For two weeks, 196 countries and 30,000 people gathered in Glasgow for the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26). These highly media-friendly meetings, organized almost every year to develop a global response to the climate emergency, often arouse great expectations for civil society and are often disappointing. Despite some encouraging outcomes, COP26 is no different.
COP26 may have seemed promising at first. Before the conference started, numerous states appeared to have found a renewed investment in the environment. Australia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates committed to new carbon neutrality objectives, while Japan and South Africa raised theirs for 2030. More than 140 countries submitted numerous climate commitments to the UN for 2030. This drive was more than welcome, as a lot had to be done for COP26 to live up to its expectations including: finalizing the 2015 Paris agreement application rules, producing a common calendar of climate objectives, and working on the first “global assessment” of states’ environmental progress. Coal, finance, cars, and trees were the negotiations’ four priorities, and two watchwords should have directed them: transparency and credibility. Suffice to say that it’s not the impression that the COP left.
Nevertheless, all these efforts weren’t totally fruitless. The COP26 pact indeed had some optimistic outcomes. The final agreement, for instance, mentions fossil fuels for the first time, which are responsible for 90% of greenhouse gas emissions. Engagements and coalitions were created to limit deforestation, finance new fossil fuel projects and fossil fuel production (mostly abroad), and to reduce global methane emissions by 30% between 2020 and 2030. Twenty-three new states committed to abandoning coal energy, including Canada and Poland. One-hundred and fifty countries, representing 80% of global emissions, filed new climate plans with the UN, a majority of which are more ambitious than previous ones—which also means that some of them are worse (that can’t be a good thing). But overall, these plans would limit global warming to 35.24 Fahrenheit (1.8°Celsius) by the end of the century, unlike the 2.7°C (36.86 Fahrenheit) forecast before COP 26.
The conference encountered nice surprises as well, like India which submitted carbon neutrality objectives for the first time and raised its targets for 2030. The United States and China issued a joint statement to strengthen climate action and display their cooperation, which was never even dreamed of given the tensions between the two powers, especially seeing as how Xi Jinping didn’t even bother to come to the event.
However, as the alarming consequences of climate change are greater every day, global action has never been so urgent, and those few non-negligible signs of progress are still not enough. Let’s remember that 2021 will rank within the ten hottest years on record, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Heat waves, fires, and floods have been observed all around the globe this year, with the hottest summer ever recorded in the United States and fatal floods in Germany killing more than 200 people. Not to mention worsening food security and population displacement, especially in Ethiopia, South Sudan, Yemen, and Madagascar. This perspective emphasizes the failures of COP26. Indeed, the 1.8°C (35.24 Fahrenheit) of global warming predicted by the new accord is still higher than the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C (34.7 Fahrenheit) limit, and is also very unlikely to be achieved as most engagements are vague and ambiguous. Thus, Australia, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Turkey, and Russia have pledged to attain net-zero emissions by 2030, but haven’t set reduction targets that offer a realistic path to carry it through. The worst is that negotiators are aware of these breaches, as the pact calls for these objectives to be revised by the end of 2022 and expects states to submit long-term strategies to the UN within a year. Therefore, governments’ eternal solution is to postpone the problem. Alliances and commitments also seem to be à la carte, as every state decides separately to be interested in a particular aspect of the environmental crisis (perhaps the issue that would make them look better in the eyes of the electorate).
However, nothing compares to the biggest failure of the conference: the issue of the “losses and damages.” This concept defines the negative consequences of climate change on Southern countries, and is estimated to be between $290 billion and $580 billion per year until 2030 and up to $1.7 trillion by 2050. Given the unkept promise made by Northern countries in 2009 to annually pay them $100 billion in 2020, countries affected by the consequences of global warming reiterated their demand for a financial mechanism to deal with these losses and damages. The Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), representing 55 countries responsible for only 5% of total emissions, had to settle for a COP 26 pact that doesn’t consider their request. Developed areas such as the United States and the European Union fear that recognizing “losses and damages” will lead to legal proceedings and requests for financial compensation. The biggest polluting countries consequently refused solidarity and swept away potential solutions to the problem they caused.
Therefore, saying that the COP26 assessment is half-tone is a first-degree euphemism. If only we could at least ignore the large amount of hypocrisy of the event. World leaders used 400 private jets to get there (including Boris Johnson, who lives approximately four and a half hours from Scotland) when it is almost common knowledge that planes emit the most C02 out of any other means of transport. And considering the fact that the most important faction present are the fossil fuel industry lobbyists, according to the ONG Global Witness, there is much to justify civil society’s anger, demonstrated by the hundreds of thousands of people in Glasgow that protested the event. Even if there is progress and we’ve come a long way, this COP26 leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Maybe the forecast of Greta Thunberg, the new messiah of the planet, three days before the event, was not so untruthful: “thirty years of blah blah blah.” With that pace of action, or rather inaction, maybe it’s time to buy a bathing suit.