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Exeter researchers give COP26 verdict

University of Exeter researchers have given their views on the COP26 climate change conference.

Published 15th November 2021

The Glasgow summit was intended to help achieve the Paris Agreement goals of keeping global warming to well below 2°C, or preferably to 1.5°C.

The summit led to numerous announcements – including international agreements on deforestation, methane emissions and fossil fuels – and concluded with a Glasgow Climate Pact to “speed up action on climate change”.

Here is what Exeter researchers – from multiple fields – have to say:


Professor Pierre Friedlingstein, of the Global Systems Institute and lead researcher of the Global Carbon Project, said: “While we have seen more ambitious pledges, international cooperation and strong declarations at COP26, what we haven’t seen yet is a clear road to 1.5°C.

“This is a major concern. Our recently published 2021 Global Carbon Budget report clearly shows economies rebounded from the Covid-19 pandemic, with CO2 emissions on the rise again, with a risk they will further increase in 2022. If anything, the Covid-19 pandemic delayed the emergence of a global decarbonisation of the economy.

“Science has one very clear message: this is the decade to act to keep the 1.5°C warming alive. This cannot go ignored as COP26 concludes. The Glasgow Climate Pact must be implemented now, and also be strengthened in the coming years, for the world to work together as united nations to reduce global greenhouse gases emissions and build a better, brighter future.”


Speaking in Glasgow, Professor Gail Whiteman, of the University of Exeter Business School and founder of Arctic Basecamp, said the summit had produced “mixed results”, adding: “There’s a lot of pretty good pledges on the table but some of them are a bit disappointing – India coming in at net zero by 2070 despite hopes that they would match China at 2060.

“Certainly you’re seeing the Americans here in full force. Also the finance and business community is here and really gearing up for lots of action and strong commitments. Certainly the statements are good – but at the same time, is there going to be enough action? I don’t know. I’m worried.”


Asked if COP26 was a success, Professor Tim Lenton, Director of Exeter’s Global Systems Institute, said: “No – we are still heading for more than 2°C of global warming, which risks triggering multiple climate tipping points. The international policy process is moving slower than the climate system. On the plus side, the coalition of civil society, business, finance, NGOs and others around COP26 is starting to drive real progress.

“We are still in a climate crisis, trying to find our way out, but COP26 hasn’t shed enough light to get us out of trouble. Our best hope now is to form coalitions of action to trigger positive tipping points that can accelerate the change we need. We all need to step up to drive change, and persuade our political leaders to join us in the great transformation.”


Also commenting on whether COP26 had been a success, Professor Richard Betts, of the University of Exeter and the Met Office Hadley Centre, said: “Only partly, but it’s not an all-or-nothing thing. There has been progress on commitments to cuts in fossil fuel emissions and to halt deforestation by 2030, so if these promises are honoured, we’re not heading for as much global warming as we would have been before – but much more still needs to be done to meet the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to well below 2°C above pre-industrial. Countries are being asked to come to COP27 next year with more ambitious pledges.

“We’re now in damage limitation mode. The inadequate promises on fossil fuel emissions cuts have two key implications: (1) it is now more urgent than ever to put in place adaptation measures to protect ourselves from extreme weather and sea-level rise that we have now made more likely and more severe; (2) it’s imperative to protect and enhance natural carbon sinks such as forests and other ecosystems, as these help to slow the CO2 rise caused by fossil fuel emissions.

“We certainly should not be degrading carbon-rich ecosystems such as peatlands. If we can reduce the demand for agricultural land by eating less meat and dairy, we can allow the landscape to help us slow climate change. But it’s still a top priority to stop burning fossil fuels, because as long as we keep adding more carbon to the atmosphere, this will keep heating the climate. Energy and transport systems need to be transformed, and this includes giving people more choice on insulating their homes and travelling via public transport by making these more affordable, and more choice on cycling and walking by making these safer and more convenient.”


Professor Angela Gallego-Sala, an expert on peatlands, said: “For peatlands around the world, COP26 has probably been a relative success. For the first time, there has been a UNFCCC Peatland Pavilion to showcase the importance of these ecosystems in the carbon cycle and the climate system. On top of this, the conference was in Glasgow, which has been a plus for peatlands since the Scottish government is clearly committed to restoring and managing peatlands in a sustainable way in order to achieve net zero.

“The Congo Basin pledge signed during the conference includes the protection of peatlands in this key part of the world, and most of the peatland-rich countries (Canada, Russia, Indonesia, Congo, Brazil and UK, EU) have signed the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use for the halting of deforestation by 2030. Even the US president has included peatlands in his route for net zero.

“Nature-based solutions has been the COP26 buzzword. This all is good news for the natural systems, including peatlands, which have seen their profile raised thanks to the good work of many colleagues. However, now that we have talked the talk at COP26 – we have in front of us what is surely the hardest part, to walk the walk and actually make sure these pledges are adhered to and that they drive forward a true change in our societies with respect to the natural systems that sustain us. This is everybody’s responsibility.

“The Covid-19 pandemic proved we are able to do awesome things when we come together. The main lines of hope are: the science is unanimous and demands clear action, public opinion and activism are putting pressure on our societies to change, and alternative energies are falling in price and fossil fuels should continue to rise in price as we take into account the cost of using them.

“So, am I optimistic? I have mixed feelings. COP26 is now behind us, and it leaves a sense of a missed opportunity. I want to be optimistic, and I really hope we are able to make changes fast enough. Crop failures and climate extremes have already started taking a toll on people around the planet – I hope we act before these impacts are widespread.”


Professor Stephen Sitch, Exeter’s Chair in Climate Change, said: “I believe there have been significant pledges for climate mitigation, such as ending deforestation by 2030, and critically countries which have among the largest emissions through deforestation and degradation, like Brazil, are on board – they weren’t in the similar New York pledge in 2014.

“I think positive steps have been made. Hopefully these pledges will be realised and over the near-term future countries raise their ambition.”


Professor Ian Bateman, Director of the Land, Environment, Economics and Policy Institute (LEEP) and the South West Partnership for Environment and Economic Prosperity (SWEEP), said: “Starting on the positive, I think the Exeter input and showing at COP was simply excellent. For myself I gave presentations at the EU Pavilion, had meetings with a variety of world-leading scientists and met some senior politicians – the meeting with Nicola Sturgeon being the highlight. I also thought the workshop we led on at Arctic Basecamp on 6 November was great.

“However, I have a less positive assessment of COP overall. In particular, the lack of significant push towards keeping the global temperature rise to 1.5°C was disappointing. Even if everyone keeps to their commitments we will still see a 2.4°C rise – and we know that countries have been poor on fully delivering change. Therefore I’m afraid I don’t feel we are significantly further forward in terms of addressing the climate crisis as a result of COP26.”


Dr Sally Flint, a poet and editor who lectures in creative writing and publishing, was at COP26 as part of the One Chance Left climate change poetry project. She said: “The conference was successful in many ways. There was a palpable sense of people from around the world uniting in and recognising an urgent need to solve the climate crisis. Our unique poetry project was successful in bringing together the voices of scientists and medical professionals in prominent venues at COP, including the Science Pavilion and Arctic Base Camp.

“COP26 revealed that in terms of a crisis, we, as humans, have ‘One Chance Left’ to repair and stop the destruction of our world. The media have used the conference to raise awareness of this across a broad platform. Now, looking forward the press must continue to keep COP26 top of the news agenda as a historical milestone, to remind us of the cliff edge on which humanity stands – and continue reporting on promises and agreements made at COP26 and acted upon, or not – to share with the public the truth and reality of climate change.”


Professor Neil Adger, who leads the MISTY project on climate change and migration, said: “The level of civil society activism and engagement has been taken to another level during the COP. This will surely translate into a change of direction and catching up for mainstream political parties everywhere – and ultimately into swinging democratic politics in line with the desire of especially younger voters to make their future sustainable.

“Adaptation remains a side show in COP negotiations, to the deep frustration of many countries in the front line. Despite obvious climate impacts like wildfires and heatwaves in North America and floods in Europe, the dots have not yet been connected: they need to link these to the net zero urgency and imperative. Addressing loss and damage is going to be dominant in cooperation between nations and COPs of the coming decades.”


Dr Jean-Francois Mercure, Director of the Economics of Energy Innovation and System Transition (EEIST) project, said: “I tend to think that what really matters most is domestic action, more than international agreements and targets. However, the agreement between the US and China is probably significant.

“The Glasgow Breakthrough agreement on technology cooperation is probably much more meaningful than people think. Cooperating on technology might look inoffensive now, but would promote real and rapid progress, even if agreeing targets seems so difficult. Bringing technology costs down is the key starting point in my view – after that, the transition becomes unstoppable.

“That the Chinese seemed low-key is misleading perceptions of many. People don’t realise that some serious plans are already legislation over there, which implies that there is hardly a need for them to come make further pledges at COP – they already know where they are going.

“India’s pledge of net-zero by 2070 could seem hollow, but I personally trust that it is not, due to the fact that they are not oil and gas producers but importers, and therefore the oil and gas lobby does not have much hold there. They gain from getting rid of energy imports but they have to manage carefully their domestic coal transition, something that was coming anyway.

“For the US, whether or not Biden can get his whole low-carbon plan through, cooperating on technology is for them the best way forward, as it makes climate action easier when technological costs decrease. The Glasgow agreement mentions technological cooperation at the very top, which is significant.”