Leaders Let Us Down at COP26 — Here’s What We Can Do Now

Alexandra Nemeth

Senior Manager, Content Marketing & Storytelling at MovingWorlds

COP26 happened, but its significance is still up for debate. Some would tell you that it was a major success that marked real progress, but others like Greta Thunberg would tell you it was a “failure” and “greenwash festival.” 

Strides were certainly made, but progress is not happening fast enough or going far enough to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees celsius, the target set out in the Paris Agreement to avoid the most catastrophic scenario. Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever, lamented that “The last-minute weakening of commitments to end coal and fossil fuels was heartbreaking and driven by a handful of big polluters. Even the most optimistic estimates say we are off-track to limit global temperature rises to 1.5”.

Like COPs past, COP26 brought a flurry of new net-zero commitments, but many pushed their net-zero time horizons out into 2050, 2060, or 2070, disregarding targets set for 2030 and 2040.

Keep reading for a high level overview of the progress and pitfalls of COP26, which countries and companies are driving towards net-zero with the urgency this moment requires, and how you can use your voice to be an advocate for more urgent climate action.

Key highlights (and caveats) from COP26:

  • A number of countries – including the world’s third-largest emitter, India – unveiled new net-zero pledges (however, the majority of them are set for well beyond 2030, the deadline established by the Sustainable Development Goals and a growing body of climate research to keep warming within the range of 1.5 degrees Celsius) 
  • The Glasgow agreement from COP26 is the first agreement to explicitly call out coal, the most polluting of the fossil fuels (however, the final language was weakened from “phase out” to “phase down” at the last minute by major coal-using countries including China, India, and South Africa)
  • Rules were established to formalize the global carbon market, and the long awaited “Paris Rulebook” was completed to determine how countries will submit and report on climate progress moving forward
  • Over 100 countries including the US signed on to the Global Methane Pledge to cut emissions 30% by the end of the decade 
  • More money was committed to “adaptation funds” for countries most vulnerable to the worst effects of climate change (however, previous commitments to climate finance from the Paris Agreement remain way below target, and a proposed fund for “loss and damage” was blocked by the US, EU, and UK)
  • Over 20 countries and financial institutions vowed to halt all financing of fossil fuel development overseas (however, there is still plenty of domestic production going on)
  • The International Sustainability Standards Board (ISSB) was launched, resulting in a convergence of global standards around ESG and sustainability reporting
  • Over 100 nations pledged to halt deforestation by 2030 

Yes, there were a lot of important firsts, but these are conversations and commitments that should have happened 20 years ago. Greta has a point about it being “watered down blah blah blah.” Weakened fossil fuel language made the final cut, and the final deal does not include a fund for loss and damage. The dream of keeping “1.5 alive” is hanging by a thread, and that window of opportunity will soon slam shut. This chart from Carbon Brief shows that our current policies are not nearly stringent enough to achieve the climate protection we need.

As Inger Andersen, executive director of the UNEP, told COP26 delegates on Tuesday: “It is not good to see that net-zero pledges are generally vague and untransparent; they are hard to calculate and hold to account; many kick the can beyond 2030, when we know that we need to halve our emissions between now and 2030 to be on track to limit warming to 1.5C.”

Which countries and companies are actually taking urgent action?

While it’s easy to get caught on all the shortfalls, we also need to highlight the proof points that show us that there is a way to build back better. Just like the inspiring social entrepreneurs working on sustainable change at the community levels, there are organizations that are making progress at the global and system level. 

Things are moving in the right direction, albeit slowly. 137 countries have committed to carbon neutrality, as tracked by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit and confirmed by pledges to the Carbon Neutrality Coalition and recent policy statements by governments. Visual Capitalist has a great breakdown of carbon neutrality goals by country that reveals most are targeting 2050. 

There are some early achievers though, proving that net zero is possible. So far, Bhutan and Suriname are the only two countries that have achieved carbon neutrality and are actually carbon negative. Following closely behind is Uruguay’s 2030 target, followed by Europe’s Finland, Austria, Iceland, Germany, and Sweden, who are all targeting 2045 or earlier. The rest of the countries? They fell well short of expectations, and it will take passionate people like you to help pressure politicians for more urgent action.

Of course, this isn’t a problem that can be solved by governments alone, and cross-sector collaboration is needed for faster, transformational change. The race to net zero is on in the private sector as well, and a rapidly growing number of companies have made net zero commitments

COP26 also generated a number of headline-earning statements from the private sector, but many of these fall short of the level of commitments needed to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees, and they don’t do it fast enough. Prior to COP26, CNN reported that more than 200 companies – including Twitter, Salesforce, Amazon, and Procter & Gamble – pledged to hit net zero by 2040. But this is 10 years behind the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and doesn’t prioritize the type of action needed to preserve the health of our planet. 

Indeed, some of the biggest sponsors of COP26 are the world’s biggest polluters. Only a few companies have really prioritized sustainability and social good targets – commonly referred to as Environmental Social Governance (ESG) – into their core business model in a way that aligns with both the Sustainable Development Goals and COP26 aspirations. 

To learn more about ESG, check out our complete guide here.

The companies that have made major investments and business model shifts to prioritize the move towards sustainable, and even regenerative operations, demonstrate that businesses can prioritize social good and benefit their business. Take Alphabet (Google), Swiss Re, and ING, which are already carbon neutral. Beyond tech and finance, even product companies with massive supply chains like L’Oréal and Apple have already hit carbon neutral targets, and have more aggressive targets that they are tracking to achieve before 2030. Other leaders in corporate ESG include Unilever and SAP which will be achieving Science-based Targets well before 2030. And they are doing so for good reasons. As Paul Polman shared, “Achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals will yield an economic gain of $26 Trillion.”

This chart from Visual Capitalist shows Fortune 500 companies and their targets – with the Science Based Targets (SBT) as the most laudable – and hardest to achieve – target. 

How you can advocate for more urgent climate action

As Paul Polman wrote, “Following COP26, we have an opportunity to ratchet up the pressure on those in power, isolating the selfish, short-sighted minority, and demanding our leaders wake up and act fast. Anything less is a crime against humanity. Enough seeds were planted in Glasgow, we must harvest the fruits in time.” 

Driving a shift on this scale will require action across all levels, sectors, industries, and facets of society. But as big as the challenge is, there are things we can do on the individual level to hold the powerful accountable to save our planet:

Keep Pressuring Politicians

We need elected officials who acknowledge and are prepared to act on the climate crisis we’re facing. Participate in elections and vote for candidates that treat this like the priority it is. Schedule 30 min in your calendar once a month and call your legislators to remind them to prioritize climate change. Simply Google “Call my elected officials for climate action” – many countries have guides that will give you templates and the numbers you need.

Work for world-positive companies

If you’re considering a career change, use lists like the one above to filter potential companies based on their sustainability and climate practices.

Advocate within your company

Another way to drive this shift forward is to engage in social intrapreneurship to make your company more sustainable from the inside out. You can check out our complete guide to social intrapreneurship here.

Support the front-line advocates

Young people made their voice heard at this COP more than any other – and young people will continue to be critical to driving this shift forward. Support collective action groups like Fridays for Future, an international climate movement started by Greta herself, and Sunrise Movement, a nonprofit working to stop climate change and create millions of good-paying jobs in the process.

Buy Consciously

Consider the environmental practices and carbon footprint of companies you’re thinking about buying something from. Don’t believe headlines and fancy labels – do your diligence by finding brands on the Environmental Working Group to see if they are really doing the real work. 

Systems change is not easy, and it doesn’t happen overnight. But we are undoubtedly moving in the right direction. COP26 didn’t solve all of our problems, but the fact that coal and fossil fuels made it into the final deal despite fierce opposition, long-awaited rules for a global carbon market and ESG reporting were established, a new consensus on ending deforestation was reached, and private capital committed more assets under management to net zero than ever before is worth celebrating. Would we have liked to see more accomplished? Absolutely. But as Paul Polman said, “We owe it to humanity to seize on the important strides being taken. They create the platform from which we must accelerate. To put it bluntly: What other choice do we have?”