A retrospective on COP26: What have we learnt?

The series of articles that I have written on climate change so far demonstrate the inaction of highly developed states. Now that COP26 is over, we need to reassess where we are, and ask ourselves: have there been any positive developments, and if so, what are they? 

The COP26 agreement is consistently flawed – the language of ““phase down” rather than “phase out” in reference to coal usage demonstrates that states once again secured their own economic interests. The term “phase down” demonstrates that coal use will continue, despite numerous reports stating that it is a significant emitter of carbon dioxide which will damage our planet. The BBC reports that coal is “responsible for 40% of annual CO2 emissions” reiterating the importance of eliminating coal use in its entirety, not just in a gradual decline. The countries partially responsible for this outcome are India and China, which justify the use of coal as it is integral to their economies. The outcomes of COP26 thus encapsulate the difficulties of diplomacy on the global stage; had countries not agreed to “phase down”, China and India might’ve withdrawn completely, comparatively doing more harm than good in the long term. Thus, whilst countries are not acting to the degree we need, we must understand that the tensions on the international stage shape policy decisions. Countries are not yet willing to sacrifice their own economic prosperity for the wellbeing of the planet due to the short-term impact on domestic politics and their careers. The outcomes of COP26 demonstrate that the pressure on our political leaders must increase to create domestic change. If countries such as the UK act on example, it will hopefully galvanise and inspire other countries to follow suit. 

Ensuring the health and wellbeing of our planet was the goal of this summit. Scientists, however, have already expressed pessimism, as the BBC reports that: “scientists fear politicians won’t deliver”, indicating that our leaders have not yet acted with the level of initiative that is required to save our planet. Reports now reflect the disastrous changes that are already underway in our climate – including “dangerous heating, with record temperatures, wildfires, floods and droughts”. As many other’s before me, I argue that although we seek to prevent climate change, the impacts of a changing climate are already making themselves known. 

There remains another dimension to the issue of climate politics: how does the climate affect developing countries in comparison to highly developed countries? A European Parliament report on “climate change impacts on developing countries – EU accountability” demonstrates that the “currently available funding for adaptation is insufficient”. It reports that: “Natural disasters from floods, droughts and cyclones have major impacts on developing countries, not only in terms of human loss, but also on long term development”. The countries with the weakest economies are thus already facing the consequences of climate change. The report states that: “In Latin America and Asia, important observed changes are linked to changing glaciers. Due to higher temperatures, glaciers and mountain snow packs are disappearing and both in the Andes and the Himalaya, the risks of Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF) are increasing.” In response to natural disasters, the lack of funding could pose a significant problem in terms of coordinating an effective response and long-term solutions. 

The Carbon Brief criticises COP26 for “the ‘flurry’ of announcements with no real details”, which is a ““systemic issue”” according to Teresa Anderson, a climate policy coordinator at ActionAct International. The commitments made in COP26 are therefore relatively futile, as states cannot hope to commit fully and enact change if there is ambiguity concerning the deadline. Furthermore, the deforestation commitments are not ambitious, as “the promises made in the declaration were similar to those made previously, including in the New York Declaration on Forests, which promised in 2014 to end deforestation by 2030.” Once again, the tensions are exemplified: “Indonesia’s environment and forestry minister, Siti Nurbaya Bakar called the pledge ‘clearly inappropriate and unfair’ on Twitter.” 

One of the key takeaways from COP26 is thus that interstate cooperation remains highly contentious. States with different interests naturally seek to protect their own selfish interests; the dynamic which, arguably, is the most significant barrier to international cooperation. Indeed, the last five years have seen blatant disregard for international agreements and respect, with examples mainly coming from the so-called leaders of the Western world. If we take the example of the trade wars and the targeted protectionist rhetoric imposed by Donald Trump on China during his presidency, it is hardly surprising that COP26 was synonymous with tension. Trump’s complete failure as an effective and progressive political leader was perfectly summarised in his treatment of other states – diplomacy is clearly a word he’d never come across. Consequently, Biden’s task to re-establish positive relationships is a mountainous task; Trump’s government reaffirmed selfish politics on the global stage, and this ambition to secure the interests of the political elite sacrificed the planet’s welfare in the process. The UK’s current government is no better. Boris Johnson’s recent attempt to ignore international law and agreement post-Brexit demonstrates that respect for international agreements has decreased in a time when we urgently need countries to work together. Thus, despite the existence and growth in international bodies, they remain relatively ineffective when individual states decide to pursue policies that will benefit their country in the short-term. 

This places significant responsibility on the public in the next elections – we must elect leaders who take the climate crisis seriously and with the rigor that is required. We must stop issue-specific politics and maintain a conscious overview of serious challenges that, in my view, should overcome the restrictions that party politics imposes. However, I fully acknowledge that party politics are not going to disappear, and as a result, the UK needs to opt for a cross-party approach that drives change forward. Ultimately, it is in our interest to protect the planet, despite growth of a regressive, increasingly hostile political environment in the last half decade. Our government must consult the views and ideas of other political parties, including the Green Party, whose sole ambition is to protect the environment. The Green Party has clear policy goals which would enable the UK to act effectively in a time of global emergency. For example, we ought to: “Create a strategic Climate Emergency Agency directly responsible to the Prime Minister. It will have the power of veto over any government policies that are inconsistent with our climate emergency targets” and “require all public bodies and businesses to define their own adaptation plans and Locally-Determined Contributions (LDCs) to the climate emergency mitigation”. It’s policies demonstrate that there are effective policies that the government can, and ought to implement to create a coherent climate strategy. These requirements should be enshrined in law to uphold these commitments in future administrations. 

Ultimately, the last few years has seen an increase in hostility between countries which has prevented effective cooperation on the global stage. Going forward, the main task for the US and UK is to mend these tensions in order to promote peaceful and effective cooperation in our fight against climate change.

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