This article is part of a series in collaboration with the Graduate Press, the student-run publication of The Graduate Institute in Geneva. You can read the original version on here.
Arriving in Glasgow last week for the 26th conference of the parties, or COP26, I did not know what would await me inside the venue of the Scottish Event Campus. In the weeks leading up to COP26, news outlets wrote about the conference as being our last chance to save the planet. With over 25,000 delegates from all corners of the world attending COP26, it is an unparalleled opportunity to discuss climate change on the international stage. Having never previously attended a climate change conference of this magnitude, I was uncertain as to what would happen inside its walls. To summarize my experience this past week, I will discuss the good, the bad, and the realistic results of COP26.
The scale of mobilization for COP26 is immense; the amount of time, money and energy put into the conference is exceptional for an environmental negotiation. With the limelight on them, leaders have a strong incentive to make new commitments and pledges. Multiple encouraging commitments have already come out of COP26.
For example, twenty countries have declared they will stop funding fossil fuel projects abroad by the end of 2022. Due to its scale, and the prominence of many attendees, COP26 has also led to increased media attention on climate change. Given the underrepresentation of this topic in the media, this is incredibly important as it sparks more debates around climate issues. Additionally, the involvement of civil society puts more pressure on decision-makers to produce tangible outcomes. On Saturday, over 100,000 people, myself included, marched in Glasgow for the Global Day of Action.
I can see firsthand the knowledge-sharing which takes place when delegates around the world come together to discuss climate change. Throughout the week, I have been connected with other Canadian youth working on climate change to an extent only possible at such an event. These profesional constellations form for those from similar regions as well as for those working on the same topics. All subjects related to climate change are discussed, from climate litigation to the transition to a circular economy. This provides a space for important connections to be made across fields. During one event I attended, a start-up working on creating compost was offered funding by an investor on the spot. So many events are taking place that it can be difficult to choose which to attend. The Blue Zone, for badgeholders, has official and side events put on by governments and organizations. The Green Zone is open for anyone to attend and has conferences largely hosted by civil society organizations. There are also bottom-up events, such as the COP26 Coalition. Many of the talks are also posted online here.
I am attending COP26 on an NGO observer badge, which in previous years would not be an issue. However, this year due to COVID-19 and the World Leaders Summit-which took place on the first two days of COP26-, observers have not been able to access negotiations. The irony of getting rejected from countless negotiations and press conferences after only a week prior attending my Global Governance course where professor Thomas Biersteker spoke upon the IOs using the excuse of COVID-19 to reduce NGO access did not miss me. Other members of my delegation had attended COP25 in Madrid, a conference put together in only two weeks, without any issues attending negotiations.
Inclusion has also been a contentious affair for Indigenous groups and for those coming from the Global South. As COP is state-based, the organizers must actively work to ensure that all peoples are included. Greta Thunberg called COP26 a “Global North greenwash festival. A two week celebration of business as usual and blah blah blah.” Due to the pandemic many delegates face high barriers to entry. I spoke to a delegate from a Vietnamese NGO and he told me that he did not know if he could return back to Vietnam because he had not yet received authorization from the Vietnamese minister granting return entry due to COVID-19 restrictions. This illustrates how many delegates had to choose to attend COP26 knowing they would face difficulty returning home.
Despite verbal, and some financial support, for climate action by the world’s leaders, COP26 has shown the deep entrenchment of the fossil fuel industry. A report published by Global Witness found that there are 503 delegates with ties to fossil fuel lobbies. This is larger than any single state delegation to COP26. Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau also confirmed his support for climate action, but when challenged upon his government’s purchase of the Trans Mountain Pipeline he replied that the country still currently relies upon fossil fuels. While there is seeming consensus upon the need to act, it is no longer the issue of climate denial but climate delay that we face.
States commitments thus far will not limit temperature increase to a 1.5 degree warming, in fact 2030 pledges put us on track for a 2.4 degree warming. COP26 is nevertheless an important space for actors to discuss climate change. Climate conferences must become a space for states to hold each other accountable. Still, greenwashing is prevalent with leaders painting themselves as climate actors while still investing in fossil fuels. The Alliance of Small Island States called out the G20 for failing to provide the promised $100 billion in funding and continuing to invest in fossil fuel subsidies. Loss and damage, a pillar of climate change which is often overlooked compared to mitigation and adaptation, has also been advocated for by SIDS (Small Island Developing States) and activists. While top-down agreements are currently not getting us to 1.5 C°, I hope that with increased media attention and pressure from civil society and citizens, COP26 will result in stronger climate action through bottom-up action. At the end of the day, a two week conference cannot solve the climate crisis, it is the other fifty weeks in the year that will count for these systems-change commitments to be implemented.
Photos by Alexandra Wenzel