COP26 or COP-OUT?

* 5 min read
After COP26 got off to such a promising start with big commitments in Week 1, the final few days of the conference have been branded something of a disappointment by critics around the world.

With negotiations going into the wee hours and running into Saturday to reach a deal, does the agreement represent one last-minute compromise too far or does the fact nations reached a deal at all signals promising future momentum?

It certainly went down to the wire and the tension was palpable, with COP26 President Alok Sharma himself admitting that there was one point in final negotiations where he genuinely thought a deal was off the table completely.

The main sticking point, perhaps predictably, was the coal industry, with China and India pushing through an amendment to commit to “phase down” rather than “phase out” coal, weakening the terminology significantly. While this does feel like more of a COP-OUT than a COP success, it should be noted that this is the first time any deal has managed to include a mention of the coal industry at all. And, on a slightly more positive note, most of Western Europe and North America have also agreed to stop funding overseas fossil fuel projects by this time next year, which will go a long way to reduce coal power dependency longer term.

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Fortunately, from a packaging standpoint, COP26 has provided plenty of something to consider, with the deforestation pledge and announcement of the Global Plastics Policy Centre likely to drive real change and make a significant difference in the industry.

With these commitments, the commonly used strategy of switching from plastic to paper will no longer be enough or right. Plastics have been demonised for several years and yes, they can (and do) contribute to pollution, but all packaging materials should be carefully selected and used responsibly, including paper and board. Evolving policy on all materials means more informed decisions need to be made, using real data, and weighing up more factors than ever before to ensure the responsible selection is made for each pack.

With the deforestation deal, where paper and board packaging are the right choice there is likely to be increased focus on sustainable sourcing via certifications such as FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) and PEFC. Equally, from a policy perspective the inception of the Plastics Policy centre is likely to accelerate implementation of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) frameworks and Plastic Taxes worldwide.

Many markets have already announced or developed more stringent frameworks in packaging legislation, covering all packaging materials, and introducing eco-modulated fees to drive out use of problematic materials. Here in the UK, the Plastic Tax is set to come into force on 1st April 2022, with EPR following in 2023. With these dates approaching faster than we might like to admit, it is now more important than ever for brands and retailers to be fully equipped and informed to make the right decisions on their packaging.

One of the main targets of COP26 was to ensure global commitments would limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius this century, a figure scientists claim would limit the projected loss and damage to lives and natural habitats. However, the commitments made in COP26 are projected to only limit temperature rise to 2.4 degrees, well below the target and quite frankly, not good enough.

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By the end of 2022, countries have committed to re-publish climate action plans, detailing more ambitious emissions reduction targets to 2030. Again, this deferral may feel like a bit of a COP-OUT, but it is critical that these published commitments not only go far beyond what has been agreed to date, but that funding from developed nations is in place to deliver these and provide support for poorer, more climate-vulnerable countries.

One thing is for sure, this is not enough, and momentum simply cannot stop here. The decade to 2030 is vital for our planet, and more will have to be done to ensure we collectively reduce emissions to more acceptable levels.

Although the last-minute compromises may have left many feeling deflated, there are plenty of positives we can take away from COP26. Prominent figures and inspiring keynote speakers such as David Attenborough, Barack Obama and A-list celebrities joined forces to promote climate action on the world stage, putting sustainability top of mind in households across the country and the world. COP26 may not have provided all the answers, but it is certainly a big step in the right direction, and public engagement and awareness has never been higher.

Commitments published next year will be the real litmus test to understand where we really are against the 1.5-degree target and what needs to be done to accelerate further. In the meantime, we all have a part to play in making sustainable choices, keeping up the pressure and momentum and keeping climate change and emissions reductions top of mind.


About the author

imageedit 1 6168940299Gillian Orr – Lead Sustainability Consultant

Gill is a lead consultant, dedicated to providing clients with sustainable packaging strategy, process mapping / improvement and decoding the complex arena of global packaging regulation. She has experience across FMCG, food service and branded clients globally, implementing teams, processes and strategies to drive efficiency while ensuring transparency and integrity of packaging data through technology. Her solution-led, detail-oriented and collaborative approach ensures our clients receive the best possible advice to meet their sustainability targets and reduce waste - in all senses of the word. 

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