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COP 26: Increased Ambition or a Salve to Fossil-Fuel Addicts?

How the COP 26 meeting delimited climate action goals for decades to come.

Key points

  • The hopeful news from the UN's November climate conference in Glasgow is that all the necessary tools exist to end the climate crisis.
  • The largest delegation at COP 26 was comprised of lobbyists for fossil fuel interests, weakening trust in the conference's plan of action.
  • Compared to the urgency of climate disaster faced by nations of the Global South, rich nations have adopted a slow route to climate action.

The UN’s climate-change convention, known as the Conference of the Parties, or COP, had its 26th meeting in Glasgow last month. The event reminded the world that we already have the knowledge to create the right mix of technology, money, and ideology needed to enact necessary political reforms to end economic dependence on fossil fuels and stop emissions of greenhouse gases.

The meeting was also a lesson about how collective agreements among nations hinge on the ability of individual countries to harmonize their policies with global aims and prioritize the distribution of funding and know-how in order to achieve those aims—in this case, the end of human-caused climate change.

Reasons to be guardedly optimistic

We can be guardedly optimistic with COP 26, because it ended with a series of “nationally determined contributions,” including, among other goals, reductions of greenhouse emissions, a one-year deadline for new pledges of decarbonization, and “four sectoral pledges on methane, coal, cars, and forests.”

It may provide a way for us to bridge the complex gap between structure and agency, between powerful norms and forms of authority, and the sense of ordinary people (who include climate scientists) that change is possible. The research indicates that people need to believe that there is hope and that adaptation can protect them from environmental devastation, both on their own part and more generally. Policymakers need to give us all hope plus clear guides to action.

Negative reactions to COP 26

It’s understandable that there would be negative reactions to COP 26, not least because pledges are merely hypothetical. The COP 26 meeting began in a cloud of doubt associated with past failures to fulfill earlier promises—for example, halting deforestation, especially among offenders like Indonesia; or overcoming the Global North’s resistance to funding the Global South’s decarbonization of energy production and the loss and damage to its ecosystems.

That challenge presented delegates with a steep hill to climb. COP 26 was touted as a make-or-break chance to lower emissions and contain atmospheric warming within the limits set by the Paris Agreement of 2015. It’s not surprising then that any progress made would be discounted, with critics arguing that not enough was accomplished, even though the warming limit of 1.5°C was kept intact. It didn’t help that the US envoy, John Kerry, enthused about how many countries displayed "a very aggressive increasing of ambition," as if talking the talk was all that mattered.

Nevertheless, as one prominent climate scientist noted, “not enough” is never a helpful way to frame these meetings in particular, because it gives climate deniers a boost to their cause for climate in-activism. The “belief that no progress is being made at all leads us to disengagement,” which serves no one better than the fossil fuel interests whose long-term profits are helped by indifference.

There are other reasons why observers might have been less than enthusiastic about the conference’s final set of agreements. Consider the effect of the largest delegation to COP 26—lobbyists for fossil fuel interests. One activist noted that the presence of representatives from the “kingdom of Black Gold,” as Fortune called them, made the meeting into something "as absurd as Alcoholics Anonymous having a global conference, [where] the largest delegation is the alcohol industry.”

The idea that fossil fuel interests might be pushing fossil fuel substance use (and abuse) is an interesting one. It helps to contextualize a recurring problem with COP’s political commitments. The addicted are often said to be lacking the will to change, but what makes matters worse is having suppliers of addictive substances at the table where breaking addiction is a key aspiration.

So, what do we get when the industries causing global warming get a seat at the table to be, as they say, “part of the solution?" Just a few of the loopholes gifted to the kingdom of black gold include the continuation of national subsidies to polluting industries, no bans on current and planned fossil fuel extraction projects, letting the industry get away with greenwashing business brands with no appreciable reduction in fossil fuel production, ridiculous involvement of industry lobbyists in climate negotiations—all of which only serve to extend the life of an industry dedicated to the warming of the atmosphere and the ecosystem destruction that comes with it.

These concessions are part of a wider pattern of anti-environmental behaviors that thwart national efforts to align with the goals of climate action. Here the list is long, but let’s start with plastics, new car purchases, unsustainable housing development, unsustainable energy systems, environmental racism, species endangerment, coal dependence, and war. And let’s not forget the wider political economy that sanctions irrational wealth accumulation that removes money from public treasuries and economies needed urgently for decarbonization, repair, and mitigation around the world.

We are told that we have everything we need to save the planet, including advanced renewable energy and other technologies that can be scaled up to help restoration and mitigation projects. There is only one thing we’re lacking, and that is the political will to enact and enforce the commitments.

Political will is a mushy concept. It’s a holding place or “black box” for the hope that governments will intervene when all evidence points to the need for urgent action. But it has become evident that the rich nations prefer gradualism, a less urgent kind of political agency (or political will, if you like).

The hegemony of gradualism was in full display when India decided to change the phrase “phase-out” of coal to a “phase-down” in the final agreement of COP 26. This was a reaction to the US-led Global North’s refusal to increase funding for poor nations which, in effect, would have empowered them to leap-frog over coal-based industrialization into an energy system based on renewables.

The Global North’s gradualism is indefensible from a one-Earth perspective, which acknowledges and respects the people who experience the mortal threats of climate change on a daily basis. No amount of paternalism and political realism will eliminate climate disruptions in developing countries, which urgently need funding to decarbonize, repair damage, and mitigate further destruction.

The key necessities for events such as COP 26 is that they both incarnate and engender core aspects required for acceptance of the need for change and the possibility of enabling it. In psychological terms, the recipe mixes trust, commitment, and responsibility.

Do we have those from the key players—China, the US, the European Union, and Japan? That fundamental dilemma remains.

More from Toby Miller, Ph.D., and Richard Maxwell Ph.D.
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