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Exploring the failures of past COP meetings

Global climate summits feel like they hold the key to saving our planet, but they haven’t always been the most successful. When studied retrospectively, a clear set of issues emerge.

Despite global leaders openly discussing the dangers of climate change since the 1980s, most have failed to implement solutions to the problem on a large scale. We’ve had four decades of alarming data and scientific warnings – yet no tangible results have materialised.

Global activists and environmental groups are particularly concerned that COP26 will continue this trend, and have raised concerns that it may lack the urgency, willingness, and commitment that is necessary to properly get things rolling.

Even Greta Thunberg has admitted to losing hope that anything ‘real’ can ever come out of COP meetings, suggesting that they offer ‘symbolic things and creative accounting…. things that don’t really have a big impact.’

In efforts to avoid sending us all into an eco-anxiety spiral, we’ve highlighted the achievements of previous meetings here. But in the name of honest journalism, we can’t avoid pointing out that preceding COP events have achieved an underwhelming level of progress. Let’s take a closer look.


All talk, no action

From the outset, cutting carbon emissions was identified as a priority for combating climate change. Greenhouse gases, caused by burning fossil fuels for things like petrol, coal, and industrial sectors have been targeted as a key player in the warming of Earth.

At the 1997 meeting, COP3, fossil fuel restrictions targeted wealthy, industrialised nations, but none were placed on poor countries. This impractical decision is how China was able to vamp up its reliance on fossil fuels and become the highest carbon emitting country in the world.

As a result, CO2 emissions have continued to rise, more than doubling in the last fifty years. And though two thirds of the world’s countries currently declare net-zero emission targets, a lack of strong policies creates a loophole, allowing huge carbon emitting sectors to carry on.

Credit: Visual Capitalist

Past COP events have failed to create an official climate policy because countries have only been obligated to put forward what they felt they could reasonably do to halt their emissions, rather than being required to draw up restrictive laws based on scientific predictions.

As late as COP19 in 2013, leaders in Poland were asked to simply propose ideas to combat their carbon contributions, without being asked to outline an action plan or timeline for doing so.

Arbitrary discussions and ambitions have enabled governments to make empty promises while preserving the lucrative business sectors that continue to warm up the planet.

A lack of common ground

More than once, the climate summit has had to be extended, and you can probably imagine that after two weeks of discussions and strategizing after hours, political negotiators want nothing more than to get back home.

Leaders have consistently disagreed on who is financially responsible for funding global efforts to decarbonise the world’s economy by the end of this century – a venture that will cost trillions of dollars – with poorer countries needing funding from wealthy nations to transition to renewable energy.

At COP15 in 2009, rich countries promised to give $100bn each year to help nations cut emissions and manage climate related disasters. But this commitment didn’t stick, as in 2019, rich countries contributed less than $80bn.

Finding common ground on how to phase out coal industries presents another obstacle, particularly when trying to sway India, Australia, China, and South Africa. And while some compromises have been met – China and other G7 nations have agreed to stop overseas coal ventures – these countries continue to burn coal for energy domestically.

Implementing an international carbon market could help solve the problem of high-emitting countries, yet this presents another recurring, unaccomplished goal. Where discussions on a carbon tax have become tense and lengthy, they are scrapped – pushing the agenda to the next year, time and time again.

Why is this year’s COP so important?

The 26th COP event marks the deadline date for reassessing, updating, and strengthening emission reduction targets set out during the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015.

In Paris, COP members agreed to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, a temperature the science tells us would have drastic consequences for life on Earth.

But five years and four climate summits later (last year’s was postponed due to the pandemic), and we are still headed towards reaching a global temperature increase of 2.7 degrees Celsius.

‘If we are serious about 1.5C, Glasgow must be the COP that consigns coal power to history.’
Alok Sharma, COP26 President-Designate

It is evident that COP26 could be the last opportunity leaders will have to make drastic changes to achieve a major cut in global emissions.

But if world leaders approach climate change as a political issue rather than a global issue that affects all of humanity, it’s likely they will achieve nothing but a lot of ‘blah blah blah’ – to quote Ms. Thunberg – as they have in previous years.


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