double funding for adaptation by 2025, which would amount to at least $40 billion, with specific additional new commitments to the Adaptation Fund and Least Developed Countries Fund.

Progress was also made towards a global adaptation goal. Loss and damage was mentioned 12 times within the Pact, even if support was limited to funding a technical facility. Nature based solutions (NbS) also received considerable visibility from the UK COP26 Presidency, but there was political resistance from some developing countries to including it in the final text.

Progress from cities

In terms of city-level engagement, more than 1,000 cities and local governments joined the Cities Race to Zero to raise climate action to limit global temperature rise to 1.5˚C and a number of city networks and alliances held events to raise the profile of urban resilience. There was a sense that cities and urbanisation will be at the heart of both climate ambition, finance and response going forward, although there remains much to do in terms of raising the profile of this agenda.

I get the strong impression that COP is now rapidly evolving from an event primarily focused on technical discussions around the implementation of the Paris Agreement towards one where there is equal if not greater emphasis on demonstrating progress in the real economy. The Glasgow Pact (which lies outside the UNFCCC framework) is part of this shift.

It is also clear that the role of cities and other non-state actors will become increasingly important in terms of delivering on the ambition. In this regard, Glasgow may have set the model for future COPs. We can only wish the Egyptian COP27 and all subsequent presidencies well in driving the agenda forward.

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Matthew Savage
Matthew Savage is a climate change economics expert and Director of Oxford Consulting Partners. He leads the climate economics workstream within ADB’s Urban Climate Change Resilience Trust Fund and was seconded to the COP26 Unit in the UK Government Cabinet Office between 2019-2020 to support the COP26 campaigns.