COP26: The Failure of World Leaders

By Ilaria Sacco

“I apologize for the way this process 

has unfolded, and I am deeply sorry”.

COP26 President Alok Sharma, close to tears, apologizes 

after the Glasgow Climate Pact was concluded with some concessions

After two weeks of political negotiations and climate protests, COP26 has finally come to an end. The ultimate conclusion is that world leaders have failed.

Since 1995, the United Nations (UN) has been bringing together almost every country for global climate summits called COPs, which stands for “Conference of the Parties” of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This year has been the 26th annual summit and world leaders, together with thousands of negotiators, government representatives, businesses and citizens, have gathered in Glasgow for twelve days. COP26 represented the most eagerly awaited international event of the year, as countries were expected to have updated their national plans for reducing emissions.

Nevertheless, none of the States with the highest greenhouse gas emissions have renewed or improved their national plans. In addition, the final version of the agreement has been short of the initial ambitions: instead of eliminating the use of coal, the final decision was on “gradually reducing it” (COP26 Glasgow Agreement).

The aim of this article is not to question the science-based decisions and negotiations made during COP26. It focuses instead on the international role of the biggest powers before and after the meeting. Fundamental countries and regions, such as the European Union (EU), the United States or the People’s Republic of China, had previously announced their commitment and engagement. The question remains whether these have been met in Glasgow.

The United States
Despite the rhetoric of President Joe Biden on climate change, he arrived in Glasgow empty-handed. The U.S. set a goal to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% by 2030, compared to 2005 levels, but this objective has remained stuck in Congress. This development has shaken Biden’s aspiration to turn the U.S. into a world leader in combating climate change. The President, in his COP26 speech, said that “none of us can escape the worst that’s yet to come if we fail to seize this moment”.
To shore up promises made at the UN summit, Biden aims to speed up the climate policy once he returns to the White House.

The biggest success, however, has been the compromise between the U.S. and China — the world’s two great powers and largest polluters. They issued a joint statement of principles for climate cooperation. In climate change, working together is the only solution. This has surely saved the image of the United States during the COP26.

The absent one: China
Despite the absence of leader Xi Jinping, who did not leave China for Glasgow, the Chinese government made some steps forward in accepting a compromise with its biggest competitor, the US.

Being the largest polluters in the world, all eyes have turned towards China. In this context, many criticisms have been addressed to the Chinese national plan, which presented very little progress with respect to the announced ambitions. China aims to have CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. But the actual fact is that China, today, is still heavily dependent on coal.

This strong dependency was proven during COP26, when the Glasgow Climate Pact was weakened by a last amendment: India petitioned to modify the language, insisting that countries should be required to “phase down” rather than “phase out” of the use of coal. And China backed the idea

The European Union

The EU has arrived at the summit with the label as global leader in climate action. Indeed, it has already cut its greenhouse gas emissions by over 30% since 1990, while maintaining economic growth of over  60%. With the 2019 European Green Deal, the EU further raised its climate ambition by committing to reach climate neutrality by 2050. This commitment became legally binding with the adoption and entry into force of the European Climate Law.

However, the EU did not manage to maintain this label during COP26, rather it was even accused of being a “missing leader”.  As an example, the EU was completely out of the game when China and the U.S. discussed between each other during the last days of COP26. The two giants have turned to bilateral talks, and have thus jeopardized the image of a European leader in climate action.

A year of multilateralism?
After COP26, it is clear that no one has succeeded in being the global leader in fighting climate change. This summit will pass into history because of the failure of world leaders. Joe Biden did not manage to make the United States an indisputable leader; Xi Jinping has made everyone angry for not showing up and for supporting India’s amendment; the EU missed the chance to demonstrate its influence when it comes to international meetings.

Nevertheless, the COP26 has encouraged greater multilateral cooperation. Multilateralism at the UN summit in Glasgow has thus been a continuation from the final meeting by the G20 in Rome the same year, where Prime Minister of Italy Mario Draghi, who held the presidency this year, announced that “without cooperation, there is no hope”. And this laid the foundation for cooperation in COP26 as well.

In Glasgow, 196 countries came together for a meeting to discuss one of the most dangerous threats of our times: climate change. Despite the pandemic, 2021 became a year of multilateralism. With the election of Joe Biden as President of the U.S., after a period of inward-looking foreign policy and unilateralism under Trump, the new government sought to draw attention to the issue of climate, defining it as “the multilateral challenge of the moment”, since the first day of his Administration. But was the U.S. able to overcome this challenge through multilateral cooperation?

At the end, multilateral cooperation has been overshadowed by some bilateral agreements, the most prominent one being China and the US coming to a compromise during COP26. And perhaps COP26 will be remembered more for the historical agreement between these two, rather than the “watered down” final agreement which was approved by all parties. 

Now that the G20 summit in Rome and COP26 has ended, it is finally right to ask whether the international community will really come out stronger.

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