The Current

These experts say there's reason for cautious optimism coming out of COP26

As the COP26 summit ends, experts say there is reason to be cautiously optimistic about the work that’s been done to avoid a climate disaster.

Michael Mann says the commitment to phase at coal and promises from the United States and China go a long way

Artists painted a mural on a a wall next to the Clydeside Expressway near Scottish Events Centre in Glasgow where COP26 is taking place. (Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

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As the COP26 summit ends, experts say there is reason to be "cautiously optimistic" about the work that's been done to avoid a climate disaster. 

"There's reason now to have some optimism. When we look down the road, we can see still a path to keeping warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius," Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, told Matt Galloway on The Current

"But make no mistake, there is a lot of work left to be done."

The conference set out with a core aim: to keep alive the 2015 Paris Agreement's target to stop global warming at 1.5 C above preindustrial levels.

And Mann says progress has been made there. He said that early on at the summit, there was frustration from young advocates that there wasn't much headway. But he says even though the final plan isn't in place just yet, the summary statement that's been put out is encouraging.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrived for the COP26 summit Monday, Nov. 1. Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, said his optimism about COP26 stems from the contributions of youth activists more than politicians. (Phil Noble/Pool/The Associated Press)

The statement focuses on phasing out coal and keeping warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, and also emphasizes new commitments from the United States and China, which weren't part of the Paris Agreement.

Kathryn Harrison, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia, says those commitments from the United States and China could make a big difference, because the countries are two of the world's biggest emitters. 

"They're big actors. They carry a lot of weight and a lot of other countries look to them," said Harrison. 

But a new draft of the summary statement published on Friday morning weakened the language used in previous texts to address the phasing out of fossil fuels.

European Union climate policy chief Frans Timmermans had said removing that language "would be an extremely, extremely bad signal."

Work ahead

Mann said that after the summit is over and everyone returns to their countries, he wants to see policymakers walk the walk, and he'll be watching for what's called the "implementation gap."

"[That] is the difference between what politicians are pledging and what they're actually doing, the policies that are in place right now," said Mann. 

Kathryn Harrison said the other big question is if China will follow through with its commitments, but she says the country usually only makes promises it feels it can keep.

Demonstrators walk through the Glasgow during the Fridays For Future march on November 5. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

However, she added, it's a challenge because the United Nations can't force countries to make good on promises.

"The UN is not a world government. They have to rely on countries' voluntary commitments to do what they said they were going to do."

But Mann is hopeful some of these countries will act, not because of the politicians, but because of the youth, who have been so vocal on climate change.

"It's in the fact that they are out there marching 40,000 strong in the streets of Glasgow to recenter this conversation, where it needs to be, about our ethical obligation to act," said Mann. 

"We've seen some real movement, a lot of it because of the pressure that youth climate advocates have been putting on opinion leaders and policymakers."

Tens of thousands of young climate activists marched through Glasgow Friday, to protest what they see as a lack of meaningful progress on tackling the climate crisis. We spoke to three young activists who have travelled from Canada to COP26 — Shakti Ramkumar, Freddie Huppé Campbell and Sadie Vipond — about their fears, and hopes, for the future. We also look at the big picture with Paul Brown, the former environment correspondent for The Guardian.

Written by Philip Drost. Produced by Niza Lyapa Nondo and Joana Draghici.

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