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  • Alessia D’Onofrio

Should We Be Sceptical About COP26?

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. The latter 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. Furthermore, the indigenous community is poorly represented and ordinary people are excluded from decision making. Furthermore, people feel that the decisions made at COP are insufficiently committed to environmental protection. The priority is always economic growth. In other words, some climate activists are dissatisfied with COP as a process of international policymaking because 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 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. 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.

Considering this, it may seem natural to wonder whether we should share the same skepticism about COP26. To determine so, it is worth considering the past COPs. One of the most important ones is without any doubt COP21, as it resulted in the Paris Agreement. An international treaty on climate change set goals 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. Therefore, can we consider COP21 a success?

There is no quick or simple fix to climate change. Solutions will be complex and long-term because they require redesigning many economic industries, such as 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 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 NDCs overcomes the main problem of previous international initiatives: none of the targets was ever met. With the Paris Agreement, states were able to decide their objectives realistically, by considering their resources and their political aims.

Additionally, The Paris Agreement has strengthened the temperature target and has established an ambitious long-term goal, too. In this way, 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 is unclear what states are supposed to do to achieve such a goal and the Agreement does not impose specific restrictions on polluting activities. This makes the commitments of the Paris Agreements somewhat weak. Despite this, the impact of the Paris agreement 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. Therefore, it may be claimed that, overall, COP21 was successful.

However, the COP25, which took place in Madrid in 2019, was 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, i.e., 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. Furthermore, 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.

Furthermore, the crisis caused by COVID-19 shows that states may be willing to take extreme measures, such as imposing lockdowns and cooperating 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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