Care What Happened at COP 26? You Should.

Austin Whitman
November 18, 2021
With the highly-hyped UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) wrapping up, Climate Neutral’s Austin Whitman reflects on what happened and what comes next.

Well, the most-hyped-ever COP is over. Odds are that you watched it from afar, but maybe you were there, or maybe this is the first you’re hearing of it. In any case, you’re probably still trying to make sense of it all. Don’t worry; so is everyone.

Over the years, the COP has grown from an obscure diplomatic gathering into a global spectacle. This one, COP 26, had it all: the politics of a presidential election, the high stakes international dueling of the World Cup, and the star power and glamour of the Oscars. Assuming you consider people like John Kerry and Greta to be (climate) celebrities, which we sure do. It also had companies -- lots of companies -- which not everyone considered to be a good thing, as they dominated the buzz with advertising and announcements, clamoring for attention for their climate pledges.

What's COP 26?

If you’re in the “what’s a COP” camp, no, we’re not talking about the kind with flashing lights and tight uniforms. The Conference of the Parties is a get-together of climate diplomats and others with vested interests in the future of the global climate. Organized under the framework of a United Nations treaty, the climate COP is the main yearly event where countries work to negotiate global agreements about how to deal with the climate crisis.

COP 26 Goals

By the end, the results were mixed. The hopeful observers, half-smiling, agreed that ‘well, 1.5 is alive’ -- there is still hope of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The cynical are saying it was all fanfare, too little-too late. Our take is that this one went a lot like the others: people came with high expectations, there was drama, and in the 13th hour, an okay deal was reached. Then people left, thinking about all the work left to do.

But get this! For the first time ever, ‘fossil fuels’ were mentioned in the final agreement. Wait what? The first time ever? Yes, it seems so obvious that an agreement to end climate change might include some talk about ending fossil fuels, but it took 26 meetings to get there. No matter. Here we are, and if there is one thing to celebrate from COP 26, that’s it. The twilight of fossil fuels is here.

There were other bright spots: a large, multinational agreement on reducing methane. A big plan to reduce deforestation. Goals to increase financing for climate adaptation in developing countries. A promise by the U.S. and China to work together to reduce coal use.

So what happens next? Well, what happens next will determine the future of life on earth. There’s hope: 1.5 degrees is alive. But its survival depends on unallocated money, unsubstantiated pledges, unplanned changes, and unfunded mandates.

In other words: someone’s gotta allocate the money, substantiate the pledges, plan the changes, and fund the mandates. Who’s going to do all of that? It may be tempting to look around for an answer, but the answer is that each of us has a role to play.

Fortunately, we’ve entered what we’re calling the Great Climate Tool-Up: a period of time when people in financial technology, engineering, energy systems, human capital, money, markets, and all across the economy are setting goals around achieving a net-zero future. So many people out there are catching up to the realities of climate change and seeing the possibilities for how to contribute towards progress. 

So -- with COP26 over, what happens now is that everyone gets busy tooling up for a net-zero world. With everything that’s happening, the discussions at COP27 a year from now should be even more specific, concrete, and hopeful.

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About the Author

Austin Whitman
CEO, Change Climate

Austin Whitman is the CEO of The Change Climate Project. He started working on climate and clean energy 19 years ago and believes companies and individuals can make a huge difference for the climate if they're just shown how. When he's not engrossed in organization-building, he's probably with his family or being an amateur at one of his many hobbies.

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