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Boys stand in the coastal village of Gabura, Bangladesh, which has been struck by natural disasters several times thanks to the effects of global warming. Taken all together, pledges made at COP26 amount to the momentum that was the best reasonable hope coming out of Glasgow.Mahmud Hossain Opu/The Associated Press

COP26 was a qualified success, giving a shot of momentum to the fight against climate change at a moment when it was desperately needed.

It was also a lesson in how the annual United Nations climate summit has to change going forward – including by shifting focus to the hard work of policy implementation and finding new ways to bridge global divides – if it’s to play a meaningful role in saving the planet.

That’s not the message you’ll hear from proponents of a pair of duelling narratives, which opposing camps were pushing well before the conference’s negotiations ended Saturday. The host British government and others desperate to claim victory will pronounce this a huge step forward, with the world now united in common climate purpose. The Greta Thunberg-led protesters and other activists who always considered the whole thing an exercise in greenwashing will insist that it produced nothing but hollow declarations meant to make jet-setting elites feel good about themselves.

Both of those takes dramatically oversimplify things, as was evident from the conference’s mixed-bag final agreement.

The text includes resolutions that will translate into clear progress, such as stronger transparency in how countries deliver on their national emissions-reduction pledges and sets an expectation that countries will quickly update those pledges to put them in line with keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Elsewhere it falls somewhat short, with explicit language around ending fossil-fuel subsidies and getting off coal that was watered down at the last minute, because of objections by India (and more quietly China). It recognizes the need for funding to cover loss and damage from climate-change impacts developing countries are already experiencing, but does not include the specific financial commitments those countries sought in that regard.

Meanwhile, negotiators appear to have finally landed on rules for a carbon-credit-trading market, after years of failed attempts. That’s a breakthrough that, in theory, should help meet emissions targets by allowing countries that exceed theirs to sell credits to those falling short. But there were concerns from environmentalists that some of the compromises made to get there could weaken the overall effort.

Most countries’ representatives on Saturday expressed that they weren’t totally happy with the agreement, but that it was best not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good – a fitting recognition that something positive needed to come from Glasgow, in order to move the ball forward.

But equally important was what happened over the previous two weeks, at a sprawling conference that has evolved to become about much more than just the highly technical negotiations at its core.

It was never realistic to expect an international gathering to put firm emissions-reducing policies in place, since that hard work mostly has to be done at domestic levels. What the conference could do was compel new collaborations, exert pressure on governments to make broad new commitments, and generally build a sense of climate urgency – especially important at a moment when economies are rebuilding from the COVID-19 pandemic, and when short-term crises around energy supply threaten to distract from longer-term clean-economy transition.

In many ways, COP26 delivered on that potential.

The positive developments began with the new national emissions-reduction commitments that most participant countries (albeit with some notable exceptions) made at the conference’s outset, or before it even began. For countries that already had somewhat ambitious goals, this meant raising previous targets – in Canada’s case, from 30 per cent to 40 per cent below 2005 emissions levels by 2030. For other countries, it meant setting targets for the first time. India, for instance, set a relatively modest one of net-zero emissions by 2070. For almost every country that made a pledge, it was fear of being embarrassed by turning up here empty-handed that was the impetus.

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More progress came nearer the conference’s end, with a surprising co-operation declaration from the United States and China. While rather broad in its language, the agreement to stay in close contact on a range of climate policy areas – including through the creation of a new working group that is to meet regularly – is badly needed at a time when there is otherwise so much ill will between the two superpowers. (It also somewhat diminished the common perception that China was missing in action here, although the country’s failure to raise the ambition of its national emissions targets was still disappointing.)

The value of the summit’s peer pressure was also reflected in agreements between groups of countries, involving environmental commitments they probably would not yet have made on their own. The jury is still out on how some of them – such as a pact by over 100 countries to end deforestation by 2030, which Indonesia’s government signed on to and then days later hedged on – will hold up. Others, including an agreement that Canada joined to end billions of dollars in international financing for fossil-fuel projects by the end of 2022, represent specific and meaningful action from which it will be extremely difficult to back away. And a global pledge to cut methane leaks 30 per cent by 2030 cemented this as the conference where that relatively easy way of reducing total greenhouse gas emissions got the attention it deserves.

Sandbags meant to prevent erosion in Maldives, where more than 80 per cent of land is less than one metre above sea level. At current global warming rates, 80 per cent of the Maldives could be submerged by 2050.Allison Joyce/Getty Images

Crucially, there was at least some movement – though not nearly enough – on bridging the gap between the developed and developing worlds, in terms of investment in both mitigating climate change and adapting to its unavoidable impacts. Having to face up to representatives of poorer countries, richer governments belatedly made progress toward assembling the US$100-billion in annual climate financing they previously promised. And they had to start considering stronger future commitments, reflected in the final text’s language about aiming to double adaptation financing.

And while it’s easy to scoff at the somewhat inflated US$130-trillion in green financing announced in the first week by Mark Carney’s Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net-Zero, desire to make a good showing here surely did accelerate the pace at which some private sector assets are being committed to non-emitting investments. And there may be more scrutiny of those commitments – more pressure to subsequently prove it’s not just greenwashing – than if the financing promises had been made in more piecemeal fashion elsewhere.

Taken together, it amounts to momentum. And that was the best result that could reasonably have been hoped for coming out of Glasgow.

But there are clearly some corrections that will be needed for future editions of the conference – ways that COP needs to evolve, next year and beyond, if it’s to build off the positives achieved here.

A good start would be to recognize that the desire to show progress has resulted in a few too many of those mid-conference announcements by groups of countries making shared pledges. It’s a situation that came to a head on a day when there were multiple announcements of coalitions to get off coal, at least two of them spearheaded by Britain, with overlap in members and different degrees of ambition in their promises.

These agreements are not legally binding; their power comes from getting enough attention to be morally and politically compelling. If delegates at the conference have trouble telling them apart, let alone anyone in the outside world, there is a risk of them being easily forgotten when everyone goes home. So a little more focus on quality over quantity, next time, would do everyone a favour.

There should also be no ignoring that, despite the degree of progress on climate finance, delegates from developing countries were continually frustrated throughout the conference by a lack of representation and clout relative to Europe, North America and a few other select places.

That was made worse by COVID-19 disproportionately affecting poorer countries and impeding their delegates’ ability to travel. The fact that next year’s COP27 will take place in Egypt might help give the Global South more voice. But the UN still needs to consider how to level the power balance at these events, to give countries facing the worst of climate change’s consequences an equal voice.

Perhaps the most important and trickiest of the ways COP needs to evolve is by creating an imperative to move from setting goals to actually making good on them.

Added ambition will still be required, in coming years, from countries that have not yet made emissions-reductions pledges in line with keeping global warming to a non-catastrophic level. But if there was already public skepticism about the credibility of pledges this time, it will only mount if countries keep turning up in future years talking about what they want to do instead of how they will do it.

Since COP is not where policies are actually put in place, there is only so much it can achieve. At minimum, though, its future programs will need to increasingly focus on countries sharing lessons and supports, along with more specifically targeted international financing schemes. Transparency mechanisms will have to keep being ratcheted up. And future pledges, including in the various multi-country agreements, will have to start getting more specific about actual measures to be taken.

The more such growth happens, the better the chance that we look back on COP26 as a positive pivot point in the struggle for the planet’s future.

That will depend, too, on what leaders, officials and executives do when they get home from Glasgow. The momentum is there; the ultimate test for COP26 will be how long it lasts.

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