COP26 and its discontents: What Ireland’s climate experts think

18 Nov 2021

From left: Liz Truss, foreign secretary of the UK; Taoiseach Micheál Martin; and Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the UNFCC, at COP26 in Glasgow. Image: Karwai Tang/UK Government

We asked politicians, researchers and climate activists in Ireland what they thought of COP26. Here’s what they had to say.

It has been almost a week since the COP26 climate summit ended and the verdict is out: it was disappointing. Rich countries shied away from funding poorer ones, China and India delivered a last-minute “gut punch” on coal, the civil society voice was largely absent, and the hope to keep 1.5 alive is nearly dead.

However, experts in the climate space were quick to point out that there is much to be hopeful about after COP26, an upgrade on the sense of failure prompted by COP25 in 2019, which saw many of the big decisions pushed to Glasgow.

Ciarán Cuffe, an Irish MEP from the Green Party who attended COP26, thinks that while it was “desperately weak in ambition” and did not tackle the climate crisis with urgency, the summit sent a clear message to decision makers on the need for a future powered by renewable energy.

“The age of coal, oil and gas is slowly coming to an end, and the future is bright for renewables, energy efficiency and energy storage,” he told, adding that he hopes people continue to pressure MEPs to deliver on the EU’s Fit for 55 proposals to reduce emissions.

“There will be winners and losers as this transition takes place, but the Glasgow COP signalled that the world’s economies must shift towards a cleaner future,” Cuffe added.

David Robbins, director of the Dublin City University (DCU) Centre for Climate and Society, echoed the optimism. “The outcome was disappointing, especially the gut-punch right at the end from India and China,” he said, referring to their refusal to phase out coal.

“But there is a growing feeling that the climate movement has to welcome the good things that happened in Glasgow – on methane, deforestation, and some movement on finance – while continuing to work on the bad,” Robbins said.

Rich nations shrug responsibility

One contentious debate that stood out at COP26 was the role and extent of historical responsibility that rich countries share in the climate crisis, with developing nations looking to the developed world to help fund their green transitions.

While Taoiseach Micheál Martin said Ireland would increase its financial contributions to developing countries affected by the climate crisis to €225m by 2025, many have said that richer nations overall have failed to meet their obligations.

According to Christian Aid Ireland’s Conor O’Neill, COP26 will be remembered for the refusal of rich countries to acknowledge their “ecological debt” and financially help countries “on the front line of the climate crisis”.

“This is not just a heavy blow to developing countries but a reminder that the international order continues to prioritise the power and influence of wealthy countries,” said O’Neill, who attended the conference as Christian Aid Ireland’s policy and advocacy director.

Dr Eoin Lettice, who was part of the University College Cork (UCC) delegation to COP26, said that the refusal of rich countries to fund developing nations that had a smaller contribution to the climate crisis was one of the conference’s “missed opportunities”.

“That fact must be recognised and sufficient financial assistance provided to help deal with a problem that these countries did not cause,” said Lettice, who is a lecturer of plant science at UCC’s School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Science.

Civil society to ‘keep 1.5 alive’

From an organisational perspective, COP26 was also criticised by some attendees for lacking adequate inclusion of voices from wider society, while world leaders lined up for photo-ops and signed commitments that may not help us reach the goals of the Paris Agreement.

Diarmuid Torney of DCU’s School of Law and Government said that the conference witnessed a limitation on the voices of civil society. “This is troubling, and not all of it can be put down to Covid restrictions,” he said.

“The voices of vulnerable and marginalised communities need to be heard louder, not least because they are on the front lines of the climate crisis,” added Torney, saying that Ireland has a responsibility as a developed country to step up efforts on implementation.

But while a Glasgow Climate Pact has been made, work will continue. “There seems to be a new energy for more pressure on ‘keeping 1.5 alive’ among campaigners,” said Robbins. “They were disheartened by what happened inside the COP but fired up by the huge mobilisation of civil society that was evident outside in the streets.”

It seems like where world leaders failed in talks, or as climate activist Greta Thunberg called it, “blah, blah, blah”, the global civil climate movement will attempt to step in. “The real work continues outside these halls. And we will never give up, ever,” Thunberg tweeted after COP26.

The Taoiseach at COP26. Image: Karwai Tang/UK Government (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic