COP26: More than ‘blah blah blah’?

16 November 2021

Climate science at the political level often comes down to a numbers game. Throughout the almost 30-year cycle of the UN Conference of the Parties, climate targets and financial commitments have been the headline grabbers.

No doubt progress was made at the COP26 – the freshly minted Glasgow Climate Pact encompasses several shiny new pledges.

The principal achievement is that any agreement was reached at all, even as more robust text on a coal phase-out was replaced at the last minute with “phase-down” through the joint actions of China and India. Nonetheless, the text offers “some building blocks for progress,” according to António Guterres, UN Secretary General.

Cities represented at COP26 demonstrated that any transformative action on the path to climate neutrality (1.5C) needs to firmly involve the local level. By showcasing local pathways for change and the collective power of cities, the final declaration recognises the important role of local communities and highlights the urgent need for multilevel and cooperative action.

In addition, other positive take-aways include references that leave the door open for future access to sustainable finance for cities, and a call to integrate climate adaptation into local, national and regional planning.

Adapting to the climate reality

Big announcements over the past two weeks have included:

  • Over 120 countries, representing roughly 90% of the world’s forest cover, pledging to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030.
  • More than 100 countries agreeing to cut methane emissions by 2030
  • More than 40 major coal users, including Poland, Vietnam and Chile agreeing to shift away from coal

In terms of the negotiations, it was recognised the rich nations will fall short of a previous pledge to provide $100bn of climate finance to poorer countries annually (in 2019 for instance, around $80bn was provided). As such, progress towards this goal will be monitored every two years, and a determination was set to move significantly beyond this marker in the coming years.

However, one of the many frustrations for many was the lack of any mechanism to address ‘loss and damage’, i.e. the societal and financial costs that are heaped onto the most vulnerable societies.

For cities, the Glasgow Declaration on Zero-Emission Cars and Vans, which aims to end the sale of internal combustion engines by 2035 in leading markets, and by 2040 worldwide, also carries some significance.

Mayors Alliance at COP26

Mayors across Europe recognise that climate action and social progress are two sides of the same coin.

The Mayors Alliance for the European Green Deal, which gathers more than 50 mayors and city leaders, wants to accelerate this action and showcase the path cities are taking to implement a 1.5 degrees life.

In Glasgow, a gathering of the Mayors Alliance further highlighted the need for a fair transition that includes appropriate financing at the heart of the climate agenda, to ensure that nobody is left behind in the transition.

As a previous Minister for the Environment in the Netherlands, who was able to negotiate during the COP21 in Paris, Sharon Dijksma, Mayor of Utrecht said she felt that being a mayor is really an opportunity to “bring Paris home.”

But, as she mentioned, the goal of the Paris Agreement won’t hold up unless it has the backing of people, and that includes people of all backgrounds – a view shared by Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol, who explained his city’s recruitment drive for “black and green ambassadors” as an intentional effort to recruit people from BAME backgrounds to be ambassadors for the environmental movement.

A point made by Michelle Rubirola, First Deputy Mayor of Marseille, where citizen assemblies have been created, highlights this desire of cities to ensure the green transition works for people. For Rubirola, the lived experience of people is often a much better indicator of how climate solutions can be implemented than starting with climate science.

In Oslo, where a focus is to “improve health and reduce social inequality,” people can apply to an energy and climate fund that can help with tasks such as installing charging points, heat pumps, or solar panels, according to Sirin Hellvin Stav, Deputy Mayor of Oslo.

For other cities, notably Budapest and Prague, where the Mayors recently penned a joint letter, other structural challenges persist.

“There is no fight against the climate crisis without cities,” said Gergely Karácsony, Mayor of Budapest. And, as he continued, “cities are especially important in the Central and Eastern European Region where national governments are not doing enough.”

Cities like Zagreb are doing what they can with city budgets to encourage more use of active and public transportation. According to Mayor Tomislav Tomašević the city subsidises around 80% of the costs of public transport, including by making it free for many of the most vulnerable users.

In Lyon, steps are being taken to guard against energy poverty, according to Bruno Bernard, President of Lyon Metropole, by insulating private housing. The hope is that this will lead to a 40-50% reduction in the energy bills of the most vulnerable households, who are able to benefit from help for their renovation projects.

The Prague energy community, meanwhile, outlines an ambition, shared by Mayor Zdeněk Hřib, to have solar panels on the roofs of 20,000 residential buildings.

Watch the event here:


Alex Godson Eurocities Writer