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Should We Be Sceptical About COP26?

Updated: Feb 13, 2023

Written on 28th October 2021

Glasgow feels very vibrant and tense recently, even more than usual. It is preparing for COP26. Some people feel excited and hopeful, others skeptical. Some are taking to the street to protest. But why are they protesting?

Some people oppose what COP26 represents: privileged politicians getting together to decide matters that are not going to affect them as much as they affect the most vulnerable. If we observe the participants of previous COPs, it is immediately clear that there is a common theme: mainly men, mainly white, wealthy, and highly educated. The indigenous community is poorly represented and ordinary people are excluded from decision making. Some people feel that the decisions made at COP are insufficiently committed to environmental protection. Despite evidence of the interconnection of overconsumption and environmental damage, the priority continues to be preserving economic growth. This leads to some climate activists being dissatisfied with COP as a process of international policymaking, as the solutions produced have been inadequate for effectively tackling climate change and reducing carbon emissions.

Other people are protesting to make sure that their voices are heard and politicians are aware that they are under great scrutiny right now. The decisions made at COP26 will shape how governments respond to the climate crisis. There is no time left for weak commitments. We ran out of time years ago. Therefore, climate activists are getting to the streets to make sure that their demands are heard and that international leaders act on their behalf. Climate activists are asking leaders to rebuild the international economy in such a way as to prioritise the well-being of everyone rather than profit maximisation, which only benefits a few. Because, to put in very simple terms, well-being requires tackling poverty and ensuring that everyone has access to basic resources such as water, food, and health, so that they can live a dignified life.

I had the pleasure to talk to Eilidh Crofton, a climate activist from Aberdeen based in Glasgow: “What comes out from COP meetings isn’t enough. The international community goes through the effort of having a huge meeting with all global leaders over something extremely important, and then what comes out? Not enough. It feels very performative. Climate change is not an 'it might happen' anymore. It's happening.” She told me, “I don’t oppose COP. COP26 is the most important thing. I protest to make sure that COP is not a failure. We cannot afford failures. It's our last chance. It isn't the deadline, it's our lifeline. We ran out of time 5-10 years ago. Having all these leaders on my doorstep deciding on the most important issue right now feels very emotional. This is why I am so committed.” For this reason, Eilidh and many other young activists have decided to protest as much as possible these days.

Hearing this, it may seem natural to wonder whether we should share the same skepticism about COP26. To Considering the past COPs might help us to build a more informed opinion. Still classes as one of the most important COPs so far is without any doubt COP21, which resulted in the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement is an international treaty on climate change which sets out targets of keeping the rise in mean global temperature to well below 2 °C (3.6 °F) above pre-industrial levels and limiting the increase to 1.5 °C (2.7 °F). It also established the long-term goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. So with this in mind, can we consider COP21 a success?

The trust is, there is no quick or simple fix to climate change, and it is not going to be found in one single event. Solutions will be complex and long-term because they require redesigning our economic systems and industries, reforming our modes of transport, and major investments in low-carbon technologies. Therefore, an assessment of the Paris Agreement should not focus on whether it will solve the problem of global warming, but on whether it provides a framework to develop and sustain a long-term political commitment to an effective global response. In other words, whether it will make a transition to a low-carbon global economy more likely. The Paris Agreement makes it easy for states to reach their own climate change mitigation goals because they are self-imposed. Such goals are called NDCs and are supposed to be renewed every 5 years to become incrementally ambitious. This feature of the NDCs is meant to overcome the main problem of previous international initiatives: none of the targets set was ever met. With the Paris Agreement, states were able to decide their objectives realistically, by considering their resources and their political aims.

Undeniably, The Paris Agreement has strengthened ambition around a temperature target and has established a clearer long-term goal, too. It sends a message to the global market concerning how the global economy should evolve and what investments should be prioritised, i.e., green energy rather than fossil fuel. However, it remains unclear what states are supposed to do to achieve the overarching goal, as the Agreement does not impose specific restrictions on polluting activities. This makes the commitments of the Paris Agreements somewhat weak, some may say. Despite this, the impact the Paris agreement has had on governance mechanisms is undeniable. It has motivated the creation of a wide range of voluntary initiatives that engage both business actors and civil society in collaborative efforts to reduce emissions, promote best-practice models and encourage technology transfer to the global south so that it has the means to comply with the goals of the Paris Agreement. TSome may say then, that overall, COP21 was successful.

COP25 however, which took place in Madrid in 2019, is largely seen as a failure, or, as defined by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, ‘disappointing’. Countries did not show any willingness to seriously commit to the Paris Agreement’s goals. For example, China chose not to revise their commitments. This is of course unacceptable considering that we are already behind schedule concerning climate change mitigation. How did China get away with it? By relying on International Law, pointing to the principle that developed countries must take the lead in addressing climate change. Conversely, developing countries have a right to pollute to stabilise their economies and ‘catch up with developed states’ (the common but differentiated responsibilities principle). Considering that the US dropped out of the Paris Agreement during Trump’s administration, delegating climate change mitigation to developed countries only is clearly a weak solution. Thus, COP25 shows that it is indeed justifiable to be sceptical about the meetings happening in Glasgow. They, as well, may turn out to be extremely disappointing.

Considering the different outcomes of COP21 and COP25, it is difficult to determine whether we should be sceptical about COP26. Nevertheless, I argue that we have no choice but to be optimistic. This is because global complex issues like climate change require international common solutions. Independent action will always be insufficient. We need international law to impose regulations on states. Otherwise, they would not take voluntary action. The example of China at COP25 previously mentioned is clear evidence of this.

The crisis caused by COVID-19 has shown us that states are willing to take extreme measures, such as imposing lockdowns and cooperating on an unprecedented scale, to achieve an urgent common goal. So why not impose strict regulations to reduce emissions to zero as soon as possible? Climate change affects human health too. However, since the connection is less obvious, the correlation between climate change and human health is often ignored in public debates. Climate change is responsible for extreme weather events, such as fires in Australia, and extreme flooding in the Maldives, Venice, Germany, and Belgium. These are just a few examples of how climate change is putting human health and safety at risk. As claimed by Sir David Attenborough, #COP26 People's Advocate, at COP26 at the Opening Ceremony, ‘in [our lifetime we] could and should witness a wonderful recovery. That desperate hope is why the world is looking to you and why you are here’.

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