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Reflections on COP26: Has It Saved Us from Catastrophic Climate Change?

Geologist and university professor David Edwards attended the 2021 COP26 UN climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland as an observer. Here he shares some of his thoughts on the complex, sometimes frustrating, but very necessary, annual international conference.
Peaceful activist demonstration COP26 Glasgow Scotland march

© David Edwards

Activists peacefully demonstrated night and day at the security barrier for the two weeks of COP26, reminding those going inside of the stakes at hand.

Observing from the Inside of COP26

On a Saturday afternoon, I stood in the centre of Glasgow, cheering 100,000 demonstrators who marched in the streets to demand climate action and criticize the prevailing system. By the day’s end, I took an electric bus to the heavily guarded Blue Zone of COP26 and was cleared to monitor that same system’s stuttering steps in trying to advance initiatives to protect the planet’s climate and ecosystems.

The role of an observer at a Conference of the Parties (COP) event, such as this one that I attended, is to report back to the organizations that sent them and to disseminate widely what they saw and learned. It helps the people they represent and the people they can influence feel they have some skin in the game. The role, therefore, makes COPs less opaque by pulling in representatives of broader society.

David Edwards observer badge and protest photo COP26

© David Edwards

COP observers and peaceful protestors both help remind negotiators of the incredible importance of their deliberations.

Observers also perform an important role at the COP itself. They act as a surrogate eye of the world on the negotiators. Should negotiators flag, or get demotivated, or doubt the importance of what they’re doing, they can look around them and see the observers watching. Expecting results. Carrying the hopes and worries of the wider public. Observers remind them, in the middle of what could otherwise feel like just a place of business, that what they are doing is important and is waiting to be judged by the world.

The same could also be said of the activists and marchers on the streets of Glasgow. They too helped focus the world’s attention on the deliberations at COP26, in a myriad of creative, imaginative, and passionate ways. All these people who appear to be on the periphery, not central to the deliberations, nevertheless are most definitely influencing proceedings.

Barack Obama COP26 address

© David Edwards

Barack Obama addresses the COP26 delegates in one of the huge plenary rooms.

Keep 1.5 Alive

The mantra of COP26 was to “keep 1.5°C alive.” Given we’re already 1.2°C warmer than when that goal was set, people wondered if the intention was still alive. I’d answer a tentative yes, but it’s on life support. The hope is that agreements thrashed out at this COP will be fleshed out at COP27 in Egypt next year.

Critics would argue it’s just more kicking the can down the road, like every COP since 1995. The curve of greenhouse gas emissions appears to smoothly increase since then, so it could be argued the COPs have achieved nothing. Some studies have suggested, though, that global temperatures would be 0.2°C higher now without them.

Even if temperature increase is kept to 1.5°C (and that would require the world to reduce emissions by 45% by 2030: a big ask considering they’re currently predicted to rise by 16% by 2030), we are already experiencing impacts. Small island states are experiencing it particularly so: they’re the canaries in the coalmine at the frontline of climate change. There are other impacts already ‘baked in’ as it were, as carbon dioxide resides in the atmosphere for hundreds of years.

SDG pavilion COP26 Glasgow Scotland

© David Edwards

One of the many more intimate pavilions where delegates discussed interesting topics and new ideas.

Pros & Cons

It was either a good or bad COP depending on who you spoke to. For all its barriers to inclusivity, this year’s meeting did countenance some input from Indigenous peoples and wider civil society. These attendees made plain that the COP has not done enough, and they will continue to put pressure on future COPs and governments. A speaker who impressed me greatly was Ta'Kaiya Blaney from the Tla A'min Nation in British Columbia. You can watch this video of her powerful, passionate, damning, and insightful speech.

The publicity for COP26 has been unprecedented and has raised the profile of these meetings so much that future COPs will be under more pressure to deliver. Politicians, meanwhile, are being sent clear signals from their voters about the importance of climate change and their desires to see leadership.

One other major achievement was, for the first time, this year’s agreement discussed phasing out coal and reducing fossil fuel subsidies. However, it’s estimated we are still on track for 1.8°C to 2.4°C of global warming by 2100. Many countries bitterly accepted compromises for the sake of progress, and delegates often found something that disappointed them as well as something that pleased them.

Ta Kaiya Blaney speaking peoples plenary COP26

© David Edwards

Ta'Kaiya Blaney speaks at the People’s Plenary, COP26.

What Next?

As Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr once pointed out, “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” Even still, I think there are some things we can be confident of. To stay within 1.5°C, we’d need to end all fossil fuel use now. That clearly isn’t going to happen, but net zero by 2050 is too late. It’s the equivalent of an alcoholic claiming he’ll save his liver by drinking for the next 30 years and then quitting cold turkey.

Developing countries with high energy needs and lots of coal do not want to be told they can’t use it. They justifiably want to give their citizens the quality of life that developed nations have had for decades, but that lifestyle takes energy use. That’s why it’s important for wealthy nations to create a fund to help them leapfrog over the dirty, but profitable, fossil fuelled phase and jump straight to clean technologies.

Up until now, developed nations have set the COP agenda because they control the vast majority of global wealth and the communication platforms, even though they will be impacted the least and have better resources to adapt. We need to hear more from the developing countries (the Global South), low-lying island states, and Indigenous peoples: this is literally a life and death issue for them, and they need to see action quickly rather than endless talk.

Youth collaborating COP26 Glasgow

© David Edwards

Many COP26 attendees represented the inspiring next generation of climate activists.

What Can Individuals Do?

Can we do anything personally to mitigate climate change? We are often asked in the media to take individual action, and sometimes “carbon shamed” by others for not doing enough. But can an individual really implement worthwhile actions as a consumer? We can, of course, recycle, buy less, repair more, waste less, travel less, and otherwise move to a low carbon lifestyle. Doing whatever you can, irrespective of climate, is a good thing to do for the environment we live in.

Take individual action when you can but keep it in perspective. There is an incentive for conglomerates and governments to deliberately put too much onus on what the individual can do to shift blame and avoid addressing the systemic changes that will have to be brought in to really address climate change. We’re seeing this from large companies like Shell, who are exhorting the individual to do more when, in fact, the biggest effects will be made when companies like theirs introduce the sort of systemic change that an individual can’t.

As a citizen, you have another power. Politicians don't like doing anything that might be seen as unpopular: it's much easier to lose votes than it is to gain them. Ideally, therefore, politicians want to implement legislation that the public are already receptive to. That means that politicians are often a few steps behind civil society on some issues. Many of the positive social changes in the past decades have occurred despite government, not because of them.

Little Amal sculpture art COP26

© David Edwards

Little Amal ("Hope") arrives at COP26 at the end of her 8,000 kilometre journey across Europe.

The Power of Citizenship

Citizens don’t need to form committees, spend months laboriously agreeing to an approved set of words, or make compromises to bullying nations. Citizens can act quickly, with passion, and enjoy the bonding camaraderie of being engaged with similarly minded people. Write to your representative and to local government, write letters to the papers, go on marches, put posters in your window, and talk to friends, family, and workmates about current issues. COPs are useful, and necessary, but they are not enough. Their progress is glacially slow when we need fast action.

We have all the information we need on the climate crisis. What needs to be triggered now is people's will and imaginations. By doing what you can and by normalising a concern for our planet, you are sowing seeds in other people's minds just by being you. When enough people achieve that, politicians sit up and realise they'd better jump on the bandwagon or be left behind.

It isn’t straightforward, I agree. During the 100,000-strong march through Glasgow on that Saturday, I saw banners calling to “Uproot the System,” implying radical change is needed. This is an easy call to make if you only have a small stake in society. For the millions of householders who need to pay their bills and ensure they can get to work and heat their homes, they can’t manage a sudden collapse of the system. History shows us that energy shortages cause civil unrest and sometimes regime change. It will take time to transition from fossil fuels, whether we like it or not.

About the Author

David Edwards

David Edwards

Geologist and Environment, Climate & Energy Tutor

David studied geology at Edinburgh University and acts as a geology guide on study trips to Vesuvius and Iceland. He has tutored in environmental and climate issues for Edinburgh University and Glasgow University, and is currently a tutor on renewable energy and sustainable energy systems for The Open University. He has been awarded Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in recognition of his communication of geographical subjects. You can read his blog and follow him on Twitter at @EnvGeogSpeaker.