Climate Activists outside the venue of the COP26 Summit. (Heppell/AP Images, 2021)
On October 31st, 2021, government officials met in Glasgow to set in motion the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference. COP26 is essentially a forum for global leaders and representatives from the business industry, international organizations, and environmental activist groups to discuss, negotiate and create solutions for climate issues. It takes place annually for two continuous weeks and, though it was postponed last year due to COVID-19, it is considered mandatory by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
COP, which stands for Conference of Parties, is the body of the Convention that makes decisions, reviews the data given by the Parties, and sets the guidelines for change for the UN. The Parties are all the nations that have signed and ratified the Convention. 26 is the numeral for the years that have passed since the treaty was signed. COP1 was held in Berlin in 1995, COP21 in Paris in 2015 and the current COP26 in Glasgow just wrapped on November 13th.
The UNFCCC was ratified in 1994 and has been signed by 197 nations around the world. It is a framework treaty; as such, it does not resemble traditional treaties that have been signed by world leaders in the past or present and that is due to the complex issues that it has set out to control.
The Climate Change Convention was the first to be created, signed, and put into force in this framework form. There are two characteristics that distinguish it from others. Firstly, it does not consider every nation as equally capable or equally responsible for the matters at hand. Developed and developing countries are given guidelines and rules to follow which are consistent with their weaknesses. Secondly, there are different degrees of flexibility to what a Party will agree to or not, ensuring that more states will be willing and able to participate. The Convention is the minimum set of obligations that Parties will have to agree to. The body of the Convention decides which special issues need to be addressed and regulated and then creates more specific treaties. According to their interests and capabilities, nations choose which of those new agreements they will sign. This framework allows the United Nations to be proactive in legislation. Environmental protection and climate change issues and are not static. The current situation can change rapidly in a matter of months and there need to be tools in place to control it.
A good example of an agreement between parties, linked to the parent convention, is the Paris Agreement, a legally binding treaty on climate change that came to life during COP21 in Paris. 196 parties agreed that they would keep the global minimum for temperature under 2 degrees Celsius, and put a stop to the excess use of manufactured greenhouse gases. All the Parties had a 5-year deadline to submit a national plan for tackling climate change, their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). The UN was hopeful but the Agreement turned out to be insufficient. It did not force countries to set those plans in motion. As a result, greenhouse emissions have only bulked since 2015.
COP26 is considered particularly important because it is essentially the 5-year test of the Paris Agreement. It aimed to review what steps were taken towards the right direction, which NDCs were up to part, which nations need to do more, and what needs to be changed in order to adapt to the current situation.
Clear goals were set before the COP convened, attempting to control the dialogue directions and negotiation process, guiding them towards the important issues. COP26 aims to bring emissions to net zero before the middle of the century. Extensive measures need to be taken to achieve this, including coal energy to be eliminated, and a higher investment in renewable energy resources. Parties will also need to closely collaborate with each other to help protect ecosystems.
Tuvalu's Foreign Minister addressing the United Nations in seawater to highlight the rising water levels. (Reuters, 2021)
It is crucial to note that not all nations operate from the same starting grid. Developing parties do not have the same resources or technology to support the same level of action against climate change. In most cases, they have not even participated in the catastrophic activities of the developed countries because they did not have the infrastructure, the finances, or the technology to do so.
Alas, global warming is a transboundary issue. Whether they had a hand in it or not, they are now living it. In order to survive, all nations need to work together to face the situation and that implies that developed countries need to provide what developing nations are missing to help them cope. With the Paris Agreement, it was decided that developed nations would provide $100 billion in US dollars to developing countries per year, which they did not do.
Typically, powerful countries structure their priorities differently, putting economy and defense at the forefront, and filing away climate change legislation for another time, another leader. Choosing reactivity rather than proactivity. How many wildfires, droughts, and extreme weather phenomena need to break out before it becomes clear that there is no more time to waste?
The COVID-19 pandemic showed us that in extremely dire situations, government officials and international organizations are willing and capable to interfere and postpone life as we know it. Education, trade, food services, social interactions, travel were sectors that were brutally hit and reinvented during the last couple of years. We endured the sudden and disturbing measures because we understood that there was no other way to survive. The climate crisis should be analyzed with the same level of graveness before we have to resort to such troubling situations. That is the point COP26 is trying to convey.
The outcomes remain to be seen. The COP’s ethics have been put into question after claims were made about the participation of companies that take part in greenwashing initiatives, essentially deceiving the general public that they are trying to convert to climate and environmentally friendly processes when they are not. In the aftermath, small island countries have expressed disappointment in the COP’s commitments, stating that it is a start but it is definitely not enough.
This journey faces tremendous challenges. From the financials to the struggle of forcing competitive ambitious countries to work together to the constant impending pressure of reacting to all the other struggles they are already facing, securing success will be difficult. But those are the growing pains of change, from climate crisis to climate neutrality.
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