On the Other Hand... Reflections of COP26

Dr. Cameron Wake, Josephine A. Lamprey Professor in Climate and Sustainability

There are times when we must simultaneously hold two seemingly opposing ideas or feelings within ourselves. This can be the case when someone we love deeply disappoints us. It is also the way I feel regarding the outcomes of the COP26 negotiation to address the challenges posed by climate change that just wrapped up in Glasgow, Scotland.

As the common saying goes – if you want to go far, go together. The global climate negotiations remain an essential mechanism for finding a pathway to decarbonize the global economy and directly address the existential threat posed by anthropogenic climate change. But, as we have learned, negotiations among 197 countries combined with a myriad of special interests tend to be messy. One view of COP26 is that it was a failure because the national decarbonization pledges are not enough to keep warming to below 1.5oC, what science tells us is a critical threshold.

On the other hand, the Glasgow climate pact has built on the 2015 Paris agreement in important ways. While the pledges are not currently sufficient, the “drive to 1.5oC remains alive” with the commitment to further accelerating national decarbonization plans by next year (as opposed to 2025). The reduction of global greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030 below 2010 levels (something UNH achieved in 2019) was also formally recognized – and is a key milestone on the path to net zero emissions by 2050.

Several multi-lateral agreements were inked, including agreements to cut methane emissions, to reduce deforestation, to phase down the use of coal (although the statement was weakened by last-minute intervention by China and India) and a joint U.S. – China agreement to do more to cut emissions this decade. Also encouraging is the transition away from a sole focus on future impacts to powerful narratives that starkly illustrate why we must act now because of the impacts we are suffering today. And the voices demanding bigger faster change – primarily from youth and women are growing louder and multiplying. 

The critical aspect is that we continue to make meaningful progress at global, national, regional, and local levels. So while we lament the shortcomings of Glasgow, we also need to acknowledge the important progress and we need to continue the hard work to decarbonize our own beloved institutions.

UNH has long been a leader in education, research, engagement, and operational best practices related to climate change and greenhouse gas emissions reductions. UNH was one of the Charter Signatories to the Climate Commitment in 2006. This commitment, in which we are joined by hundreds of other U.S. campuses, commits UNH to a goal of carbon neutrality and requires the university to track and publicly report its carbon footprint and maintain an up-to-date Climate Action Plan (WildCAP)UNH set an ambitious goal of halving our emissions between 2001 and 2020 and achieved those reductions before our target date. 

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