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Now That It’s Over: Reflections on COP26

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By Tabea Leiss, BA International Relations and Development Studies

Just a few days after negotiations at COP26, lingering feelings of disappointment and frustration made their rounds among activists. As delegates were departing from Glasgow, it was undeniable – COP26 had failed. Governments agreed to return to the negotiation table with more ambitious NDCs (Nationally Determined Targets) in the coming year, while the world was left hanging with yet more empty promises resting on COP27.

But why exactly has COP26 failed to deliver? For a long time, scientists have warned world leaders that global warming has to be kept under 1.5C, to avoid a major ecological breakdown. COP26 was meant to encourage governments to design and implement policies that could keep global temperatures below 1.5C. The Glasgow negotiations produced NDCs that, if implemented, would lead to a heating of 2.4C – a death sentence for communities who are already exposed to climate vulnerabilities. While delegates agreed to significantly reduce and even reverse deforestation, one of the most important agendas of the summit – the phasing out of coal – was left without a satisfactory conclusion. 

As the host country of COP26, the UK had a big role to play in the negotiations. Presenting itself as a role model for climate change, Boris Johnson’s opening speech did not fall short of self-praise. Johnson remarked, ‘we in the UK are leading’ and ‘it was the private sector that enabled the UK to end our dependence on coal,’ leaving questions of the truth behind those words. 

With its net-zero climate strategy, the UK has pledged to reduce its economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 68% by 2030, compared to reference year levels. This year, the government has taken three main steps towards this goal: targeting domestic transport, electricity, and heating. 

According to the New Climate Institute and Climate Analytics, the UK’s current domestic policy action on climate change is ‘almost sufficient’ – a strange phrase for a burning planet. Achieving those targets, however, means a huge strain on household budgets in the transition to cleaner energy and heating. This puts the attainability of those targets into question. 

Furthermore, rather than truly cutting down on the UK’s emissions, most of the country’s greenhouse gases have been relocated abroad through processes of globalisation and have thus become ‘invisible’ in UK carbon footprint reports. Instead, the task of cutting those emissions largely rests on the shoulders of developing economies, who face heavy and often unmanageable expectations regarding their climate policy. 

In order to make up for this, wealthier countries including the UK are expected to contribute their fair share – a monetary contribution of $500bn – to low-income and middle-income countries. Not only has the UK fallen short on past contributions but post-COP26, funding for climate action will be taken from the UK’s existing aid budget. This therefore deprives other development efforts of vital resources. 

The creation of a regulated global carbon market was of paramount concern to Indigenous leaders across the globe. This deal will allow countries to meet their climate targets by buying credits representing emission reductions by others. A member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe of North-western California, Thomas Joseph, explained that ‘leaders who are pushing for market-based solutions and the commodification of our Mother Earth are signing a death sentence.’ 

Climate credits will allow rich countries like the UK and polluting corporations to offset emissions, rather than reduce them. Despite the necessary centrality of their messages, Indigenous voices were left unheard at COP26 next to a striking 500 fossil fuel lobbyists, who were also present at the summit.

“It is time to listen and turn to Indigenous voices who are fighting the battle of keeping the planet under 1.5 C.”

With the world’s continued obsession with economic growth, the UK and most other governments have a very long way to go to finally undertake effective climate action. To activists it is clear: putting hopes onto leaders who largely represent corporate interests is not going to save our planet. Instead, it is time to listen and turn to Indigenous voices who are fighting the battle of keeping the planet under 1.5 C.

Photo Caption: Txai Suruí, a Paiter Suruí activist at Cop26 (Credit: Oli Scarff/Agence France-Presse).

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