COP26 #3

Final assessments and what comes next

William P Ball


November 12, 2021

COP26 in Glasgow is now coming to a close. National commitments are being finalised and delegates and world leaders are preparing to leave the conference bubble and return home. I’m going to share some of my closing thoughts about the conference itself, as well as propose something which I think could be done to improve future editions.

Where do the negotiations stand?

Some recent analysis of the likely impact of negotiations at COP26 has estimated that we are on track to have global temperature rises of 2.4 degrees Celsius. Given the hopes around these talks, and the very real impacts of climate change which are already being felt around the world, this is disappointing to say the least.

At COP21 in Paris in 2015 parties committed again to the aim of keeping global temperature rises below 2 degrees, and preferably below 1.5 degrees (relative to the pre-industrial period). They have clearly failed to achieve this and are apparently not on target for this in the future. The ‘ratchet mechanism’ which was also implemented at the Paris talks means that COP26 was the first point at which signatories have been obliged to submit revised Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).

NDCs are the short term commitments that each country makes to cut emissions and are one of the key features of these negotiations in Glasgow. Countries are essentially in talks between themselves to make larger contributions. At present we can see that these contributions, particularly from countries with the greatest share of emissions, are not anywhere near ambitious enough.

Deja vu?

It seems that COP26 is increasingly being seen as more of the same and yet another missed opportunity.

The aim of limiting global temperature rises to 2 degrees has been officially adopted in climate talks since 2010 and later reinforced at the Paris conference. Repeatedly failing to reach this target is worrying.

I’ve seen an excellent twitter thread which drew parallels between COP26 in Glasgow and COP15 in Copenhagen and not simply because of the cold, wet weather. Both sets of talks were billed as ‘last chances’ and have been characterised by processes of negotiation which are exclusive of civil society voices. Practical considerations around lack of affordable travel or accommodation options have also placed barriers in the way of allowing people from developing countries making contributions.

Are we all doomed?

All of this can be quite alarming and depressing to onlookers from the outside of these talks. Things don’t look good and worst of all, we know that the effects of climate change will be hardest felt by those who have contributed the least to the problem and who have the least resources to mitigate the impacts.

At the national and international levels, those who have the power to make effective changes are trapped in a way of ‘Utopian thinking’. It is politically beneficial for politicians to engage with climate change issues and many do. Boris Johnson has used the UK presidency of COP26 to appear like an international leader on the issue, despite a poor track record in the UK parliament. However, they are so invested in the social and economic systems which worsen the problem that they cannot propose or support realistic action.

Our established economic structures which prioritise growth over health and wellbeing are destructive. The capitalism which produces waste and exploits the global south is unable to save us.

Things may feel hopeless, but this hopelessness actually hurts us. Our fate might seem inevitable but we must still maintain hope for change.

People Power

Attending COP26 was a surreal experience for me. Feeling at once very close to world events and also held at arms length. I heard many encouraging conversations within the conference but felt detached from the ongoing negotiations and put off by the ubiquitous presence of petro-chemical companies, billionaires and other financial or industrial actors.

By far the most inspiring moment in my week in Glasgow was attending the Fridays for Future Climate Strike march from Kelvingrove Park to George Square. The event was organised by students and attended by thousands of people, including trade union groups, indigenous campaigners and others from a range of political perspectives.

I saw banners and heard participants explicitly linked climate justice with health and social inequalities. So many of the things which have not been discussed within the SEC. This mobilisation of real people, talking plainly about structural issues which require ambitious solutions gave me hope, as do organisations like COP Coalition.

United Nations Global Citizen’s Assembly on Climate

I have many thoughts about what we can and should do to address climate change but I want to share one idea with you which would be relatively easy to implement by the UN and could change the way our international leaders address these issues.

I propose a Global Citizen’s Assembly on Climate, to coincide with COP meetings. For those who don’t know, a citizen’s assembly can be a form of participatory or deliberative democracy. A cross-section of people from around the world would convene to study the topic of climate change and explore potential methods of addressing the problem. They would engage with experts to establish facts and produce a set of recommendations for action to be taken by UN member states.

Running alongside (or just before) the international negotiations, this process could provide much needed accountability as well as prioritising the voices of real people and otherwise marginalised or excluded voices.