By Nara O’Sullivan
COP26 drew to a close on Saturday night after debate on the final deal spilt into overtime. The result? A weak, watered-down deal that will take global heating down from an estimated 2.7C pre-COP to an almost equally catastrophic 2.4C. Leaders insist that the goal of 1.5C heating is still in reach and that they will return to COP27 – scheduled to be held in Egypt next year – with a new sense of purpose. Their epiphany on the seriousness of the climate crisis is supposedly imminent, but the planet is not waiting for them.
The aims of COP26 were as honourable as one could hope given the lacklustre history of climate conferences. Countries came to the table with plans to distribute more aid to developing countries, phase out coal, and preserve natural carbon sinks.
Certainly, the agreements at Glasgow are not useless. They go some way to aid a damaged climate, with pledges to end deforestation and reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030. But awe-inspiring, they are not. In the final minutes of discussion, India insisted that phrasing on coal must be changed to ‘phase down’ rather than ‘phase out’, a move which feels archaic when for decades we have known that coal is the most damaging fossil fuel. Little room is left for hope when the main message of a deal, which has been constructed by some of the most prominent minds in the world, is that reaching net-zero would be nice, but saying goodbye to coal is just too inconvenient.
One thing we can say for COP is that it provides a brilliant PR opportunity for both political and business leaders. The 11 sponsors of the conference – including National Grid, Hitachi, and Scottish Power – have been estimated to produce more CO2 emissions than the whole of the UK each year, but maybe the public can forgive them. After all, what is greener than sponsoring a climate conference?
Jeff Bezos, the well-known leader of Amazon, came to COP with concrete plans, pledging $2bn to help restore landscapes and transform food systems. Apparently, the only motivation required for Bezos was a $5.5bn trip to space where the vulnerability of nature was presented to him through the window of a rocket. Meanwhile, indigenous activists, who can daily witness the earth’s vulnerability from their own homes, were forced to crowdfund to cover their travel expenses.
The divide has never been clearer. Leaders are so far removed from the everyday realities of a changing climate that they do not feel the urgency to act, and why should they? Not only are they protected from the effects of fossil fuels, but they benefit from them. An investigation from The Guardian revealed that the Conservative party and its MPs have received £1.3m in donations and gifts from climate sceptics and fossil fuel companies since the 2019 General Election. How can our leaders objectively assess the fossil fuel industries that plague us when they are financially motivated to go easy on them?
The apathy of world leaders could not have been clearer than in the image of over 100 private jets parked in Scottish airports, something so hypocritical it looked almost like satire. One of these fuel-guzzling machines belonged to Boris Johnson, who lives less than 5 hours from Glasgow by train. In what seemed like an attempt to make his carbon footprint as big as possible, Johnson took a quick trip back to London during the first week of the conference to attend a dinner at an all-male private members’ club. As if the bar for our political leaders could not get any lower, we must congratulate Johnson for attending at all. China’s President, Xi Jinping, did not attend the conference despite China being the current biggest emitter of greenhouse gases.
The outcome of COP26 sounds bleak because it is. We are hurtling towards a rise in temperature that will have devastating impacts on human life, yet many world leaders seem deaf to the blaring of alarms. If we cannot trust our leaders then we must turn towards grassroots activism, despite the painful fact it will become increasingly hard to convince a population to act when there is such a crisis of faith in those that hold the power. Sadly, the past two weeks have served as a sobering reminder of how far we have left to go.
Or to echo the sentiments of Greta Thunberg: blah, blah, blah.
Image: Markus Spiske via Unsplash