“Is this how our story is due to end?”, asked Sir David Attenborough during his speech at this year’s highly anticipated 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26). Despite the high hopes, the outcome of the climate summit was labeled as a “failure” and “disappointing” by many. Is any real progress being made or are they just empty promises?

The United Nations Climate Change Conference gathered thousands of people from almost 200 different countries, including world leaders, scientists and activists, to address one common goal: tackling contemporary environmental challenges. This year’s conference was considered as one of the last chances to come up with a strategy to reach some of the most ambitious targets in the combat against climate change.  The message is clear: “either we stop it, or it stops us”, warned Antonio Guterres, UN secretary-general.

Back in 1992, more than 100 countries signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to minimize carbon pollution and protect the environment. However, no real public commitment was seen until several years later, when the Paris Conference of 2015 (COP21) took place. As a result of the summit, 196 countries signed the Paris Agreement, pledging to limit global warming to 1.5-2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. 

As opposed to the Kyoto Agreement of 1997, this treaty recognized that so called developed and developing countries have differing responsibilities in combating climate change. Nonetheless, the convention stressed how all countries must unite to address these environmental challenges and establish common solutions. The Paris agreement is therefore considered to be a significant milestone, as it represents the first global accord on climate change and provides a framework for the annual COP negotiations. 

2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris (Photo: Iga Gozdowska / Flickr)

Yet, despite previous summits and agreements, the climate crisis continues to become increasingly severe. Therefore, people across the world had been expressing high expectations for this year’s COP26. As the first climate summit since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the event has also been considered particularly significant due to its ability to lay the groundwork for the development of a green recovery strategy. The World Health Organization (WHO) highlighted this by arguing that recovery strategies must “protect and restore nature as the foundation of our health”.

Five years after the signing of the Paris Agreement and the establishment of the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), COP26 was further seen as an opportunity to analyse and discuss the progress made so far (or lack thereof). According to the United Nations, the NDCs represent the objectives each country sets out in order to take action against climate change and  reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. This was a mechanism implemented to keep nations on pace with the fulfillment of the  targets established by the Paris Agreement. Hence, COP26 was considered the first real test of the accord, in which all the countries would submit, revise and enhance their NDCs.

Demonstration against climate change in Brussels before the COP26 climate summit (Photo: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock)

The outcome of the conference was however viewed as “disappointing” by many.  Climate activist Greta Thunberg harshly criticized the event, claiming it to be a failure, and describing the summit as a “global north greenwash festival”. Moreover, the legitimacy of COP26 was severely questioned, as groups were excluded from crucial talks. Several world leaders from smaller nations were absent due to covid restrictions, there was a lack of representation by civil society and indigenous groups, and people with disabilities faced struggles regarding access to the conference.

In spite of this, the decisions made in Glasgow are extremely important for the future that lies ahead. Climate action has now been demonstrated as not just necessary, but critical for constructing a sustainable future. However, COP26 is not to be seen as the “end of the road”, affirms the United Nations Foundation. Countries will need to update their pledges with tangible strategies and objectives, and must continue to strive to fulfill their commitments to the targets of the Paris Agreement.

At the conference, Sir David Attenborough’s speech ended on a more hopeful note: “In my lifetime, I’ve witnessed a terrible decline. In yours, you could and should witness a wonderful recovery”. While this indicates some light at the end of the tunnel, there is arguably still a long way to go. In order to tackle climate change and achieve a sustainable future, it is clear that further commitment to climate action is needed. Perhaps then, Attenbourough’s words could come true. 

Ivette Nogués