It seems “push it back” is the motto of the world’s most powerful nations once again, because why use your power to create meaningful change?
Nov. 12 marked the end of the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26. Yes, 26. The UN Climate Change Conferences began in 1995, with the UN holding other environmental summits since 1972. You would think decades later we would have more agreement and urgency when it comes to climate change. We shouldn’t be in such a rushed state yet, here we are.
A lot was discussed in Glasgow, the host city of COP26, including coal power, funding disparities, carbon credits and deforestation. There were wins and losses abound. The consensus of environmentalists, reporters and myself seems to be that while the conference was, by definition a success — unprecedented deals were made with nations that have typically been slow to agree to efforts to curb emissions — COP26 as a whole was inadequate. Maybe it laid productive groundwork for COP27, but we are beyond the point of preparing for another year. We need action now.
There are elements of the Glasgow Climate Pact that deserve acknowledgement. The United States, the United Kingdom, Italy and Mexico are among the 104 countries that have agreed to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030. Methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and limiting its emission is essential to slowing global warming.
Russia and Brazil — which together hold more than 10% of earth’s forests — signed a pledge with 108 other countries agreeing to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030. Forests capture literal tons of carbon dioxide and play a huge role in keeping the planet cool. In 2014, world leaders struck a similar deal that did almost nothing to slow deforestation. However, Russia and Brazil did not sign the previous agreement, adding promise to this new deal.
Carbon credits and the carbon market were introduced in 1997, and a number of issues have developed due to many factors being unresolved. The whole concept of carbon credits is rather complicated, but their purpose lies in trade. Nations that earn more carbon credit can sell them to other countries that may struggle to reach their own commitments. They are a way for countries to chart their contribution to the climate change fight. In Glasgow, the issue of double-counting — where both the country selling and the country buying a credit claim it as part of their contribution — has been solved for the most part. Like I said, it’s complicated, but regardless of the specifics, progress was made and that’s something we should be glad about.
Despite these many new agreements being made, an overwhelming vagueness permeated COP26 overall. There was an abundance of urging, calling on and encouraging in Glasgow which far exceeded the actual commitments made. “Come back next year with stronger promises” being the ending note for the conference is disheartening, to say the least. Pretty soon, next year will be too late.
Small and developing nations feel the pressure. They are among the most vulnerable to climate change. However, they are left reliant on larger nations that are more responsible for climate change because of their size and lack of economic power. COP26 left them without compensation and their voices largely unheard, despite the disproportionate effect they continue to experience.
COP26 also lacked a hard stance on coal power. A last minute change reportedly led by China and India changed the official wording of the pact from “phasing out” to “phasing down” coal use. While even that was a historic commitment, some countries have already indicated they don’t intend to stick to it.
That leads to one of the biggest issues of this climate conference and all the ones to come before and after: there is a significant lack of enforcement. Nationally determined contributions such as the U.S.’ pledge to reach net zero emissions by 2050 are voluntary. There are no consequences if they fail to reach that goal. The Glasgow Climate Pact and the Paris Agreement both rely on nationally determined contributions. They use peer pressure and other political maneuvers to ensure compliance, but beyond that, they hold little power.
To put it simply, the commitments and the conditions do not match up. There is no uniting motivation forcing us to make the right decisions for the planet. Yes, we are moving in the right direction, but we’ve been slowly inching that way for decades. It’s been 26 years since the first climate conference. We should be making leaps and bounds, not dragging our feet.
Even if the necessary commitments were made at COP26, or are made at COP27, the lack of enforcement makes it difficult to hold on to hope. Countries have failed to follow through before, like with the 2014 deforestation pledge, and there weren’t any consequences then. The U.N. says we're in “emergency mode,” but here we are still playing with “building blocks.”
With a lack of international accountability, perhaps more focus should be given at the national level. We complain about the U.S.’ inconsistencies when it comes to climate change, but do we break it down beyond national blame?
The closest American equivalent I could find to COP is the United States Climate Alliance, of which 25 states are members. Why not have a yearly meeting of all 50 states, where they could set goals that would have real consequences? This could give us more concrete goals and initiatives to achieve them. Not only could this create more measurable change within our nation, but it would also contribute to U.S. credibility upon the inevitable return to the international environmental stage.
Climate change is a messy, complicated issue. It is hard to define, hard to understand and hard to measure. Its complexity leaves the average person feeling helpless and hopeless. But that doesn’t mean it’s an unsolvable issue, nor is it an issue that can be put off. As a normal citizen, there isn’t much I can contribute to this battle, but that doesn’t equate to my silence.
I am not a loud voice in the fight for our planet. My ranting and ravings from the middle of the Great Plains are dull compared to the shouts of the youth marching outside the Glasgow conference, and far less significant compared to the civil conversations of the most powerful people of the world inside.
There was little improvement spurred from Glasgow. There was a lot of postponement. There are lingering questions over the significance of it all. But the fact remains we are in a fight for our planet right now. Our lives have already changed as the earth warms, and they will only continue to do so.
This is an outlet for my frustration. I may be screaming into a void or echo chamber, but I need to scream. There are countries drowning. There are homes filling with mud. Our oceans are clogging, our fields are drying and our planet is dying. There is no coming back from the dead.
Megan Buffington is a freshman journalism major. Reach her at email@example.com.