The chances of a successful COP26 were never high. First, the Chinese and Russian presidents decided not to attend in person. In the end, China and India sabotaged the final wording of the agreement by softening the language circulated in an earlier draft about “the phase out of unabated coal power and of inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels”. The final agreement language was revised to “phase down” coal use.

Still, the Achilles heel of the agreement reached in Glasgow will always be the credibility of the way that climate change initiatives will be financed.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change defines climate finance as “local, national or transnational financing – drawn from public, private and alternative sources of financing – that seeks to support mitigation and adaptation actions that will address climate change”. Climate finance is the glue that brings a package together at the end of a COP.

Climate change has a central injustice: the countries that contribute the least to global warming suffer the most as temperatures rise. At the 2009 COP15 meeting in Copenhagen, wealthy countries set a target of pooling $100 billion by 2020 to help poorer countries adapt to changes in the climate already under way and curb greenhouse gas emissions. The goal was not reached and the goalposts have now been moved to 2023.

The final text of the agreement emphasises the need to mobilise climate finance “from all sources to reach the level needed to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, including significantly increasing support for developing countries, beyond the $100 billion per year”. This is a non-binding agreement that shrouds the climate financing plan with nebulous rhetoric.

Developing countries that are already struggling with the effects of climate change were looking for payment to cope with the negative impact of climate change that they have already suffered. The richer countries, including the US, Europe and Australia, objected to setting up a stand-alone fund to help pay for loss and damage as proposed by developing countries. They failed to move beyond political rhetoric to address the increasing threat of climate change.

Before COP26 kicked off in Glasgow, Mark Carney, former Bank of England governor and now the UN Special Envoy for Climate Action and Finance, assembled a group of bankers, insurers and investors committed to making climate change central of their work. Taking a dig at Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, he declared: “The core message today is that the money is there, the money is there for transition and it is not blah, blah, blah”.

Many environmentalists led by Thunberg are less optimistic. They describe the positive news coming from the conference as “greenwashing” – an organisation’s false portrayal of itself as environmentally friendly. Some activists argue that corporations and governments participating in the climate summit are guilty of “greenwashing” by paying lip service to combatting climate change while using the fossil fuels that cause global warming. 

Michael Jacobs, a professor at the University of Sheffield, made a sobering assessment: “The worst Glasgow outcome would be one where there has been so little progress or agreement that businesses and investors – and voters – start doubting whether it is worth putting more effort and money into decarbonisation plans and investment projects.”

COP26 did make some progress but not yet enough to reach the targets that would stave off the worst consequences of global warming.

Not yet enough: that applies equally to putting money on the table for climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts.

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