Climate Change


COP26 reflection

Fossil fuel, temperature targets, climate finance and NDCs - what's the verdict on the #COP26 negotiations and what should we focus on as we start to think about COP27 in Egypt next year? See the reflections from the UCL COP26 team as they return from Glasgow.

Progress on cutting emissions, but nowhere near enough 

A step-change in urgency 

Climate Finance 

Loss and Damage

Fossil fuels

India to be net-zero by 2070 

Climate justice

An inclusive COP? 

Empowering climate action 

The power of the global community 

Is 1.5 degrees still alive? 

Participative decision making 

Carbon markets

Cities and the Built Environment

Listen to UCL's latest Generation One Climate Podcast episode - Post COP26 - Where are we now?

More on UCL's contribution to COP26

More on our UCL COP26 team


Progress on cutting emissions, but nowhere near enough 

Mark Maslin

Mark Maslin, 
Professor of Earth System Science, UCL 

Simon Lewis

Simon Lewis, 
Professor of Global Change Science at University of Leeds and, UCL 

The Glasgow Climate Pact is incremental progress and not the breakthrough moment needed to curb the worst impacts of climate change. The UK government as host and therefore president of COP26 wanted to “keep 1.5°C alive”, the stronger goal of the Paris Agreement. But at best we can say the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C is on life support – it has a pulse but it’s nearly dead. 

The Paris Agreement says temperatures should be limited to “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and countries should “pursue efforts” to limit warming to 1.5°C. Before COP26, the world was on track for 2.7°C of warming, based on commitments by countries, and expectation of the changes in technology. Announcements at COP26, including new pledges to cut emissions this decade, by some key countries, have reduced this to a best estimate of 2.4°C. 

Read Mark and Simon’s full article on the Glasgow Climate Pact in The Conversation

A step-change in urgency 

Jacquie McGlade

Jacqueline McGlade, 
Professor, Resilience and Sustainable Development 


This was the first COP where we were no longer defending the science of climate change against sceptics and vested interests. Instead, the realisation of urgency and financing was front and centre. This was an immense shift and well overdue.  

The other aspects that need to be welcomed are the overall emphasis placed on the need for nature-based solutions to protect and restore nature and ecosystems to achieve 1.5oC, the work to be undertaken on a global adaptation goal, the new balancing of adaptation and mitigation financing, the phasing-out of inefficient fossil-fuel subsidies and the inclusion of non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gases including methane. These all speak volumes to the science and evidence that has been amassed over the years and has finally come home.  

Greater recognition of the role of communities and indigenous peoples is also now truly at the core of the agreement – it is not just about governments and big industry. But the misstep by the UK government about not bringing practitioners such as farmers, land stewards, technology innovators and private financial institutions into the main discussions leaves me wondering about how governments think they will manage to implement the changes they have signed up for? 

Climate Finance 

Matt Winning

Matt Winning,  
Senior Research Associate at the UCL Institute for Sustainable Resources 


Climate finance was high on the agenda at COP26 in two ways. Firstly, public finance in the form of funding. The $100 billion promised by developed countries for a decade was still not met and was therefore rightly a point of contention. There was, however, some improvement in balancing finance for adaptation, the share of which will be doubled by 2025. Secondly, private finance was on the agenda as Mark Carney spearheaded the oddly titled GFANZ (Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero) initiative. A headline number of $130 trillion of investment towards Net Zero was banded about. There is a need for that level of investment and how this plays out, in reality, will be crucial for delivery of net zero targets. 

For COP27 my hopes are pinned on loss and damage and on the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA) becoming more central to the UN process in order to speed up both assistance for those on the front line and the necessary global reduction in fossil fuels. 

Listen to the BBC Breaking the News COP26 special with Matt

Listen to this BBC Radio Scotland programme on Climate Change and the Arts with Matt

Listen to this Times Radio interview with Matt from 1h18mins on his new book 'Hot Mess'

Loss and Damage

Lisa Vanhala

Lisa Vanhala, 
Professor of Political Science 


There has been important progress on the Loss and Damage (from the climate impacts that we won’t be able to prevent or adapt to) in Glasgow over the last two weeks. But much of this came from outside the negotiating rooms. The negotiators working on loss and damage began to flesh out what the Santiago Network – established two years ago - should be doing to support countries in a practical way. But progress was slow and calls from developing countries to set up a Loss and Damage Facility to provide finance went unheeded. What was agreed instead was the “Glasgow Dialogue” to discuss funding arrangements over the coming year.  

One surprise in Glasgow was the symbolic and material support on loss and damage coming from those outside the negotiating room. First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon promised £2m of funding to alleviate the impacts of climate change. This was augmented by a $3m dollar pledge from philanthropic sources. Since then, the Wallonian climate minister in Belgium has also committed €1m. My hopes for COP27 are for the Glasgow Dialogue to be taken seriously and for significant progress on funding and capacity building for developing countries.   

Read Lisa’s piece on Loss and Damage in The Conversation

Listen to this radio piece with Lisa 

Fossil fuels

Jim Watson

Jim Watson,
Professor of Energy Policy 


Overall, the Glasgow Climate Pact is a positive outcome of COP26. Whilst it is clearly nowhere near enough to avoid dangerous climate change, it achieved more than many of us expected. It just about meets the objective of ‘keeping 1.5 degrees alive’. 

The request for countries to update their 2030 emissions reduction plans next year is essential. It will keep up the pressure to deliver on some of the eye-catching announcements that were made – including those on phasing out coal and accelerating investment in low carbon technologies. 

The last-minute haggling over phasing out fossil fuel subsidies and coal-fired power was very disappointing. The Pact’s language had already been watered down at least twice, and that should have been enough for sceptical countries like China and India. 

However, having any reference to fossil fuels in a UNFCCC negotiated agreement is a first. Combined with the widespread support from many countries for a phase out, this sends a strong signal to large coal users that they need to do more to accelerate their transition towards low carbon technologies. The ‘side deal’ concluded with South Africa to provide finance in return for such an accelerated transition is a good example of how international collaboration could help to achieve this. 

Listen to Jim’s discussion before the last-minute changes on coal-fired power on Times Radio programme from the 2hours and 37 minutes mark 

India to be net-zero by 2070 

Priti Parikh

Priti Parikh, 
Head of Engineering at the UCL International Development Centre 


In week one at COP26, the Indian Prime Minister set out an ambitious target to reach net-zero by 2070, obtain 50% of energy from renewables and reduce carbon emissions by one billion tonnes by 2030. Between now and 2050, 2 billion people will be added to the planet with most of the growth happening in developing nations. Nations like India will need to upscale investment in infrastructure and housing to improve quality of life in a climate resilient manner. 

The $US100 billion which was promised in 2009 has not been forthcoming. The lack of finance and exclusion of vital clauses on loss and damages means that sadly developing nations do not have resources to address climate change. This played out in the last hour of COP26 when a joint intervention by India, China and the US led to watering down of the text on coal in the Glasgow Climate Pact.  

I hope that COP27 will support technology transfer, resource allocation for clean technologies for local communities and investment in infrastructure to tackle climate change in developing nations. 

Listen to UCL's Generation One post-COP podcast episode with Priti

Listen to Priti's BBC Radio Yorkshire interview from the 12 minutes 40 seconds mark

Read Priti’s interview with the Eastern Eye 

Climate justice

Richard Taylor

Richard Taylor,
Professor of Hydrogeology 


COP26 revealed a growing rift between perceptions of the urgency and scale of change required to address the causes and impacts of climate change from scientists and climate activists, and what governments deem politically viable.  Clashes between governments from low- and high-income countries also revisited longstanding issues of climate injustice.   

A fuller, more truthful accounting of the inequities arising from historical carbon emissions by high-income countries and disproportionate impacts of climate change experienced in low-income countries will likely be a prerequisite for progress at COP27 in Egypt next year. Discussion of the threats posed by climate change to water and food security were conspicuously limited at COP26. Further, climate finance remains less than promised, problematic to access, and rooted in trickle-down economics. The latter disfavours decentralised, nature-based solutions reaching the people most affected by climate change.  Addressing these climate injustices will be no doubt determine the success of COP27. 

Simon Chin Yee

Simon Chin-Yee, 
Lecturer in International Development 


From a climate justice perspective, there are two major shortcomings at COP26. The first was the watered-down language in the Glasgow Climate Pact, referring to the phase-down of ‘unabated’ coal power and ‘inefficient’ fossil fuel subsidies. Language matters. The change in language from phasing out to phasing down, as well as the addition of unabated/inefficient, could give industrialised and large emitting countries permission to interpret what inefficient subsidies actually are. The second was the resistance of the Global North (notably the United States and the European Union) to establish a fund for Loss & Damage, that had been pushed for earlier in the summit. Both this fund and action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions is crucial for the most vulnerable communities and countries (small island states, sub-Saharan African countries etc.) who were under-represented at this year’s COP, and who are also those already feeling the effects of a warming globe most acutely.  

There were a lot of pledges at COP26. What I would like to see over the next 12 months, is that the developed countries and the larger emitters not only increase their ambition, but demonstrate their willingness to actually turn these pledges into actions. If the world is to limit global warming to 1.5°C, then countries will need to reassess their climate policies and actions on a yearly basis - and COP27 Sharm el Sheik will need to demonstrate that they have.    

See Simon’s interview with Al Jazeera during COP   

Read Simon’s article on COP  

An inclusive COP? 

Angelica Johansson

Angelica Johansson, 
PhD Candidate, UCL Department of Political Science 


The UK presidency argued that they were committed to making COP26 transparent, inclusive and in solidarity with all countries. The digital COP26 Platform was developed for those who could not attend the meeting in person. Yet, reports from participants inside the venue sharply criticised the summit, describing it as the most exclusionary they have ever known. At COP26, I paid attention to the specific spaces Observers and Parties engaged in during the COP. The first two days of COP26 hosted the World Leaders Summit, leaving the negotiation zone inaccessible to Observers.  

My hope for COP27, which is scheduled to take place in Egypt in 2022, is that the transparency of the negotiations and the participation is improved so that we who study these processes, and campaigners can better observe and report on the process and its outcome.  

Empowering climate action 

Rodney Harrison

Rodney Harrison,
Professor of Heritage Studies  


While it is clear that current emissions targets are not ambitious enough to keep global heating below 1.5C, and that developed nations continue to drag their heels on finance for adaptation, loss and damage, if there is one positive legacy of COP26 Glasgow it may be the less well reported Glasgow Work Agreement for Action for Climate Empowerment, which emphasises the importance of empowering all members of society to engage in climate action, through education, training, public awareness, public participation, public access to information and international cooperation and requires countries to report on progress on this. Cultural institutions such as museums and educational institutions such as schools and universities are specifically mentioned as key organisations through which to deliver the objectives of the work agreement. Governments will only make changes if publics continue to push hard for change, and all institutions have a role to play in empowering publics to take action for climate. It will only be through widespread mobilisation of public participation in climate action that further progress towards keeping emissions below 1.5C will be possible at COP27.  

Rodney is co-lead on Reimagining Museums for Climate Action, a project which works with the principles of Action for Climate Empowerment in the cultural sector. See further information about the project 

Read Rodney’s views on how museums could inspire action for the Climate Crisis in this piece for The Conversation

Listen to him talk about the role of heritage and museums in climate action in this BBC3 Free Thinking podcast

The power of the global community 

Tom Dolan speaking at an event

Tom Dolan, 
Senior Research Associate, UCL Engineering 


I was blown away by the innovative spirit, passion, energy, professionalism, sense of duty and collective belief buzzing around, and by the sheer scope and breadth of thinking and potential actions being championed in, the COP26 Blue Zone. The emphasis on the Race to Resilience, and the power and significance of nature-based solutions, as complementary to the Race to Zero and technologically led transformation of the energy infrastructure put a spring in my step. Three days at COP26: re-energised me with the belief that we as a global community can successfully tackle the Climate Emergency; and strengthened my conviction that systemic perspectives on governance and national infrastructure are critical components of any successful response. 

By contrast, I was floored and frustrated by the draft pact, and not much happier with the final Glasgow Climate Pact. Both fail to capture the inspirational spirit of the blue zone; or address growing public demand for the scale of visionary political leadership urgently needed to deliver a resilient, equitable, just, net zero global future.  

Therefore, we must make every day between now and COP27 count if the outcome from COP27 is to reflect the urgent global necessity. 

Is 1.5 degrees still alive? 

Robbie Mallet

Robbie Mallett, 
UCL Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling 


With scientists now confident about the key impacts of exceeding 1.5 or 2°C of warming, it was the job of politicians at COP26 to make staying within those limits possible.  

Looking back on the conference, it seems that staying under 2°C is now more likely than ever, but hope for 1.5°C is all but lost.  Recent analysis indicates that currently enacted policies will lead to warming of around 2.7°C. If countries end up meeting their current long-term net-zero promises, global warming will likely peak at 1.9°C. 

On one hand, the mismatch between policies and promises is stark: the political will to legislate past promises is already faltering in the US, and may suffer elsewhere in a post-covid world. However COP26 is not the end of the UN process: the often overlooked ratchet mechanism will now gather pace, requiring countries to strengthen and communicate their plans more frequently. And the “Paris Rulebook” for emissions transparency is now in place after six years of discussion.  

With the climate crisis now upon us, we can no longer simply avoid the issue as we could have done decades ago. Glasgow shows that all victories will now be compromises, and all will come at a cost. 

Participative decision making 

Ryan Bellinson

Ryan Bellinson, 
UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose 


Throughout COP26, I found the ‘official’ discussions in the blue zone perplexing and disconnected from reality. The IPCC found in their 2018 Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5C that global carbon emissions need to be halved by 2030 for the planet to have a high likelihood of limiting warm to 1.5. This requires deep systemic change throughout society, far beyond pedantic squabbles over phasing-out ‘unabated’ coal and ‘inefficient’ fossil fuel subsidies. 

The voices of Indigenous communities, poor and working-class peoples, minorities, frontline communities and scientists were deafeningly absent from sanctioned debates at COP26. To enable bold and inclusive climate action in line with what is called for by science demands non-traditional approaches to collaborative deliberation and consensus building where civil society has an active role in decision-making. A kernel for that alternative participative decision-making approach could be glimpsed within a small contingent of alternative perspectives that were 'allowed' to have a small voice within the official side lines of COP26. The spokesperson for the COP26 Coalition spoke to this when powerfully stating during the conference’s closing plenary that, “the people are rising up across the global to hold our governments and corporations to account – and make them act.”  To achieve a truly just transition, COP27 must be a beacon for inclusive and participative decision-making. 

Carbon markets

Mark Maslin

Mark Maslin,
Professor of Earth System Science, UCL 

Simon Lewis

Simon Lewis,
Professor of Global Change Science at University of Leeds and, UCL 

Carbon markets could throw a potential lifeline to the fossil fuel industry, allowing them to claim “carbon offsets” and carry on business as (nearly) usual. A tortuous series of negotiations over article 6 of the Paris Agreement on market and non-market approaches to trading carbon was finally agreed, six years on. The worst and biggest loopholes were closed, but there is still scope for countries and companies to game the system. 

Outside the COP process, we will need much clearer and stricter rules for company carbon offsets. Otherwise expect a series of exposé from non-governmental organisations and the media into carbon offsetting under this new regime, when new attempts will emerge to try and close these remaining loopholes. 

Read the full article in The Conversation   

Cities and the Built Environment

Marie Williams

Marie Williams,
UCL Institute of Global Prosperity


Achieving tangible and measurable action within the draft agreement was always going to be a challenge due to the fact 197 countries needed to agree to the terms and conditions within it. The agreement ‘recognizes that limiting global warming to 1.5 °C requires rapid, deep and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, including reducing global carbon dioxide emissions by 45 per cent by 2030, relative to the 2010 level and to net zero around mid- century, as well as deep reductions in other greenhouse gases’. However it was disappointing to see that the nations represented had not made quantifiable or measurable decisions to demonstrate their political and financial will to reach the 1.5 °C . The built environment currently accounts for 38% of green house gas emissions globally and will need to take accelerated action to drive towards the 1.5 °C goal, as the agreement suggests. 

Although the agreement suggest well below 2°C should be the aim, we are aware of the catastrophic and widespread devastation that will arise from exceeding 1.5°C  pre industrial levels. The buildings and public spaces in cities and surroundings towns can and must do more to mitigate against the effects of climate change and achieve the long term low greenhouse gas emission development strategies the agreement calls for. Many of strategies and technologies we require are already available - from the adoption of digital twins technology, to adapting the energy network within buildings to respond to increasing temperatures, to the implementation of heat pump systems, to retrofitting homes for improved insulation, to the integration of cleaner transport infrastructure, to the adoption of timber building materials, to offsetting measures such as green roofs and tree planting, through to the use of data to understand building occupation to promote enhances utilisation of under-utilised spaces. However these solutions were not widely promoted at COP26 and are not even suggested within the agreement. Yes we need place based solutions but governments must provide the policy, support, investment and financial incentive to enable businesses, property owners and local communities to implement the technology and strategies required. The UK government effectively promised to enable this step change in behaviour and operation in June 2001 when they enshrined in law in the net zero target, committing the UK to reduce emissions by at least 100% below 1990 levels by 2050.

We must not forget that millions of people are forecasted to migrate to cities as a result of the impact of climate change induced floods and droughts, on the livelihoods and living conditions of rural and indigenous communities that rely on the natural environment to survive and thrive. Globally, we will need to keep building homes to account for migration, the growing trend towards urbanisation as well as population growth. As we do, the built environment sector must ensure they adopt technology and strategies to drive down greenhouse gas emissions across the energy, transport, construction and green spaces it intersects with. With government support, business can collaborate with local communities to implement more equitable, place based solutions to rapidly drive towards net zero by 2030 to enable us to actually achieve 1.5 °C instead of retreating back to 2 °C and causing the premature death of millions of lives and environments. The devastation cannot be reversed, our actions can.

Please find some further recommendations in this policy paper which focuses on the use of data to enable decarbonisation if the built environment.