• Kieran Hurwood

The Efficiency of COP26: Was Glasgow a successful response to the climate crisis?

Updated: Jan 13

This voices piece charts the consistently complex pathways towards international climate change agreements and the work now being done to improve the situation. Our student contributors particularly assess the progress made at this year's COP26 conference that was held in Glasgow in the first half of November 2021.


COP is an annual conference held by the UN since 1995 with the intention of bringing states together to tackle the increasingly urgent issue of climate change. This year COP26 was held in Glasgow, Scotland, where states sought to continue the work undertaken at previous COPs to improve action on climate change (1). Amidst a backdrop of Covid-19, this year’s COP was referred to as one of the last chances for Europe to significantly influence the agenda before it is too late, with the UK holding the COP presidency this year (the last time Europe held the rotating presidency was Paris, at COP21) (2). Unfortunately, many states from the Global South were excluded due to Covid and visa restrictions, and a number of world leaders – including the PRC’s Xi Jinping, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Russia’s Vladimir Putin – chose not to attend (3) (4).

Though some progress was made on deforestation, methane emissions and principles on net-zero, COP26 has mostly been heralded as a failure by international actors (5). The UK government was criticised for shabby planning of the conference with private-public partnerships breaking down just weeks before the conference and the governing Conservative party facing multiple (unrelated) corruption scandals during the conference (6). At one press conference held by the British PM Boris Johnson, journalists focused almost exclusively on questions on corruption, with the PM being forced to claim the UK is ‘not remotely a corrupt country’ in the presence of international attendees (7). The conference also concluded with a dramatic last-minute wording change by India in the final agreement which pledged to dubiously ‘phase down’ rather than ‘phase out’ coal usage as the initial agreement had concluded. In the moments after the change, Alok Sharma (the UK minister responsible for COP) was reduced to tears and apologised for the conference’s outcome (8).

Our contributors have been tasked with discussing how successful COP26 has been in response to the climate crisis. In response, Camila and Jessica have focused on the systemic exclusion of the global south from COP26, and the effects this has on international climate policy. Meanwhile, Ben and Milla have focused on the difficulty of measuring public opinion on climate action, and whether public opinion is actually likely to influence climate policy. Overall our student contributors remain sceptical about the prospects for climate action, but are also hopeful that future COP conferences may bring more solid reforms.

The Exclusion of the Global South from COP26

By Camila Bailey

Amid all the summaries of COP26 and analyses of promises made by top emitters like the United States and the United Kingdom, we must also shift our gaze to other key takeaways from the summit. Current diplomatic power structures make it impossible for all 193 UN member nations in attendance to be given equal attention, and with the top 10 global polluters making up 70% of global emissions, the majority of pressure should be on these countries to make and fulfil their commitments to combat climate change (1). Nonetheless, COP26 and coverage of the climate talks sidelined some major players in the summit.

Equal access to this year’s COP summit was an especially major issue due to Covid and the widening gap in equity across the globe, making this the most exclusionary COP summit since the annual talks began in 1995. Major news outlets noted the absence of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro from the summit, but the same coverage was not given to the underrepresentation of countries in the global south (2).

COP26 was lacking equity before it even began as the summit was heavily shaped by the convening of the G20 in Rome that immediately preceded the talks. As a result, developing countries not on the body were largely excluded from setting the summit’s agenda. This inequity was further exacerbated by the inaccessibility of the talks themselves for countries in the global south. Leaders of climate movements in these countries faced huge hurdles in getting to COP26 with visas, changing Covid restrictions, vaccine access, and even an accommodation crisis in Glasgow that left many without affordable options in the area (3). In the cruelest twist of fate, those who faced challenges accessing the summit were those who face the most immediate and devastating effects of climate change. This included representation from Yemen, which is currently enduring a brutal civil war and faces threats of drought and other climate effects; and members of the Alliance of Small Island States, an intergovernmental organization made up of 39 small, low-lying islands states in the Caribbean to the Pacific (3).

COP26 encourages global action around climate change prevention. However, too often these types of convenings become platforms for more powerful nations to dominate the discussion and make impressive promises that are often broken or half-fulfilled (4). Excluding serious political representation from developing countries and countries in the global south limits the discussions that can take place and, as a result, the effectiveness of the agreements that will come out of COP26 (5). Giving underrepresented voices a seat at the table will only be constructive if they can access the table.

Measuring Public Support for Climate Action

By Milla Gajdos

COP26 gathered record attention amongst the general public, suggesting a significant change in public opinion amongst all countries and a bottom-up push for systemic change. Starting from the huge climate protests sparked by Greta Thunberg and associated climate movements and continuing with the ambitious pledges at COP26, at first glance there seems to be genuine hope for systemic change. However, looking more closely at recent developments and data, there are probably fewer reasons for optimism.

Firstly, while according to the recent - and much celebrated (1) - online UNDP survey on public opinion regarding the climate debate (2), there is increased awareness of and subsequently higher demand from the public for climate action, there remain some factors missing from the evaluation. For example, the opinion poll was distributed as an advertisement in mobile apps, only reaching people with access to the internet and electronic devices. This makes it questionable if the survey is indeed representative enough of the global public’s opinion. Furthermore, the world’s largest fossil fuel consumer - China - is not included in the poll. This, coupled with China’s and India’s joint efforts to water down the language of the Glasgow Climate Pact (3), projects an image that not everybody is onside yet.

Secondly, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, countries have seen a large decline in GDP. In the UK alone, GDP declined by 9.8% in 2020, the biggest drop in over three hundred years (4). World economies are struggling with rising unemployment and most of the major economies are forecasted to experience a GDP loss of 4.5% (5). Arguably, these domestic factors will have dire short-term consequences that are going to be prioritised over the long-term issues anticipated to be caused by climate change. This suggests that potentially more radical approaches have to be reconsidered and elaborated - eg. Green New Deal (6) / European Green Deal (7) - providing a comprehensive way to address climate change, while simultaneously advancing economic growth after the pandemic.

To conclude, while the COP26 signifies a positive trend towards tackling the climate crisis in the sense that it keeps 1.5 degrees alive after Paris, it remains contestable whether governments will actually deliver on their climate action promises. While increasing public support for policies on climate might compel countries to take long-term action, the real question is whether actions in the short-term will serve the purpose of tackling climate change or whether they will simply play a role of pacifying the public and diverting attention from larger future challenges. Furthermore, even if public support for climate action exists in countries like China and Russia, it is unclear whether their policies will be affected by public opinion. Autocratic countries might resort to suppression in order to pursue economic gains which would come from the continued exploitation of the climate.

Public Opinion on Climate Change and Demands for Climate Justice

By Ben Abbott

Public opinion on the importance of tackling climate change has shifted in the context of COP26. However, distrust over the seriousness of the response by world leaders remains. Measures to limit emissions - even if they impact the personal lives of the general public - are hugely popular across much of the developed and developing world, even among those who rely on the extraction of fossil fuels as a source of economic prowess.

In the UK specifically, just 17% of people think that the effects of climate change are exaggerated, and serious concern for the environment has reached an all-time high during the COP conference in Glasgow this month (2) (4). However, there remain high levels of distrust in both the media and politicians to properly commit to acting on public desire to address the climate issue This hesitancy by world leaders to act is an internationally observable trend which COP26 has been unable to address. Leaders have come in their droves to COP26 to convince the public - who we already know care - but that has not convinced a sceptical public that these elites will act, rather that they are there for more selfish reasons such as political or financial gain (1).

However, whatever their motivation for attending, the dignitaries who signed the Glasgow Climate Pact are responding in some way to the climate crisis. The explicit intent to reduce coal may be just signalling – and underwhelming signalling at that - but the threat of growing discontent from international electorates will force leaders to act on obvious fossil fuel use so as not to lose popularity and further lower domestic trust (3). We have seen tipping points like this before, where public opinion (eventually) forces officials to act. Whether COP26, and the reignited public debate around climate action, is the tipping point for drastic action in response to the climate crisis is something we must measure and observe in the coming years. COP26 has unearthed and possibly accelerated public interest in climate crisis mitigation; leaders are now watching, listening, and cautiously acting in response to the climate crisis.

Climate Injustice in the Global South

By Jessica Pretorius

Although the recent COP26 agreement has been referred to by some as a success, it is worth considering how this agreement will affect different countries: who are the real winners and losers from this year’s climate talks? Take, for example, the concept of ‘loss and damage’ (1). This was the term used this year to refer to the collective destruction of climate change on economies and populations, felt overwhelmingly in poorer, developing countries. This remains distinct from the idea of climate finance, which will eventually fund developing nations to adapt their technologies and mitigate climate change once it becomes more affordable. Neither however, has been satisfactorily agreed upon.

The G77 + China group (consisting of 180 countries) fought for some form of climate compensation from already developed countries that are, historically speaking, the cause of our current environmental crisis. Thus far only £2 million has been pledged by Scotland, while countries such as the US were unwilling to comply with the request (1). These requests for compensation, almost ‘climate reparations’, came from the countries who are being drastically, directly affected by climate change. One such example was Tuvalu, whose President virtually addressed COP26 while standing knee deep in water to highlight the effects of climate change on his Pacific Island nation (2). The Pacific Islands, due to their low-lying nature, are often referred to as the ‘frontline’ of climate change, yet a third of these small island states were unable to send representatives to COP26 due to COVID travel restrictions and cost-related issues.

Eventually, the issue of loss and damage was addressed with severe compromise from developing nations (3). COP26 concluded with the disappointing decision to start a simple ‘dialogue’ about how to address loss and damage, with Australia and the US in particular resisting the idea that industrialised countries should have to compensate for historic climate damage. Instead, the US’ climate envoy John Kerry argued that more work had to be done to analyse how the money could be best delivered to states that needed it.

Some were pleased with the progress made, and that loss and damage was even included as a topic in the COP26 outcomes, but these nations are, quite simply, running out of time. The true losers of climate change will continue to be poorer, developing nations, and the winners will remain richer nations.

Kieran’s Sources

  1. Bodies: Conference of the Parties (COP), UNCC, [online], Link: https://unfccc.int/process/bodies/supreme-bodies/conference-of-the-parties-cop

  2. COP26, one last chance before disaster?, Le Monde diplomatique, Frederic Durand, published November 2021, Link: https://mondediplo.com/2021/11/02cop

  3. Putin and Xi look set to disengage as world leaders meet on climate, The Washington Post, Adam Taylor, published October 21st 2021, Link: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/10/21/diplomatic-absences-cop26-g20/

  4. COP26: Who is being left out of the climate conversation?, euronews.green, Marthe de Ferrer, published 2nd November 2021, Link: https://www.euronews.com/green/2021/11/01/the-missing-voices-of-cop26-who-is-being-left-out-of-the-climate-conversation

  5. COP26: The key agreements from Glasgow’s climate summit, Sky News, Megan Baynes, published 14th November 2021, Link: https://news.sky.com/story/cop26-the-key-agreements-from-glasgows-climate-summit-12457842

  6. COP26 corporate sponsors condemn climate summit as ‘mismanaged’, The Guardian, Jillian Ambrose, published 17th October 2021, Link: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/oct/17/cop26-corporate-sponsors-condemn-climate-summit-as-mismanaged

  7. Boris Johnson says the UK is not ‘remotely a corrupt country’, Is it?, The Guardian, Peter Walker, published 11th November 2021, Link: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/nov/11/boris-johnson-says-the-uk-is-not-remotely-a-corrupt-country-is-it

  8. ‘Deeply sorry’: UK’s Sharma offers apology for last-minute changes to climate deal, Reuters, published November 13th 2021, Link: https://www.reuters.com/business/cop/deeply-sorry-uks-sharma-offers-apology-last-minute-changes-climate-deal-2021-11-13/

Camila’s sources

  1. The Graphic Truth: Net Zero — What are the top polluters promising?, G Zero Media, Carlos Santamaria and Annie Gugliotta, published on (November 02, 2021). https://www.gzeromedia.com/the-graphic-truth-net-zero-what-are-the-top-polluters-promising

  2. Who’s going to the COP26 climate summit? Meet the key players at the UN talks, Sam Meredith, CNBC, published on (October 31, 2021). https://www.cnbc.com/2021/10/31/whos-going-to-cop26-and-who-wont-be-there-for-the-un-climate-talks.html

  3. 'We're not just somebody to look at.' Sidelined groups complain of racial tokenism at COP26 climate talks, Ivana Kottasová, CNN, published on (November 9, 2021). https://edition.cnn.com/2021/11/09/world/cop26-climate-talks-race-intl/index.html

  4. Jon Allsop on covering the coverage of COP26 and climate, “the biggest story in the world,’ Reliable Sources with Brian Stelter, CNN, published on (November 12, 2021) Link: https://open.spotify.com/episode/5NBm7bVWIUwTt2zZMOmTbQ?si=2ab52ccda2fd4fcb.

  5. Cop26 will be whitest and most privileged ever, warn campaigners, Matthew Taylor, the Guardian, published on (October 30, 2021), Link: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/oct/30/cop26-will-be-whitest-and-most-privileged-ever-warn-campaigners.

Milla’s sources

  1. UN global climate poll: ‘The people’s voice is clear - they want action’, The Guardian, Damian Carrington, published 20th January 2021, Link: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jan/27/un-global-climate-poll-peoples-voice-is-clear-they-want-action

  2. Peoples’ Climate Vote - Results, University of Oxford Department of Sociology AND UNDP, various authors, published January 2021, Link: https://www.undp.org/sites/g/files/zskgke326/files/publications/UNDP-Oxford-Peoples-Climate-Vote-Results.pdf

  3. Alok Sharma ‘deeply frustrated’ by India and China over coal, The Guardian, Fiona Harvey and Rowena Mason, published 14th November 2021, Link: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/nov/14/alok-sharma-deeply-frustrated-by-india-and-china-over-coal

  4. Coronavirus: Economic impact, House of Commons Research Briefings, Daniel Harari, Matthew Keep and Philip Brien, published 24th September 2021, Link: https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-8866/

  5. Impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the global economy - Statistics and Facts, Statista, M. Szmigiera, published November 23rd 2021, Link: https://www.statista.com/topics/6139/covid-19-impact-on-the-global-economy/#topicHeader__wrapper

  6. The Green New Deal Explained, Investopedia, Deborah D’Souza and Gordon Scott, last updated June 23rd 2021, Link: https://www.investopedia.com/the-green-new-deal-explained-4588463#how-much-would-the-green-new-deal-cost

  7. Research and innovation for the European Green Deal, European Commission, [online], Link: https://ec.europa.eu/info/research-and-innovation/strategy/strategy-2020-2024/environment-and-climate/european-green-deal_en

Ben’s sources

  1. UN global climate poll: ‘The people’s voice is clear - they want action’, The Guardian, Damian Carrington, published 20th January 2021, Link: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jan/27/un-global-climate-poll-peoples-voice-is-clear-they-want-action

  2. COP26 and Climate Change Polls and Surveys, YouGov, [online], Link: https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/explore/issue/Climate_Change?content=trackers

  3. COP26: New global climate deal struck in Glasgow, BBC News, Paul Rincon, published 14th November 2021, Link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-59277788

  4. Concern for environment reaches record high in YouGov top issues tracker, YouGov, Matthew Smith, published November 9th 2021, Link: https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2021/11/09/concern-environment-reaches-record-high-yougov-top?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=website_article&utm_campaign=env_tracker_nov_2021

Jessica’s sources

  1. What is ‘loss and damage’ and why is it critical for success at COP26?, The Guardian, Damian Carrington, published 13th November 2021, Link: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/nov/13/what-is-loss-and-damage-and-why-is-it-critical-for-success-at-cop26

  2. Tuvalu minister to address COP26 knee deep in water to highlight climate crisis and sea level rise, The Guardian, various authors, published 8th November 2021, Link: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/nov/08/tuvalu-minister-to-address-cop26-knee-deep-in-seawater-to-highlight-climate-crisis

  3. Climate ‘loss and damage’ earns recognition but little action in COP26 deal, Reuters, Megan Rowling, published November 13th 2021, Link: https://www.reuters.com/business/cop/climate-loss-damage-earns-recognition-little-action-cop26-deal-2021-11-13/

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