COP26 - keeping our leaders accountable

Leadership Network member Michelle Too reflects on COP26 – the international climate change conference she attended online late last year. She looks at some of the key pledges New Zealand has signed and the role young engineers like herself are playing to tackle the climate crisis.

A woman holding a placard that reads 'Planet over profit" at a demonstration

Three months have passed since the close of the UN Climate Change Conference of Parties in Glasgow (COP26). Many pledges were made but the race is far from over.

The COP26 president, Rt Hon Alok Sharma MP, reflected that the 1.5 degrees goal is only just alive: “Its pulse is weak and will only survive if we keep our promises and translate commitments into rapid action”.

The Paris Agreement (COP21) specified that every five years, increasingly ambitious climate action must be set out by all countries through their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – a plan for reducing emissions.

This made COP26 a significant conference, made even more so as the COVID-19 pandemic had already postponed it by a year and following United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, labelling the 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report a “code red for humanity” in terms of human-driven global warming.

The Glasgow Climate Pact - an agreement of actions reached at the conference - progressed action on climate change mitigation, adaptation, finance and collaboration.

New Zealand and countries in Asia made varying pledges regarding electric vehicles, coal, methane, and reforestation. Some pledges made by New Zealand and Asian countries include:

  • Global Methane Pledge: reducing methane emissions to 30 percent of 2020 levels by 2030. This was signed by over 100 countries, including New Zealand, Indonesia, Iraq, Pakistan,  Nepal, Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, Republic of Korea, and Kuwait, but not by two of the biggest emitters India and China.
  • Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use: Halting and reversing forest loss and land degradation by 2030. This was the first big declaration at COP26 and was signed by 141 parties (representing over 90 percent of the world’s forests), including New Zealand, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, Indonesia, Israel, Malaysia, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Syria, United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam.
  • Global Coal to Clean Power Transition Statement: A commitment to end domestic and international investments in new coal power plants. Supported by over 45 parties, including New Zealand, Maldives, Nepal, Philippines, Singapore, Korea, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Indonesia. Among major coal produces China, Australia, India, Japan, and the US are yet to sign.
  • COP26 Declaration on Accelerating the Transition to 100% Zero Emission Cars and Vans: All sales of new cars and vans being zero emission globally by 2040, and by no later than 2035 in leading markets. By 2030 for business with vehicle fleets. This agreement was signed by governments, cities and businesses, including New Zealand, India, and Cambodia, as well as several cities in South Korea.
  • The launch of a roadmap to protect forests by moving to sustainable development and trade of agricultural commodities by 28 countries, including Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia and the Republic of Korea.

Aside from negotiations between the 197 parties, there were a plethora of events run by the United Nation's Framework Conventionon Climate Change ( UNFCCC), NGOs, youth organisations, businesses, and policy groups as part of the conference.

As a member of the World Federation of Engineering Organisations Global Young Engineers Working Group on SDG13, I had the privilege of organising and being involved with two events at COP26. 

These events were held at the UNFCC Capacity Building Hub (Finance and Technology Day) and the Resilience Hub (Water theme).

Both events – Enhancing Climate Resilience by Building the Capacity of Youth in Water and Deploying Global Youth Capacity in UN Organisations and Engineering for SDG 13 – facilitated discussions around barriers that young people face internationally when it comes to capacity building for climate action. 

We also explored ways that young engineers and young leaders were already contributing on the ground to climate action in different regions of the world, including Asia.

In the Enhancing Climate Resilience by Building the Capacity of Youth in Water event, we heard from young engineers in Hong Kong working on nature-based solutions for the Tung Chung East Waterfront (through the Department of Civil Engineering and Development Department, Hong Kong and AECOM Hong Kong). This project provides resilience to coastal flooding and also improves ecological value.

The event panel also featured a young leader and civil engineer from Sri Lanka, Tharika Fernando, a recipient of the Youth for Water and Climate Platform grant for her project, Bindu Drops, which aims to provide safe water and sanitation to a small village (Sinhanadawilluwa) in Sri Lanka.

The COP26 hype may have faded over the past few weeks but climate change continues regardless of hype.

In many respects, much progress was achieved at COP26. At the same time other areas, such as national targets, "phase down" of unabated coal, and climate change loss and damage finance, fell significantly short of what was required.

My sentiment at the close of COP26 was mixed - there were steps in the right direction, but I was disappointed in the overall outcomes. However, I am keeping hold of some cautious optimism going into COP27 this year. The fight is not over, but as the COP26 agreements are not legally-binding, it is only a matter of time until we see whether promises are kept and progress is made. 

Climate action is not only for heads of states and their negotiating parties at COP. For these pledges to be carried out and for climate action to stay at the forefront of decision-making, everyone has a part to play to hold sectors, governments, and businesses accountable.