Menu Menu

COP’s biggest moments that caused public stir and grabbed headlines

As the 26th annual COP approaches, it’s time to run back major moments from prior summits that caused real public stir and the movements which preceded them.

If you’re reading this now, chances are you’re relatively clued up on COP26 already thanks to the constant headlines popping up across major news outlets.

In the last decade, we’ve matured from debating whether climate change even exists, to largely discussing how we can clean up the mess we’ve made.

While we’re undoubtedly in store for more hot air and excuses for failing to meet existing targets at COP26, there is at least a sense of unanimity that our climate crisis needs addressing. This hasn’t always been the case.

From the very first summit in 1995, policy makers have butted heads, activist movements have ignited, and public debate around sustainability has raged on. The one constant throughout this period has been landmark moments which have grabbed headlines and sparked dialogue.

On that note, here’s five milestone events that either preceded or took place during COP summits and caused real public stir.


Bush kills the Kyoto Treaty (2001)

In the lead up to COP7 in June 2001, former US President George W. Bush dropped the clanger around March that he would be withdrawing his nation’s involvement from the Kyoto Treaty.

Originally drafted together in 1997, the Kyoto Treaty aimed to bring together the most developed economies to scale back on greenhouse gas emissions on a case by case basis.

Fundamentally, the most industrialised countries were expected to mitigate the most emissions – as they’re responsible for creating them in the first place. Periodic transparency reports on progress were then to follow.

Before his tenure as vice US President ended, Al Gore had agreed to be part of an initial 33 partaking nations and to cut carbon and methane emissions back by 7% before 2012.

Bush, however, despite echoing a similar desire in his election campaign, later abandoned the agreement on the grounds that it wasn’t fair and would dipropionately harm the US economy compared to – wait for it – developing regions.

As you’d expect, this became a huge obstacle in establishing any kind of agreement and the treaty didn’t actually see the light of day until 2005. Environmentalist outfits were not happy.

The rise of Greta and Fridays for Future (2018)

Before scolding world leaders at UN conferences and taking centre stage with a Rick Astley rendition at a climate concert, Greta was an activist like you or I (just way more zealous).

In August 2018, the then 15 year-old student started a school strike outside Swedish Parliament in the three week build-up to the country’s presidential election.

Before long, she was joined by others and staged a mass protest until Swedish policy provided a realistic pathway to meet the requirements of the Paris Agreement. Later creating the hashtag #FridaysForFuture, millions of students across the globe became inspired to stage their own strikes.

The international awakening of students grabbed major headlines, and since Greta has become something of a Gen Z champion when it comes to climate demonstrations.

In the changeable (and often volatile) world of social media, the love for Greta isn’t exactly unanimous, but there’s no denying her massive influence or knack for getting things done.

Extinction Rebellion is formed (2018)

In the month’s after Fridays for Future was formed, Extinction Rebellion’s now ubiquitous hourglass emblem started popping up everywhere – certainly if you live in London.

The self-described ‘non-violent civil disobedience’ outfit leans on pretty radical demonstrations to strive for a net zero UK before 2025. It also demands that the government allocate a ‘citizen assembly’ made up of ordinary folk to devise solutions.

Recently calling on supporters to pledge ‘mass civil resistance’ throughout COP26, the group has consistently made the news and trended on UK Twitter for its rallies (which normally prompt triple figure arrests).

Across a two-week period in August and September this year, activists blocked Oxford Circus and erected a giant table in Covent Garden. More than 200 people reportedly glued themselves to roads and buildings across London, Manchester, and Cardiff.

As you can imagine, public opinion on the outfit is generally split. Regardless of where you stand, we’re sure to see more viral videos and column space dedicated to Extinction Rebellion over the coming weeks.

Trump withdraws from the Paris Agreement (2020)

Undoubtedly the benchmark for climate change reform, and the umbrella by which nation’s continue to be judged today, the Paris Agreement came to life in 2015 at COP21.

Outlining nationally determined contributions (NDCs) for 196 governments, an international pledge was made to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees below pre-industrial levels – but I’m sure you know all that by now.

Negotiations were drawn together surprisingly quickly given climate reform had never been attempted at such an ambitious scale, and the UN believed it was a time for celebration.

Unfortunately, the years that followed showed that many nations weren’t as enthusiastic as first appeared when it came to actioning policy. Still, none could have predicted the brazen and misguided decision that was to come from the US President, Donald Trump.

Taking the same stance as George W. Bush before him (but with the climate situation now in dire straits) Trump opted to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and its ‘permanent disadvantage’ to the region’s economy.

After understandable outrage online and in the wider media, Joe Biden’s instatement saw the US swiftly brought back into the fold in 2021.

China’s likely absence from COP26 (2021)

Moving swiftly on to the modern day, we’re currently monitoring a situation which could have huge ramifications for whether or not COP26 is successful.

A mere 11 days out from the summit, which is already being met with mass cynicism from climate analysts, it looks fairly likely that China will not attend the crunch talks in Glasgow.

President Xi Jinping reportedly hasn’t left the country since 2020, and frustrated UK hosts are unsure whether or not a delegate has been officially selected. Considering China is responsible for 27% of greenhouse gases, meaningful progress realistically hinges on its commitment.

The COP26 president Alok Sharma has hinted that a backup deal for the G20 will be significant enough without China, but judging by the volume of stories cropping up online every hour, it’s safe to say people are concerned.


Thred Newsletter!

Sign up to our planet-positive newsletter