In the spring of 1995, the first Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate – also known as a “climate COP” conference, or UN Climate Change Summit – unfolded in Berlin.
Back then, the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere was 359 ppm, meaning that within one million particles of air were 359 particles of carbon dioxide, landing in the middle of the range of what’s normal for outdoor air.
This year, as governments, businesses and civil society actors gathered in Glasgow for COP26 during the first two weeks of November, dubbed by some as “our last best hope” and by others a PR greenwashing event, this level reached 420 ppm – above the normal range.
As an environmental scientist and policy nerd, I see the climate COPs as the Academy Awards: an event predominantly led by the politics of gesture, in which the equitable representation of the planet’s people is neglected, and those who should go home with a prize rarely do.
Despite the many questions I have for the real value of these high-level spaces, I have followed three COPs so far, all from a distance through official reports and the eyes and ears of others. The first ever COP I followed “closely” was COP21, set in Paris in 2015. This was the COP where many welcomed the legendary Paris Agreement as a “turning point” in climate politics.
If we want to be pragmatic, the only legally binding element in this agreement is that countries must write and deliver progress reports every five years. But if we want to be optimistic, one could argue that COP21 created a wave of reporting on the climate in mainstream media that we are still riding today, as well as putting the “1.5” – the goal inscribed in the agreement to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius – on the climate politics map.
After COP21, the next COP I followed closely was COP25 in Madrid, which was in many regards a frustrating mess. Then came COP26, which was postponed for a year (it was meant to occur in 2020). The COVID-19 pandemic has been narrating our lives, and thus this year I prepared myself for a two-week digital marathon. And while the climate negotiations were highly inaccessible even for most in-person participants, I was privileged enough to be able to follow the developments closely as youth delegates, local activists from Scotland and skilled reporters did their best to convey the feelings and outcomes of COP26 to the rest of the world.
Let’s take a quick look at the good, the bad and the we-have-heard-this-before that took place during this year’s UN Climate Change Summit.
“Empty words don’t equal climate action”
The first day of COP26 had it all: photos, handshakes and new, bigger promises and pledges – but also protestors, campaigners and activists who were not persuaded by these new goals. Global Witness revealed that the biggest delegation in the climate summit was the fossil fuels industry, counting 503 delegates with affiliations to the oil, gas and coal sectors.
“Empty words don’t equal climate action,” shared a young representative from Oil Change International. “Leaders speak as if they are leading the fight against the climate crisis, but support in their own countries and abroad policies in favor of fossil fuel projects that ruin people’s lives and rights.”
While the U.K. government had committed to hosting an “inclusive COP,” climate activists and observers of the negotiations pointed out that this was the most exclusive COP they had ever attended, and one of the “whitest” in years.
With pandemic-related travel restrictions and quarantine rules changing until the last minute, unequal access to vaccination as well as the high-cost of flights and accommodation, many delegates – especially from the Global South and the countries most vulnerable to the climate crisis – had no choice but to forgo attending COP26.
“There are thousands of activists who should be here but who are missing, and there is a shocking degree of closing space for civil society and frontline voices,” said Gina Cortes, a member of the Women and Gender Constituency. “It is offensive, unjust and unacceptable.”
Many youth groups, including Youth4Nature, called out COP26 for platforming billionaires, and young activist Vanessa Nakate noted the exclusion of young people from the official negotiations, especially youth who are black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). To counter this, the COP26 Coalition, a U.K.-based civil society coalition of groups and individuals advocating for climate justice, held the People’s Summit to give grassroots movements a space for discussing common strategies in one of the biggest global mobilizations for climate. Outside the COP26 pavilion, which was set on the banks of the River Clyde, strikes from Scottish Unions reminded everyone that engaging with local struggles should be at the heart of the climate movement.
Normally at COPs, each day is devoted to a different theme, and this year, 5 November was “youth day.” As such, young activists inside and outside the venue pointed out the credibility gap between long-term promises and short-term actions. Held on a Friday, the day kicked off a weekend marked by global and local mobilization for climate justice that merged generations, cultures, dreams and voices.
Meanwhile, inside the venue, Txai Suruí, an Indigenous activist, made headlines with her powerful words addressing the delegates: “The Earth is speaking, she tells us that we have no more time. The animals are disappearing. The rivers are dying, and our plants don’t flower like they did before.”
Nearby in the city, the three-day GLF Climate Hybrid Conference took place on the same weekend, dedicating its first day to forests, with the Youth in Landscapes Initiative bringing specific attention to the devastating reality of climate migration. Two more days followed, focused on food and finance, seeking to bring more equity to this COP and giving the spotlight to voices from all landscapes that are leading climate action on the ground but who are often excluded from high-level decision-making processes.
Headline-grabbing pledges and declarations
The fact that most countries were actively engaged in the COP process was encouraging, but when world leaders took to the stage at COP26, it was obvious that everyone’s priorities continue to vastly differ.
The U.S., the world’s largest historical carbon emitter, has returned to the climate arena with the promise to “lead by example.” India’s prime minister, in one of the most divisive pledges of the COP, announced that the country will go net zero by 2070 – generations away, but undoubtedly an advancement from previous plans.
The prime minister of Barbados asked her fellow leaders in the opening ceremony: “Are we so blinded and hardened that we can no longer appreciate the cries of humanity?” She emphasized that surpassing 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming would be a “death sentence” for vulnerable island countries, including Barbados.
More than 100 countries pledged to save the world’s forests by 2030, but this commitment has received some criticism in light of the fact that 39 countries signed the New York Declaration in 2014, yet deforestation has continued to accelerate since.
Given that Indigenous peoples are the best stewards of the forest, the USD 1 billion piece of the new pledge earmarked for Indigenous and local communities sounds promising. Brazil is one of the signatory countries, but Indigenous leaders from this country containing the world’s largest rainforest call this “hypocritical.” Meanwhile, on the day dedicated to climate finance, many environmentalists and activists demanded answers about the annual USD 100 billion fund for developing countries that was promised a decade ago but is yet to be delivered.
An alliance of 100 countries, led by the U.S. and the E.U., pledged to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. Keep in mind, the COP26 methane pledge is legally non-binding, voluntary and has no enforcement provisions – and if climate history has taught us anything, it is that such pledges rarely reach implementation. China, India and Russia did not sign, while Brazil did, again to everyone’s surprise.
More than 20 countries also agreed to phase out coal and fossil fuel finance. Costa Rica and Denmark announced the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA), focusing on a just transition away from oil and gas. The alliance was immediately joined by France, Greenland, Ireland, Quebec, Sweden and Wales.
The Glasgow Climate Pact
Two intense weeks inside and outside the negotiation rooms culminated in the final climate agreement of the summit: a carefully worded document finished at the last minute during overtime negotiations. The adoption of the so-called Glasgow Climate Pact required the consensus of all signatory parties (192 states and the E.U.), thus its language is cautious and sometimes vague.
COP26 started on the basis that the current goals laid out by countries under the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the 2015 Paris Agreement, which are essentially emissions reductions targets, set the world on track for a 2.4-degree Celsius rise in global temperature, with weak and inadequate net-zero pledges. States are expected to set new NDCs every five years, and maybe the biggest success of this summit was that states agreed on a roadmap to revisit their NDCs for COP27 and COP28.
A watered-down commitment to “phase down” instead of “phase out” coal-fired power was included in the final text. The weaker language came from a last-minute change requested by India, while many developing states appealed for the stronger language to remain. Forty countries, including Canada, South Korea, Ukraine, Indonesia and Vietnam, agreed to phase out coal-fired power in 2030s. China, the U.S. and Australia joined India – the first, third, tenth and second highest countries in coal consumption, respectively – in opting out of this agreement.
“The key point in this underwhelming announcement is that coal is basically allowed to continue as normal for years yet,” said Jamie Peters, director of campaigns at Friends of the Earth. Elif Gündüzyeli, senior coal policy coordinator at the campaign group Climate Action Network Europe, added: “A 2030 phase out deadline should be a minimum, and this agreement doesn’t have that.”
A proposal for setting up the Glasgow Loss and Damage Facility was submitted by all 138 developing countries but did not get included in the final text. The COP26 agreement mentions that the next five years will see USD 500 billion for climate finance directed to developing countries.
What’s interesting about this, though, is that part of the funding can now also be spent in adaptation measures instead of only mitigation. “The needs of the world’s vulnerable people have been sacrificed on the altar of the rich world’s selfishness,” said Mohamed Adow, director of the Nairobi-based think tank Power Shift Africa. “The outcome here reflects a COP held in the rich world and the outcome contains the priorities of the rich world.”
So where do we go from here?
As the dust of the climate summit starts to settle, I have found myself wondering about the next step, since COP26 did not manage to reach its main objective: to produce an outcome that can keep us with certainty below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. The truth is that I don’t have an answer. Perhaps perpetuating the narrow focus of framing potential solutions to the climate crisis as a simple equation between emissions and sequestration is not the framework we need to genuinely resolve the Earth’s historic traumas.
But what remains clear is that we have heard plenty of words from the last 26 climate summits. COPs have largely, so far, been spaces that reinforce “ambitious” commitments without them being transformed into action. For the people on the frontlines of the climate crisis – which is the majority of humanity – achieving these commitments is an issue of survival. Thus far, the track record is about as dim as can be.
“We made incremental progress in Glasgow,” said Shauna Aminath, minister of Environment, Climate Change and Technology of the Maldives. “This progress is not in line with the urgency and scale required. What is balanced and pragmatic to other parties will not help the Maldives adapt in time. It will be too late for the Maldives.”
Youth, Indigenous peoples, communities from Small Island Developing States and many others will continue to fight for the right of everyone to a healthy and safe environment and a flourishing planet Earth, far beyond the exclusive venues of “high-level” summits. And I, from my little office on the island of Crete, or perhaps from these hallways of negotiations one day, will continue to stand in solidarity with them.