COP26 – a peek behind the curtain of the energy campaign

18 Nov 2021

UKERC’s Dr Will Blyth reflects on the achievements of the COP26 Energy Transitions Campaign. In this blog, he reveals how involvement in the process changed his views about the chances of success of the Paris Agreement process.

Ahead of COP, some argued that Glasgow was the last chance to save the planet. This was always more hype than reality. ‘Solving’ climate change was never going to be a one-step process. What is closer to the truth is that COP26 was the last chance to save the credibility of the Paris Agreement.

This is the mechanism agreed at COP21 in 2015 by which countries make nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to reduce emission levels, and are then expected to ratchet up the ambition of these pledges every five years. The original NDCs made at Paris in 2015 would limit warming to around 2.7˚C if fully implemented. Glasgow this year was the first test of whether this ratcheting process could work to significantly tighten these ambitions. A failure to make a significant step forward would likely have undermined the entire international climate agreement process, and the science is clear that the planet simply cannot afford a repeat of the 10-year hiatus that followed the collapse of the previous 1997 Kyoto Protocol architecture that the Paris Agreement replaced in 2015.

The power of peer pressure

I began my time in the COP unit sceptical of this NDC ratcheting process, assuming that the enforcement mechanisms and incentives to increase ambition would simply be too weak. But fundamental economics and public opinion have changed dramatically in the past 6 years, and I think (hope) I’ve been proved wrong. One of the fascinating things I’ve been privileged to observe in the run up to COP is the power of peer pressure which seems to work at all levels of society, like some kind of fractal scaling law operating from school playgrounds to global leadership forums. Political positions that once seemed impossibly entrenched can be undermined when coalitions start to crumble. Each time someone breaks ranks, it leaves the remaining members of the group more exposed.  As new coalitions form and grow, they gain control of the narrative, changing the art of the possible.

One of the tools used by the UK Presidency to begin cracking open some of these incumbent positions was to introduce a range of side-deals, or ‘campaigns’ working with coalitions of the willing to accelerate progress in particular sectors and countries.

Some have characterised these side-deals as a distraction from the more accountable NDCs, but I believe the rationale is sound and has proved its worth. Whilst NDCs are written by national governments, based on their individual plans, many of the most powerful responses to climate challenge require collective action across multiple countries and non-state actors. Each sector has its own ecosystem of stakeholders that need to be involved.

Three prongs to phase out coal

In the case of electricity, the emphasis of the COP campaign was on accelerating the shift from coal to clean power. The simple rationale for this is that coal-fired power generation remains one of the single largest emission sources, responsible for 28% of global CO2 emissions[1], and this share has hardly changed over the past 10 years, despite the improved economics of cleaner sources of power.   Accelerating the phase out of coal requires progress to be made across three main areas: political, financial and technical. The approach and outcomes include:


Diplomacy at individual country level resulted in 20 new countries signing up to commitments to accelerate transition from coal, either through the Powering Past Coal Alliance, or through the COP26 coal-to-clean declaration. This included significant wins with four of the top-15 coal users – South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam and Poland – making new commitments, though the big three, China, India and the US did not. In addition, a $8.5bn deal was struck with South Africa to support a transition from coal, and a political declaration on supporting a just transition more widely was signed by 16 OECD countries.


In the lead-up to COP26, agreement was reached by Japan, S. Korea and China, the big 3 sources of international finance for coal-fired power, to stop any further financial support for new coal plant in third countries. This created an essential backdrop to the subsequent coal phase-out commitments, especially for countries in SE Asia where such financing is essential for project viability. Similar commitments were included in the Coal to Clean declaration signed by 46 countries and 26 financial and technical organisations.


To make coal phase-out possible, clean energy alternatives need to be seen as the most affordable and reliable option to meet countries power needs. Dialogue and technical assistance provided through the Energy Transitions Council helped build trust that countries would receive the necessary support to achieve this. The Green Grids Initiative – One Sun One World One Grid was also launched by PMs Modi and Johnson to accelerate the roll-out of the necessary grid infrastructure and interconnections for a world powered by clean energy.

Coal – down but not out

These are significant (albeit incomplete) outcomes in their own right. Importantly they were also instrumental to allowing the COP Presidency to introduce text on coal to the final COP26 Glasgow Declaration. This built on earlier text in the G7 communique which talks about accelerating a ‘transition away from coal’, and the G20 declaration expressed in terms of accelerating progress only for ‘those countries that commit to phase-out coal’. Despite last minute dilution of language from ‘phase-out’ to ‘phase-down’ in dramatic scenes at the final stages of COP26, a formal UN treaty text on ‘accelerating efforts towards the phase-down of coal’ is still a significant step. It is the first ever such reference in unanimous UNFCCC text, stronger than the G7 text, and covers all countries in the world.

The obvious indicator of success is what all these NDCs and side-deals imply for global temperature increases. Estimates of the impact of COP pledges as a whole vary, particularly depending on whether long-term commitments on net-zero are included. The IEA estimates 1.8˚C warming by 2100 if all climate pledges are met in full. Climate Action Tracker presents scenarios ranging from 1.8˚C for all pledges including long-term net-zero targets, 2.1˚C for short-term pledges plus NDCs and 2.4˚C if only NDCs are taken into account.  The Energy Transitions Commission have produced a useful breakdown of the contribution of the different COP26 sectoral commitments, making it clear that there is still a significant remaining gap to be bridged. Judged by the hardest test (reaching 1.5˚C), one might look at these figures and feel disappointed. Keeping 1.5˚C alive, which seems to have become the benchmark, looks precarious, but it was always an extremely fragile patient.

Does it look like success?

Possibly a fairer test is to judge success in terms of the size of the step forward taken since Paris, and the chances of keeping temperature increases well below 2˚C, the bar set in the Paris Agreement. Recent analysis published in Science calculates that the probability of being able to stay below 2˚C has risen from 8% based on the Paris NDCs, to 34-60% for the new NDCs (depending on how much ambition levels are raised after 2030). Perhaps even more significantly, the chance of temperatures rising above 4˚C which had been put at 10% after Paris, could now be virtually eliminated.

So 1.5˚C may be on life-support, but 2˚C looks a lot healthier than it did six years ago, and we could be on course to avert some of the worst-case climate scenarios. For a glass-half-full person, that surely has to be grounds for optimism. Now the hard work starts of ensuring that the pledges not only get tightened over time, but more importantly get implemented in practice. We all have a role to play in holding leaders, companies and ourselves to account in achieving this.

Partly supported by UKERC, Dr Blyth has been seconded for much of the past two years into the COP Unit, helping to deliver the Energy Transitions Campaign.

[1] Table A.4b IEA World Energy Outlook