If Not COP, Then What?
“It’s better to create something that others criticize than to create nothing and criticize others.” - Ricky Gervais
Sometimes it is easier to be a critic than a creator. It is certainly an easier task to sit on the sideline and criticize while watching someone else being responsible for taking the tough decisions, at least in some situations. A recent example of this behavior occurred after the UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, that took place in Glasgow in November this year. Those who have even slightly followed the discussions around the meeting have hardly been able to miss how Greta Thunberg mocked the world leaders with her ‘Blah Blah Blah’ speech or how many times COP26 has been accompanied with the word ‘failure’ in headlines across the world.
Nevertheless, despite the negative tone COP26 has received, criticism can undoubtedly be helpful when trying to progress and improve. However, critique in itself is not problem solving. To effectively solve a problem, it is important to identify and analyze the problem, look for the root causes and develop alternative solutions, implement the chosen solution and measure the result. By including the critiques in the problem-solving process as well as showing the bad numbers will only enhance and boost the transparency.
Not keeping up with the 1.5° target
In 2015, at COP21, the Paris Agreement was adopted, and countries were asked to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change. Paris Agreement’s goal is to limit global warming to well below 2°C, preferably to 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels.
Now, six years later, the world is still not on track with the 1.5°C goal and this has been criticized at every COP since, without any exception for COP26. Nevertheless, the critique for the failure to speed up the timeline for the crucial climate actions was finally addressed at COP26. This was the moment when countries were asked to return already next year with revised emissions-cutting plans.
According to the Paris Agreement, countries would only need to submit updated or new plans every five years. Thus, COP26 at least changed the pattern of the way forward in order to try to keep the 1.5°C goal reachable.
COP26 “A Global North greenwash festival”
The conference has not only been criticized for what was (or not) agreed upon, but also for who was (or wasn’t) included in the negotiations. COP26 has been recognized as the most exclusionary, white and privileged climate conference to date.
The criticism it faced included the unrepresented Global South, the forgotten gender equality and the exclusion of indigenous people. According to Greta Thunberg, the conference could be described as “a Global North greenwash festival”. It is true that the Covid-19 restrictions did result in logistical difficulties, however this cannot justify the exclusivity of the most important voices in the climate negotiations.
There could have been many solutions to this problem; quotas could be implemented to secure gender equality and assure women as well as indigenous people a minimum of seats, wealthy countries could have provided funding for travel expenses, greater support to vaccine equity and better managed visa approval processes.
Perhaps the simplest solution could have been to hold a hybrid event, where virtual and in-person attendance could have been possible. Despite the lack of diversity in the decision-making at COP26, Glasgow was still a center of protests by a diverse group of women, indigenous, and youth activists. Their active criticism could provide the push that leaders need for future inclusion.
Phase down, not out
To get a group to agree on everything and reach consensus in an important decision can undeniably be challenging sometimes. Especially when there are 197 parties around the negotiation table trying to conclude an agreement where the details are crucial. This was exactly the case at COP26 when the countries tried to reach the Glasgow Climate Pact agreement.
When it comes to legal texts the language is what matters. Whether a legal text is binding or not can solely depend on if the world ‘shall’ is used instead of ‘should’. A critique that COP26 faced was the failure to reach legally binding commitments. There was an initial plan to agree on the phase out of coal. However, the language in the pact was amended from a “phase out” of coal to a “phase down”, which weakened the commitment. Despite this was criticized as a huge failure, it was the first time ever inclusion of a commitment to limit coal use was made in a COP agreement. Consequently, stating that the COP26 was a failure is not completely true.
Not reaching its aim
The main critique that the COP26 as well as previous COPs have been faced with, is that the conference in itself does not reach its aim. It is criticized for being an inefficient way to solve the climate crisis. However, bringing leaders together and agreeing on huge challenges is anything but easy. The COP is perhaps not the best forum for decision-making, however it is still crucial to have a forum for debate.
The fact that the COP is the only forum that addresses the climate crisis where developed and developing countries’ interests are considered equal makes it significant. Without the yearly meetings it would undoubtedly be uncertain where we would find ourselves today. Certainly, we would not find ourselves in a situation where the world’s collective primary goal is to keep alive the Paris Agreement’s aim to limit global warming to 1.5°C. There is of course always room to improve, however one could ask; if not COP, then what?
We certainly have a long road ahead of us and much has to be done. It is beyond doubt that improvements both within and outside COP are needed. It might feel overwhelming and frustrating, but we must not forget where we started from and where we are today. There is indeed something positive behind all the criticism. This is also why we need to measure our actions; to not only see how far we still need to go but also in order to see how far we actually have come.
It is important to remember what has been achieved so far, even though rapid step-up efforts are needed we must not forget the positives in order to stay motivated and believe that we actually can make an impact. We must not think that everything has been done without success and that we have not gotten anywhere, because that is not the truth.
Yet, the success of COP26 will greatly depend on the countries’ pledges for their future actions. Since words mean nothing without true actions, the high risk of failure cannot be denied. The COP might not be a great way to tackle the global climate crisis, but at the moment it is the best solution that we have. Thus, we should turn its critiques into actions and make it part of the success.
 Paris Agreement (2015).