Michael Jacobs, Professor of Political Economy at the Department of Politics and International Relations, shares his thoughts about whether the conference was a success in addressing the climate emergency.

An optimist, someone once said, is a pessimist not in full possession of the facts. After COP26 is this what we should think of people who are optimistic about humanity’s ability to tackle climate change? Or has the conference given them some genuine grounds for hope?

The case for pessimism is not hard to make. Even if governments around the world fully achieve all the targets they have set for cutting emissions by 2030, the world will still be on course for an average global temperature rise of 2.4C above pre-industrial levels. That would lead to catastrophe impacts on humanity and nature.

How did COP26 respond to this? It decided countries should come back in a year’s time with stronger targets. To the lay observer it hardly seemed like a dramatic political awakening to the depth of the climate emergency.

And yet this was in practice all that the conference could have done. Governments had already announced their pledges beforehand, and it was by no means certain that they would agree to revisit them next year. So in this sense COP26 does offer grounds for hope. It is the hope that over the next year the forces in society demanding accelerated climate action – scientists, concerned citizens, youth protestors and green businesses – will prove stronger than those wishing to preserve the status quo, and governments will be forced to respond.

But optimism and pessimism depend on your location. For the poorest countries now struggling with variable seasons and frequent extreme weather events, COP26 did not offer much hope. They received a promise from the rich countries that they would get more aid to help them cope. But there was no progress on recognising that they should be compensated by the developed countries for the loss and damage they are suffering but which they did not cause.  

In truth we won’t know whether COP26 was a success or failure until next year, or more properly until the end of the decade. It might prove to be the historic turning point in the battle against global heating. Or it might be just another missed opportunity when the governments of the world failed to see the danger that humanity is in. We are running out of last chances for that.