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COP26: A Big Failure?

The 26th meeting of the Conference of the Parties proved to be an impressive global failure, as the public widely criticised world leaders for their lack of effort and attention in combating the global challenge of climate change. With unfulfilled promises and ignorance towards those most affected, the world grew dissatisfied and demanded drastic change.

Representatives from an estimated 200 countries, part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), met in Glasgow, Scotland, to debate how to tackle the escalating global climate crisis. Accompanied by various NGOs, climate activists and prominent figures, including the members of the Royal Family and Sir David Attenborough, the conference hosted the heads of states over a 12-day conference. Held between 31st October and 12th November 2021 in the United Kingdom, the Conference of Parties (COP) met for its 26th gathering and revisited discussions from the 2015 Paris Climate Summit. The past decade has witnessed and recorded the warmest temperatures thus far, resulting in a sense of urgency among government officials against a backdrop of increasing protests and advocacy by activists globally – giving the COP26 great significance.

COP26 had an underlying expectation rooted in the “lacking ambitions” of the G20, as condemned by Greenpeace, a non-governmental organisation striving to uncover global environmental challenges and develop creative solutions for the same. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated ahead of the COP26 conference that “if Glasgow fails, then the whole thing fails”, putting an essential sense of urgency on the participating states. The G20 had been painted as a stepping stone to the COP26, in the hope of the COP26 to be more than “just a piece of paper”, as Mr Johnson expressed.

The Agenda

With a plan ranging from capacity building for less developed countries under the convention to government policies on renewable energy and biodiversity, COP26 has proved to be a controversial step in the journey to tackling climate change. It planned to tie up the few loopholes of the Paris Agreement that had remained untouched since 2015. The 2015 Paris Agreement, for instance, did not include a global tax on carbon emissions and did little to promote sustainable production and sale among large companies, leaving states with no accountability over their contribution to the increasing global climate disasters.

In 2017, former U.S. President Donald Trump heavily criticised the Paris Agreement, arguing that the global deal to reduce carbon emissions would kill jobs and impose crushing regulations on the U.S. economy, and hence pulled out of the Agreement. Notably, opinions were the only result of this withdrawal, along with the obvious lessening chances of the Paris Agreement succeeding due to the funding cut off. Considering this leniency on the non-compliance of states, not to mention a state as significant as the U.S., the COP26 remained vitally strict about putting in place firm regulations to implement the Agreement.

Net-zero discussions ranked high on the agenda as industrial countries such as Russia surpassed reduction limits peaking at 14 million tons of gas-based methane. At the same time, China postponed its target net-zero year from 2050 to 2060.

Towards the end of October, 24 states which consider themselves as ‘Like-minded developing countries’ (LMDCs) denounced the efforts to force a net-zero target economy on all forms, justifying themselves with ‘climate justice’. India and China being significant members of this union, bring with them Bangladesh, Philippines, Indonesia and Sri-Lanka, some of which notably switched to agree to the commitments of the COP26. LMDCs, led by China and India, also demanded the removal of an entire section on the mitigation of climate change from the COP26 draft text.

Global Promises

Throughout the conference, world leaders made various statements about the success and setbacks of their respective countries in the journey to reverse the effects of climate change. Heads of States pledged to bring climate policies to the forefront of national discussions. While developed nations, including the United States, United Kingdom, Spain and Germany, highlighted their efforts to become carbon neutral by 2030 and increase climate funding, smaller states aimed to establish stricter laws against industrial activity, including logging and deforestation.

Sir David Attenborough, a leading figure throughout the entire conference, highlighted the need for a “Second Industrial Revolution.” By establishing the scope and success of the industrial activity founded in the 18th century, the prominent natural historian spoke of the dire need to develop environmentally friendly and sustainable industrial processes, to curb the threats posed by emissions and waste disposal from large factories and manufacturing plants.

Taking the discussions forward, leaders such as U.S. President Joe Biden spoke of the newly introduced ‘Build Back Better’ framework. The initiative aims to cut over a gigaton of greenhouse gases, lowering energy costs to make it accessible to all levels of society, coupled with enforcing climate justice within industries and infrastructure. Said to provide the next generation with accessible clean air and water, the ‘Build Back Better’ initiative is said to be “the largest effort to combat climate change in American history.”

The Great Divide

Despite the goals and commitment established during the 2015 Paris Climate Summit, states have become divided into two major groups. One group, consisting of countries that were successfully able to protect and rebuild following climate disasters, and another made of countries currently on the verge of extinction.

Climate funding has proven to be one of the most significant challenges faced by the world. Article 9 of the 2015 climate agreement prompted developed countries to provide financial aid to smaller nations requiring the funds to develop technologies and acquire adequate resources to combat climate disasters. Leading governments, having failed to meet such goals, have faced an increasing sense of isolation from the developing world as they continue to advocate against the unequal nature of tackling the climate crisis. Sir David Attenborough further went on to state that “those who have done the least to cause this problem, are being the hardest hit”, depicting the ethical implications of the Global Northern states’ failure and indicating the urgency with which global cooperation must be achieved.

Supplementing the requests made in Attenborough’s speech, Mia Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados, further indicated the “reckless” nature of the pledges and promises made by the developed world. Leaders of similar island nations expressed their concern over the growing impact of rapidly increasing global temperature, threatening their existence with rising sea levels.

By encouraging the production of clean energy, reduced burning of coal and more active participation from governments across the world, the primary concern brought to the negotiations room was the exclusion of nuclear power. Scotland, the host country of the COP26, is reported to receive the cleanest energy in the U.K., 70% of which is based entirely on nuclear power produced by Torness and Hunterston B Nuclear Plants.

The goal to keep the global temperature rising to merely 1.5℃ might prove to be a grand failure at the conference, as state representatives continue pledging to reach net-zero emissions with no plan for renewable energy sources. With an increased chance of missing the 1.5-degree target, PM Mia Mottley of Barbados stated the failure of the world is a “death sentence” for island nations.

While negotiations planned to tackle the threats posed by global warming, protesters expressed anger over the inequality and general failure of the summit. Apart from the divide between delegations and the impact of climate change on developing countries, anger over the loss of global powers, including China, to attend the conference triggered unrest. At the same time, India had no effective methods of reaching its outlined goals. China, accounting for an estimated 30% of global emissions, left the conference unattended. China's climate envoy, Xi Zhenhuan, stated that China was not against the 1.5-degree target but simultaneously refused to commit to it.

Additionally, India being the fourth largest polluter globally, was not only criticised for its lack of participation at various COP26 negotiations and discussions but also for its inability to reach its carbon-neutral pledge during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at the conference this year, due to the lack of efforts made in the past. Further, developed nations, including the US, France, Germany and Spain, faced the brunt of the disappointed public as their pledges to aid developing countries with $100 million were also left disappointed. COP26 President Alok Sharma was seen apologising to the people on behalf of the failures outlined.

Global Ignorance

Despite the Global North receiving constant criticism for its failures, many smaller nations worldwide have faced challenges by being overlooked in the global effort to reverse the climate crisis. As the developed world pledges to build technologies to aid them in reaching their goals, communities making a real impact at a local level are being considered outdated in their approach to using traditional methods and policies to cut back carbon emissions. Countries such as Greece have made great strides towards electric vehicles (E.V.s) across their islands – specifically Astypalea, making headlines in June, earlier this year. Seen as one of the first large-scale efforts of its kind, Greece set the standard for the potential of switching public transport and investing in E.V.s and charging stations to support their climate goals.

Climate activists across African countries further make progress in taking a proactive stance in eliminating the climate threats faced by the people. Being one of the most vulnerable populations to the climate crisis, African Heads of States called for increased accountability for the developed world. The $100 million worth of climate funding they were expected to receive is yet to be given, while they urge for a debt assessment for the same money. With the failure to receive adequate funding, African leaders urged colleagues at the summit to fulfil their goals and enable countries to develop their sustainable technologies. This would help them assess carbon emissions and utilise the advancements to enforce environmentally sustainable alternatives such as E.V.s. Without the required funding and budgets, countries most vulnerable to climate change have struggled to implement sustainable developments and ensure their maintenance compared to more developed nations.

However, countries like Uganda have reached milestones in what are arguably “simple” or “old-school” measures. The government has already successfully implemented online bicycle systems to promote bicycles over private cars and other gas-powered vehicles – one of the many proactive commitments made by African nations, failing to be recognised or replicated by the rest of the world.

Additionally, the largest delegations involved individuals directly affiliated with the fossil fuel industry, with 503 people in attendance. Not only did this become an ironic highlight of the conference, but it was only seen to outweigh delegations from vulnerable countries greatly. Further instigating the divide between the powerful and those in need of immediate help, the lobbyists faced widespread criticism and backlash from the world watching.

The Role of the Youth

With the commencement of the COP26, widespread protests become a byproduct of the ongoing discussions. Beginning in Glasgow, civilians and activists from across the world gathered to make their voices heard. Due to the Covid-19 restrictions, civilians could not observe and participate in most of the debates and discussions, otherwise used as a medium of collaboration between governments and the people. Unable to gain entry to any of the talks, an estimated 25,000 climate activists and the younger populations initiated widespread protests to make their voices heard.

Emphasising the urgency of the situation, many protested the idea of only world leaders deciding the future of climate policies. With youth and indigenous communities making groundbreaking progress in limiting the impact of the climate crisis within their localities, the voices of the people have been perpetually unheard. Advocating for the same, climate activist Greta Thunberg has been an active participant throughout the protests and conference, urging leaders to listen to the voices of the people; and increase collaboration with those who suffer the impact of the climate crisis.

The official children’s and youth constituency of the UNFCCC, known as ‘YOUNGO’, organised various events during COP26. Aimed at bringing youth representatives to the world forum, the events enabled direct discourse between policymakers and the people. The group issued their official statement, representing over 40,000 people as part of the global climate movement. President of this year’s COP26 Alok Sharma stated that “Wherever I have been in the world, I have been struck by the passion and commitment of young people to climate action. The voices of the young people must be heard and reflected in the negotiations here at cop26.”

A Greenwashing Circus

The conference’s conclusion highlighted the inefficacy of existing policies and the impact of global attempts to cover up the failure to reverse the climate crisis. The idea of ‘Greenwashing’, also defined by individuals or groups increasing the use of the colour green or claiming to be environmentally sustainable while contributing to the global crisis, has become more apparent. Climate activist Greta Thunberg condemned COP26, calling it a “Greenwashing Festival”, where she criticised world leaders for giving long speeches and making pledges they have already failed to fulfil.

An increasingly recurring tactic observed around the world, greenwashing has posed significant challenges in ensuring accountability over the various actions taken to combat the global climate crisis -- a demand that many developing countries emphasised. Using this as a facade to cover up the disastrous contributions of various multinational companies and world leaders themselves, climate policies’ ethical implications and foundation are now under the global spotlight.

The economic setbacks that can be expected with drastic changes in production lines and domestic policies have proven to be a barrier stopping states from prioritising the environmental damage and have also fueled the idea and use of ‘greenwashing’.

The Result

With criticism inevitably looming, the COP26 has allowed for the first explicit pact that addresses the reduction of unabated coal usage. As part of the Glasgow Climate Pact, a pledge stated the 40 countries that signed to ‘phase-out’ coal. However, loopholes seem to persist, with the promise being overturned by coal-reliant countries such as India and China to ‘phase-down coal, keeping the dignitaries limited to the minority of 40. Considering the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Climate Agreement, the new pact outlined a more detailed approach to meeting the various climate goals set out in the past. U.N. Climate Chief Patricia Espinosa expressed her disappointment for the last minute overturn by the Indian and Chinese parties. While understanding the Indian incentive, she remarked, ​​“We would have preferred a very clear statement about a phasing out of coal and the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies”, although stating her overall satisfaction with the deal in place.

With attendees of the conference being party to this new global agreement, the decision to reconvene at a meeting next year in Egypt has set the timeline for global climate action. Aiming to make distinct progress in achieving the goals of the Glasgow Climate Pact, countries work to revisit their climate policies and increase accountability over the various pledges made by world leaders throughout the entire COP26 summit.

As the COP26 comes to an end, a unique sense of urgency and concern seems to have washed over policymakers across the world. As leaders and governments are urged to work alongside and prioritise the public, the world awaits drastic measures to cut emissions, increase climate funding, and secure those most vulnerable to the hazardous effects of the climate crisis. As big businesses and companies are looked upon to revisit their policies and processes, the people are eager to continue fighting for their safety and livelihood in the journey to change climate change.

Written by Veda Rodewald and Nandini Sarin

Edited by Adi Roy and Eshal Zahur



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