COP26 or FLOP26: What happened at this year’s UN Climate Change Conference?

By Ezi Ogbuli, Sangeeta Kishore, Mane Berikyan and Tianze Li

The tough negotiations of last month’s G20 summit in Rome produced very few concrete commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which are the greatest contributor to global climate change. The little progress achieved by the G20 makes the 2021 United Nations Climate Conference, or COP 26, which might be the world’s last best chance to keep global temperatures from further rising over critical levels. 

Activists, climate change NGOs and many members of the global general public believe that consensus among world leaders is urgently needed to curb the pace of climate change. But, instead of the environment, concerns pertaining to the financial, political and social implications of climate change became the focal point of discussions in Glasgow, Scotland earlier this month.

So, what did COP26 really accomplish?

Show Me the Money: A Push for Greater Equity in Climate Finance 

One of the most polarizing topics at COP26 was climate finance, defined by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as “finance that aims at reducing emissions.” Specifically, discussions centered around whether the world’s wealthiest countries, which are also the largest contributors to GHG emissions, should compensate developing countries for “loss and damage” from rising temperatures. 

This form of monetary compensation is different from the aid that is meant to support adaptation plans for developing countries, which was also a topic of debate at this year’s negotiations. Wealthier countries have already missed a $100 billion a year pledge that they made over a decade ago in 2009, and in response, a large bloc of developing countries this year advocated for clearer financial commitments from wealthier countries as a prerequisite for their compliance in emissions reductions. 

Financial discussions were so contentious that an updated version of the draft agreement was delayed due to debate over language relating to both the loss and damage and adaptation funds. 

The United States, especially, has been subject to heightened pressure, even after increasing its contribution for climate finance to $11.4 billion. One negotiator said that “[t]he Biden administration is in a difficult position… [b]ut the fact is they are doing just-one fourth of their fair share of climate finance” and they have long resisted the idea for loss and damage funds and a mandatory levy on carbon credits for adaptation. 

The $100 billion annual target set for 2020 has now been pushed to the end of 2022, demonstrating that improvements in climate finance fell short at this year’s COP.

Roll Call: When Politics Gets a Seat at the Negotiating Table

Although financial concerns were a hot topic at the conference, political complexities proved to be an equally difficult obstacle for meaningful progress. The beginning of COP26 was marked by grand promises and grave remarks about the conference being the world’s “last best chance.” And with the increasing presence of climate change in the mainstream domestic politics of Western powers, climate activists held onto hopes that this time pledges would be kept and would lead to more consequential outcomes.

However, it appears that now more than ever, political motives are tainting avenues for international cooperation on climate change. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping left their seats glaringly vacant in Glasgow, meaning that two of the world’s largest carbon emitters did not participate in critical climate discussions. Meanwhile, leaders like Biden did not hesitate to criticize these politically-motivated absences in an attempt to curry favor back home, further jeopardizing the already-turbulent course of COP26 negotiations. 

Another important consideration at COP26 revolved around the engagement of autocratic regimes in climate discussions, which have become liabilities for international cooperation. 

Turkish President Erdogan cancelled his plans to attend the conference in Glasgow over security disputes, a reminder that when politics infiltrate negotiations, trivial shows of power trump concerns regarding the looming climate crisis. Moreover, autocratic regimes like Turkmenistan, despite sharing a large stake in global oil and gas exploitation, opt for political isolation and diplomatic “neutrality” — giving the international community little opportunity to rope in some of the largest violators into emission reduction efforts. 

Political complications in Glasgow are further proof that democracies have little to leverage when it comes to autocratic regimes, making climate change mitigation all the more difficult when dealing with dictators who, unlike their democratic counterparts, have no constituency to respond to. 

With political dynamics marring climate negotiations at every stage of the conference, it begs the question: If an impending climate crisis is not enough to prompt international cooperation, what is? 

1.5 to Stay Alive: Vulnerable Countries Demand Climate Action

The political dynamics of COP26 also shed light on the differing stakes of climate change, drawing a line between whose voices are ignored and whose voices matter.

COP26 produced the most exclusive climate talks to date. Over the last two weeks, while the world’s biggest polluters debated the future of the planet and how best to avoid climate catastrophe, those most vulnerable to climate change readied themselves for its worsening effects. 

Small Island Developing States (SIDS) remain at the frontlines of rising sea levels and extreme weather events that threaten their culture and way of life. Going into COP26, Fiji and other Pacific states stood firm, demanding international action towards net-zero emissions and financial support, as well as the loss and damage payments mentioned above. Efforts to limit global temperatures to 1.5°C warming are especially salient for vulnerable communities who face dramatic heatwaves, food and water insecurity, and further growth in poverty if temperatures cross this threshold.

Calls to keep 1.5 ℃ alive, underscored the risks small island states and other vulnerable countries face if temperatures continue to rise. Representing the Republic of the Marshall Islands in an address to COP26 leaders, Bruce Bilimon, the Minister of Health and Human Services, echoed these sentiments as he declared his country under siege from the effects of climate change. Aligning with the demands of other Pacific states, Bilimon called on world leaders to commit themselves to 1.5 °C warming. Despite these efforts, however, current pledges still put the world on track for a 2.4°C increase, leaving in their midst an uncertain future for SIDS and others vulnerable to climate change.

Though COP26 made some progress on climate finance by increasing funding to vulnerable countries to help them become more adaptable and resilient to the effects of climate change, world leaders failed to achieve substantial progress on greenhouse gas emissions, the key to keeping global temperatures from rising over 1.5°C and to protecting vulnerable communities. 

Climate change, however, not only threatens the welfare of small island states, but the interest of all humans. Hence, critics found that major carbon producers should have taken more drastic action and more responsibility at the conference.

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