Is COP26 enough?

COP26 is into its second week and while some agreements have been reached, many are saying that it’s not enough and that we have to do much, much more in order to avoid a global temperature rise of more than 1.5 degrees. So what will it take for global leaders to finally take the dramatic action that is so desperately needed?

Alex Matthews: COP26 is drawing to a close this week and there has, as expected, been a lot of discussion around what has – and hasn’t – been achieved. Some of the ‘good news’ stories include a commitment to ending deforestation by 2030, and ending the use and funding of coal – although some major polluters such as the US, China and Australia have not committed to the latter. However, many people, including Greta Thunberg, are saying that it’s not enough, that we must push for more – and they’re probably right. Do you think COP26 has been a success?

Mel Young: That’s a difficult question. The announcements have been positive and as we wrote in our last blog, we really all need to stop moaning and build on the positives. On the other hand, Greta Thunberg has a point when she says the conference has been about greenwashing and lacks real ambition to create the changes which are needed. To me, the proof is in the pudding. Will these leaders actually deliver on what they say they are going to do? They don’t have a good track record and lack global statesmanship; they don’t inspire confidence when we see pictures of them asleep during the conference sessions. It is up to us all to hold them to account and make sure they do what they say they will do. At the same time, all of us have to be aware of how we pollute the planet, and change our lifestyles accordingly.

AM: Sometimes I wonder what we elect them for, if it always falls to the people to make changes, keep leaders accountable… Why have leaders in the first place?! But yes, you’re right – if we don’t feel that we can rely on them, then we have to lead the change ourselves. I just worry that ‘the people’ don’t have enough power to drive the type of change that’s needed; yes, we can use our cars less, recycle and buy more seasonally, but we can’t stop hedge funds investing in fossil fuels, and we can’t stop governments reducing tax on domestic flights, as the UK government has done just recently. 

There have been some really powerful stories that have come out of this conference which I hope will make people – and leaders in particular – sit up and think. I was particularly struck by the president of Palau, an island nation in the South Pacific that really is on the front line of climate change – they are suffering from rising water levels, dwindling resources, fish scarcity etc. He travelled for five days to get to Glasgow because he felt it was so important that he could tell his country’s story, and said that the ultimate cruelty was for the world to sit and watch as Palau and countries like it die slowly – he said it would be kinder to bomb them. I thought that was so powerful and full of emotion – I wonder if it had any impact on people like Joe Biden and Boris Johnson.

MY: Yes, it is very powerful and an acute example of the impact of the changing climate. A wake-up call to those who are asleep, perhaps!! We will have to see if it had an impact but we have to hope so. It does connect into other areas we have been discussing in these blogs. Whilst, we will hopefully change the way energy is consumed and stop cutting down trees, one underlying issue which isn’t being looked at is the continued focus on ‘growth’ as a measurement for economic success. We can’t keep on growing and an alternative theory isn’t being discussed. And it needs to be an underlying point. I think this is what is frustrating Greta Thunberg and her supporters – there isn’t a cohesive longer-term strategy and she worries that everything is just about soundbites. 

AM: Yes that’s a very good point – only madmen and economists believe that you can have infinite growth in a finite world, as the saying goes. It’s such a one-dimensional way of looking at things. COP26 could and indeed should have been an opportunity for these powerful men and women to find a new way of measuring success – we’ve spoken before about Bhutan’s ‘gross domestic happiness’, which is their way of understanding the country’s progress. I know it’s not perfect and I’m sure Bhutan has many of its own problems, but really, the wellbeing of the planet and the people and other forms of life that live on it are the only things that really matter – material wealth is just one aspect of that. It would be really exciting if world leaders were having conversations around that – but as you say, they seem to just be fiddling around the edges and producing soundbites.

I wonder what it will take for these conversations to be had? A huge natural disaster? Or is it simply a matter of waiting until the Greta Thunbergs of this world reach an age when they can take power and drive change themselves?

MY: Another great question. The system needs to change and that may require some sort of upheaval, I don’t know. We talked before about the potential for new systems to emerge as we came out of the pandemic but the politicians have led us back to what they said was ‘normal’ like huge traffic jams and nothing has fundamentally changed. It’s very dispiriting, because I think that there was an opportunity to reassess the values around how we all went about our lives, but we went backwards. It is still much cheaper to fly from Edinburgh to London than go by train and hence much more damaging for the planet – to me this is just a tiny example of what we have got fundamentally wrong. We have to change our entire system if the world is to survive in the long run.

AM: Yes everything seems to be back to front, and our priorities as a country and a world seem to be skewed. But I have hope that with leadership from young people like Greta Thunberg in particular, but also from older people like David Attenborough, change is happening and we are beginning to understand that the system has to change if the planet is to have a future. We need to keep talking to one another so that we can tease out the best ideas, and work out how to make them the system.

MY: Yes, and having Greta Thunberg as the United Nations General Secretary would make complete sense as well!

Photo by Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash

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