Neon sign "Hurry up please Its time" by artist Cornelia Parker (2021) at COP26 in Glasgow. A. Seth photo

The world is ready for meaningful action on climate change. After 26 climate summits held by the UN, greenhouse gas emissions at the core of global heating  continue to increase, even as the science is clear that these emissions must be halved by 2030 and zeroed out by mid century.  We are in the decisive decade – which will determine the future prospects for humanity and biodiversity for centuries to come.

The outcome of COP26, the Glasgow Climate Pact, has been a disappointment because near term (2030) commitments do not achieve the 45% reductions needed to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C, deemed as critical to avoid unmanageable impacts, especially for those most vulnerable.  Nor have the biggest historical polluters (USA, EU) agreed to the climate finance essential for equity. It feels like a brutal blow to so many on the front lines of climate impacts and for young people who seek some relief from growing anxiety about their futures.  It’s as if we have been heaving a gigantic rock up a steep incline, only to have it roll back over us.

The situation is grave, and the work ahead is daunting. But the data are coming in with ever greater clarity.  Let me point out why I am coming home from Glasgow with a bit of optimism.

The science

It is now “unequivocal” that humans are responsible for heating the Earth and that cumulative CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels are the predominant cause. The findings from the scientific assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC)  provide the basis for limiting Earth’s mean temperature (1.5 C) and also the rationale for adaptation and finance.

The pledges

All countries now accept the science and the urgent need to achieve  global “net-zero” carbon emissions by mid-century.   The the four largest emitters (China, USA, EU, India) are on board to bend the emissions curve this decade (with the USA and EU emissions already declining). The  “phasing down of unabated coal” and “phasing out of inefficient oil and gas subsidies,” although stated in the weakest possible terms, are written into the Glasgow Climate Pact for the first time.   Those crunching the numbers on climate action (Climate Action Tracker) say 2030 pledges would lead to warming of 2.4 C (down from 2.7 C prior to COP26 and 4 C at the time of the Paris Agreement in 2015).

Let’s be clear, 2.4 C is still catastrophic, but there is language in the pact that instructs countries to  next year increase their 2030 commitments to align with the overall target of 1.5C  (at COP27 in Egypt in 2022). Thus, 1.5 is said to be alive, but only if nations come through in the coming year with stronger ambition.

Climate justice

The cumulative emissions data (which are directly related to amount of heating) tell us that the U.S. is by far the largest source of historical emissions (~25%) and that developed  economies (USA, EU, Japan, Australia) are responsible for 50% of emissions since 1850.   There is no place to hide from these facts. Since the $100 billion designated by the Paris Agreement as a minimum required for adaptation has not yet been met, vulnerable countries are seeking clear commitments and a separate mechanism to finance the loss and damage that is already being experienced. Although the USA and EU continue to obstruct on this issue, the pressure on rich countries for equity and justice is mounting from an ever-broader coalition. Note that emissions are very closely aligned with economic status and inequities exist both within and across nations.


Carbon trading will also face intense scrutiny and pressure to ensure equity and real emissions reductions. The transparency requirements built into the Glasgow Climate Pact should help establish credibility in reducing emissions, adaptation assistance, and finance.

With 1.5 C still potentially within reach, countries will be under enormous pressure at COP27 to increase ambition this decisive decade as required by science.  The moral pressure from people across nations is louder than ever and increasing. Diplomats and negotiators at COP26 referred to these voices repeatedly.  It is widely recognized that rapid, deep, and sustained action means saving lives.


Hope ribbons on the fencing outside the COP26 venue.

The drama of a changing climate in real time, combined with the availability of low cost renewable technologies and the factors above have created a momentum in the human and economic systems towards accelerating the changes needed to reduce emissions and address inequities  in this decade.

A societal tipping point?

To be clear, we are in a precarious moment. That gigantic boulder could come rolling back down if we are not vigilant.   It will take everything we have over the next few years to heave that rock over the peak. Then momentum will help even as more work will be needed to accelerate our chances of limiting heating to 1.5 C and avoid the worst consequences of climate heating for all of us on planet Earth.

Anji Seth is Professor and Interim Head of the Department of Geography at the University of Connecticut.  He chairs the Atmospheric Sciences Group and  co-directs the UConn@COP Program.