Insight: COP26 - Inspirational Heartbreak

Personal reflection on an inspirational, holistic and uplifting event with an underwhelming outcome
Insight: COP26 - Inspirational Heartbreak
UKCRIC Senior Research Fellow (UCL)


The Climate Emergent(cy) is an emergent Wicked Problem, an unintentional outcome from the systems that enable all aspects of our Modern lifestyles, societies and national economies. It comprises a pair of deeply interdependent wicked challenges:

  1. The need to reduce GHG emissions from the Global Economy to Net Zero by 2050;
  2. the need to enhance societal and economic Resilience to the Resilience Challenges that emerge as a consequence of at least 1.5oC of global warming;

The two (a and b) must be addressed synergistically, through a diverse, long-term, collaborative, dynamic, multi¬faceted, multi-scale, cradle-to-cradle and synergistic portfolio of systemically targeted interventions focused on transforming the wider system(s) from which they emerge.

Moreover, other sustainability challenges (air pollution, water pollution, noise pollution, solid waste and sewage produced, resilience challenges, and many societal challenges are also emergent wicked problems, unintentional outcomes from the systems that enable our Modern lifestyles, societies and national economies. It follows, action to address the Climate Emergency is a synergistic opportunity to simultaneously address other interdependent challenges.

COP26: Inspiring, Uplifting and Holistic

Three days at COP26 strengthened my belief that systemic perspectives on the Climate Emergency, governance and National Infrastructure are critical components that belong at the very core of global responses to the climate emergency. It also, re-energised me with the belief that we as a global community can successfully address the Climate Emergency.

  • The innovative spirit, passion, energy, professionalism, sense of duty, collective belief buzzing around, and the diverse scope and breadth of thinking and the diverse range of potential actions being championed in, the #COP26 Blue Zone were truly inspiring.
  • The holistic emphasis on both components of the climate emergency, namely the #RacetoResilience, and the #RacetoZero put a genuine spring in my step;
  • The recognition that Nature based solutions, have a significant role to play, alongside the technologically led transformation of the energy infrastructure was uplifting.

The Glasgow Climate Pact: A Transformative Opportunity Missed

We know where we need to get to, and the likely outcomes if we don’t. We know inaction is a false economy with a disproportionately large opportunity cost. Moreover, we know that the required speed, scale and breadth of systemic transformation to address the Climate Emergent(cy), cannot be achieved iteratively, on a sector by sector basis or purely through technical innovation. It will require: an unprecedented level of interdisciplinary, cross-sectoral, society-wide collaboration; and a broad systemic focus on:

  • Understanding and challenging the Mindsets from which current system goals, structures and rules; and attitudes toward the acceptability of externalities (societally undesirable outcomes) have emerged (Paradigms)
  • The Societal Outcomes those systems are expected to enable (system goals / purpose)
  • The Governance +++ structures associated with these systems (system rules)
  • The Legal Frameworks associated with these systems (system rules)
  • The Mechanisms through which these systems fulfil their purpose(s) (System Structures)
  • The societally undesirable outcomes that emerge as an unintended consequence of the above Mindsets, systems goals, rules and structures

In particular, it will require the explicit integration of the qualities ‘net zero enabling’, ‘sustainability supporting’, ‘resilience enhancing’ into: the stated purpose of all societal enabling systems driving its emergence i.e. the outcomes it is expected to enable; and all Governance +++ structures associate with those systems.

High profile political vision, commitment and leadership is essential to build trust and catalyse and inspire global progress toward addressing the Climate Emergency. The absence of a perfectly costed 100% full proof strategy is no justification for an absence of the above. COP26 was an opportunity to engage, inspire and empower all levels of global society to participate in the #RacetoZero and #RacetoResilience. It was an opportunity to launch an urgent global Moonshot[1] Mission[2] to a doughnut economy[3]

Unfortunately, I fear it was a missed opportunity.

The Draft COP decision proposed by the President[4], was in my view a heartbreakingly, mean spirited, ecologically[5], scientifically[6], systemically[7] and economically[8] illiterate false economy, bereft of political vision or leadership. Rather than striving to #keep1.5alive, it disingenuously sought to normalise the idea that 2oC global temperature change had always been the target. It effectively turned the #RacetoZero, into a #StrolltoZero and the #RacetoResilience into a #SleepwalktoFragility. It’s tone on Climate Justice was uninspiring [9], and it patronised the youth voice[10].

The Glasgow Climate Pact[11] was a marked improvement on the Draft COP Decision. It comes closer to: capitalising upon the innovative spirit, passion, energy, professionalism, sense of duty and collective belief buzzing around the #COP26 Blue Zone; and leveraging the sheer scope and breadth of thinking and action available to tackle the Climate Emergency.

However, it fails to provide the scale of visionary political leadership urgently needed to deliver a resilient, equitable, just, timely, global response to the Climate Emergency. It aspires to #keep1.5alive [12]; and ups the pace in the #RacetoZero from #StrolltoZero to #BriskWalktoZero, but that remains insufficient.

Moreover, it does not do enough to awake us from a #SleepwalktoFragility and initiate a #RacetoResilience; nor catalyse the necessary speed, scale and breadth of global economic transformation; nor enable the unprecedented level of interdisciplinary, cross-sectoral, society–wide, global collaboration needed. Additionally, it fails to adequately champion, the critical importance of Climate Justice, empowering younger generations, and ensuring nature based solutions are integrated into Climate Emergency strategies. Heartbreakingly, like the Draft COP decision, it is ecologically[5], scientifically[6], systemically[7] and economically[8] illiterate. Therefore, COP26 is a missed opportunity.

A Relay Race

However, if #COP26 is viewed as part of a #RelayRacetoZero, The Glasgow Climate Pact has kept the torch burning. The next leg of the race runs until the start of #COP27. This period represents an opportunity to collectively demonstrate to National governments across the globe: the flaws in the Glasgow Climate Pact, and how these can be resolved; and that they have profoundly underestimated their voter’s appetite for limiting global warming to 1.50C and investing in a resilient, equitable, just, net zero global future; and for visionary political leadership willing to commit to resolving long term global grand challenges.

[1] Principles for science and technology moon-shots CST (2020)

[2] Adopt a Mission Oriented approach based on the work of Mariana Mazzucato

[3] Kate Raworth Exploring Doughnut Economics

[4] Draft COP decision proposed by the President

[5] Ecologically illiterate – both the Draft COP decision and the Glasgow Climate Pact omit the concepts of Nature based solutions, Natural Capital, ecosystem services and Natural cycles. It Engineers against rather than with the Natural world

[6] Scientifically illiterate – both the Draft COP decision and the Glasgow Climate Pact reflect a mindset that the fundamental science can be negotiated with.

[7] Systemically illiterate – both the Draft COP decision and the Glasgow Climate Pact take a fragmented sector 1st approach and treat the system as the sum of its parts, focus on treating symptoms rather than diagnosing systemic characteristics or root causes of the Climate Emergency. Does not focus on mindsets, governance issues.

[8] Economically illiterate – both the Draft COP decision and the Glasgow Climate Pact appear to overlook the economies dependence on natural systems and assume that the Opportunity Cost of failing to limit global warming at 1.5 0C will be negligible.

[9] Based on opening paragraph 4, in particular the phrase Opening paragraph 4 ‘The importance for some of the concept of ‘climate justice’ when taking action to address climate change’

[10] Based on opening paragraph 5 which is not strongly enough worded Recognizing is relatively low on the scale of available UN wordings to Action or Background involving praise or recognition [link]

[11] Glasgow Climate Pact

[12] It makes explicit reference to the Paris Agreement Temperature Goal The Paris Agreement is mentioned by name on 70 occasions in the FINAL version, but only 7 in the version issued on 12/11/2021.

Photo by Ross Sneddon on Unsplash