Managing expectations: How we can see hope in global climate summits

From Oct. 31 to Nov. 13, the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP26, took place in Glasgow, Scotland. After years of climate summits filled with unkept promises and a worsening global climate crisis, many were skeptical that this climate conference would be any different. Amidst the summit, popular environmental activist Greta Thunberg called COP26 a failure. However, it is important to try to think about the effort in its entirety and to find a more positive attitude about these meetings. While I agree with Thunberg’s sentiment and exhaustion following speech after speech filled with claims and commitments that we can’t help but question, I believe COP26 offered promising outcomes. 

The talk leading up to the summit was dramatic and built anticipation for serious progress. It was described as a “last chance saloon” by Prince Charles. Of course, I believe that the climate crisis is a time-sensitive issue that must be treated with the utmost urgency, but these unreasonable expectations about the summit had unintended consequences, setting COP26 up for failure before it even started. Thinking of this conference as our last chance suggested that if climate change was not completely solved by its end, which is impossible in a two-week meeting, then the conference failed. Instead, we should look at the conference as another step in the right direction on this long road to a carbon-efficient world, filled with conflicting foreign policy measures and financial disputes that will slow it down. 

For example, we saw real progress with negotiations with China. China has been reluctant to officially get on board with international agreements. While the government still has not committed to the Global Methane Pledge, China has agreed to work with the United States to cut down its emissions. China is a major topic of discussion in the climate conferences, considering how much of the world’s carbon emissions the country is responsible for. China releases the largest amount of carbon out of any country and accounts for over a quarter of the world’s total emissions. Getting the biggest global culprit of carbon emissions to cooperate is certainly a win for COP26. We should be encouraged by the agreement between the U.S. and China because of China’s reluctance to cooperate in previous meetings. 

One of the frustrations from past climate summits was the lack of “how” for the pledges and agreements to cut down on practices like deforestation and methane and carbon emissions. Many promises were broken and some of us were left wondering if the necessary infrastructure and planning was ever there. In contrast, with COP26, we saw countries, powerful figures and organizations literally putting their money where their mouths are. Japan and Italy, along with Jeff Bezos, one of the world’s richest people, pledged billions of dollars to make the proposed changes possible. At least we now know that the money is there for these promised policies to be enacted. 

Another encouraging sign from the conference was the dynamic between negotiating countries, especially between higher and lower income countries. The United States, Britain, the European Union, France and Germany decided to give South Africa $8.5 billion on the condition that they shift away from coal power and take care of people that currently have jobs in that industry. Here, we see accountability from rich countries who have profited from the very industries that have created this problem. They are beginning to provide the means for lower-income countries to be able to work against climate change.

Climate change will not be solved in two weeks. Some of us may have had that expectation leading up to COP26 given how the conference was framed as our last chance to save our planet. Because of this unrealistic notion, the summit was destined to be a failure in the public’s eyes. However, if we analyze the conference and situation as a whole, I hope we can see that several strong steps were taken in the right direction on a long path towards a more sustainable and habitable world.


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