Now that we’re halfway through United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, let’s take stock.

Some have called COP26 our “last best hope” in finding a global solution to the climate crisis. Delayed for a year, and as the first global gathering in which countries assess their nationally determined contributions since the Paris Accord, the meetings carry great expectation. The grave findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report have only added to their urgency.

The first week, however, showed significant challenges persist if we are to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, much less the 1.5-degree target. Private and public sector finance from industrialized countries to countries that have done relatively little to cause climate change, but bear the brunt of its effects, is a hot point of debate. Phasing out coal was a non-starter with India, Russia, and China last week. There’s little sign that there will be unanimous agreement on Article 6 of the Paris Accord, which governs carbon markets. And many countries reported falling short of their original emissions reduction targets. As such, temperature rise remains on course to exceed 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

This is not to say that some of the announcements this past week aren’t encouraging. To name three, more than 100 countries pledged to curb 30% of methane emissions by 2030; the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use said it would halt forest loss and reduce land degradation by 2030; and several governments and private funders pledged $1.7 billion to indigenous peoples and local communities to help arrest deforestation. These kinds of statements, and those to come this week, provide a sense of hope to move forward.

Many have billed COP26 as the last chance saloon — a turning point that will see the world move in a better direction. If the meetings help set the sails toward a climate-positive future, we still need to catch the right winds to propel us forward. That is the task of all of us after COP26 concludes this Friday.  

Below are what I believe to be four priority areas to put the wind in Glasgow’s sails:

  1. Reform the rules of global commodity and agriculture trade. A handful of commodities are responsible for most deforestation. They include cattle, oil palm, soy, cocoa, rubber, coffee, and plantation wood for fiber. Commodity-driven deforestation can be significantly reduced if trade terms change. The US FOREST Act of 2021 and an emerging due diligence trade bill in the EU may pave the way for this reform.
  2. Put farmers, indigenous peoples, women, and youth at the center of solutions. Agriculture stores about 9% of the world’s carbon, and half of the world’s cereal crop is produced by farmers who own 1-3 hectares of land. Smallholders are key to carbon mitigation strategies and the transition to sustainable food systems. Deforestation is significantly lower in areas in which indigenous people live, which amounts to half of the planet’s land. Engaging women and youth generates nature-based livelihoods. Further still, engaging with local communities strengthens the chance that solutions will be place-based and tailored to local conditions.
  3. Take up jurisdictional approaches. We need to reconcile top-down target setting with bottom-up project development by linking everything. Local, sub-national, national, and international efforts should align to maximize synergies and mitigate trade-offs.
  4. Change the order of magnitude of finance for mitigation, adaptation, and biodiversity conservation. Investing in nature’s processes makes good business sense. The UN Global Commission on Adaptation calculates that a $1.8 trillion investment in resilient infrastructure, early warning systems, crop production, mangroves, and water resource management by 2030 would yield over $7 trillion of benefits in avoided costs from climate change effects.

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Brian Cohen

Brian Cohen is a senior director providing guidance on environmental stewardship to expand ACDI/VOCA’s efforts in low-emissions development through technical assistance, mainstreaming of nature-based thinking, and partnerships. For more than 20 years, Brian has coordinated multi-stakeholder processes and research, reformed policies, and improved supply chains for sustainable climate pathways in 24 countries. Prior to joining ACDI/VOCA in 2021, Brian served USAID’s Mission in Liberia, the Ghana Forestry Commission, and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization to instill transparency, accountability, and equity in the timber and cocoa sectors. He also served as program director for the International Bamboo and Rattan Organisation (INBAR) in Beijing, heading its largest department and managing green growth initiatives in 45 countries. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Benin, Brian engaged smallholder farmers and women’s groups to adopt agro-environmental technologies. He holds a BA in anthropology from Prescott College and an MA in resource governance from Brandeis University. Brian is fluent in French and Spanish and has a limited working proficiency in Thai.