What is COP26?
In November 2021, national leaders and their delegates around the world gathered in Glasgow at COP26, the largest climate event of the year. The United Nations’ Conference of the Parties, or COP, is a series of annual conferences on climate change. It is an opportunity for world leaders, businesses, and citizens to come together to strategize ways to adapt to and mitigate the impacts of climate change.
During COP21 in 2015, the Paris Agreement was born and set guidelines for countries’ emissions to ensure that we do not surpass 1.5℃ in warming, at which the impacts of climate change will be drastic and irreversible. Countries that signed the Agreement promised to report their progress and set new, more ambitious emissions targets every five years. Due to the cancellation of the conference in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, COP26 marked the first time nations were expected to update their plans in accordance with the Paris Agreement.
What did COP26 achieve?
While the Paris Agreement was monumental in its international scope, countries’ emissions plans following it were collectively not enough to limit warming to 1.5℃. Therefore, Glasgow represented a crucial moment for nations to meaningfully tackle their emissions targets.
During COP26, promises were made to “phase down” the use of coal, which is responsible for around 40% of global CO2 emissions. An agreement was also made to increase funding for countries in Africa and Latin America to help them cope with the impacts of climate change. This follows a broken promise made in 2015 when wealthy countries in the Global North agreed to provide $100 billion per year to nations in the Global South.
While many nations promised to decrease emissions at COP26, scientists argue that we are currently still on track to warm the planet by 2.4℃ even if the nationally determined contributions are met, which is not sufficient enough to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. Critics of COP, including youth, have repeatedly pointed to the economic self-interest of countries and political restraints of actually enacting emissions targets as barriers to effective climate negotiations. While excluded from most COP conference rooms, youth still made their voices heard in Glasgow by calling for more definitive action.
Youth experiences and exclusivity at COP26
As young people are becoming some of the leading voices in the climate change movement, COPs have increasingly been trying to incorporate youth into its summits. On November 5, 2021, COP26 hosted Youth Day, which saw young climate leaders demand that politicians and businesses do more to solve the climate crisis. That same day, outside of the conference rooms, young climate activists Greta Thunberg and Vanessa Nakate organized a school strike to highlight how COP negotiations have not been sufficient enough in solving the crisis. Leading the protestors were Indigenous women and girls from Latin America, such as Valentina Ruas.
In previous decades, youth have usually been excluded from similar climate conferences and policy-making spaces, and while COP26 promised to be the most inclusive COP thus far, many youths who attended described it as being the opposite.
This includes Jennifer Hong, a youth delegate who attended COP26 on behalf of the British Columbia Council for International Cooperation. In her experience, “a lot of youth go there with this idea that they’re going to make great change, and I think that’s an idea that people should definitely keep, but it’s more complicated on the ground” she said in an interview with Spheres of Influence.
When describing her experience at the summit, she believed “it was easy to feel tokenized as a young person. There was a lot of media focus but I don’t know if it was meaningful.”
Critics of COP26 have also pointed to its exclusionary practices against peoples with disabilities; at the conference, there was a lack of sign language interpreters and closed-captioning. As well, according to Hong, “the main events were not streamed live when they usually were at other COP conferences, [and] that is a huge barrier for people. There are a lot of things that should’ve been thought out more to make things actually accessible.”
Not to mention, there were fewer participants in COP26 from the Global South than previous conferences at least in part due to COVID-19 travel restrictions and global vaccine inequity, with only about one-third of the usual number that attends.
Even with this lack of accessibility, many activists still made their voices heard outside of the COP meeting halls. Many demonstrations, rallies, and dances took place outside of the main event as a means of demanding more meaningful and immediate climate action. In Hong’s experience, these events outside of COP were powerful and “bring to light the human perspective of all this. Policy and COP are so focused on targets and we sometimes lose sight of the fact that we’re really doing this for ourselves and humanity and people… they remind us how human it is to care for the planet.”
Looking towards the future
Hong believes youth need to be better included in climate change conferences like COP. “A youth panel that’s there for the sake of being there doesn’t do much, it’s almost the same as not having one at all.” Instead, she argues that “what [youth] don’t have in experience they can make up with creative thinking because they have a fresh perspective on things… and can complement the expertise that comes from everyone else in the climate space.”
As a result of the level of exclusivity at COP, which reflects the lack of diversity in international climate policy-making more broadly, Hong believes it’s crucial to “think about the people who are not at the table” and to always ensure that activists and policy-makers are “working for the lowest common denominator… [by] making it as accessible by default as possible.”
This sentiment rings true as those most currently impacted by climate change, such as those in the Global South, Indigenous peoples, and youth, are some of the least represented in climate spaces like COP and global policy-making. COP26 was no different, but only time will tell whether the leaders who were present at the table will finally act on their climate promises, such as the funding of climate mitigation and adaptation in countries and communities that need it most.
COP’s lack of legally binding agreements and the historical lack of swift and meaningful action can make climate change activism frustrating, especially since “climate change isn’t solved in a day, but it feels like it needs to be.” Hong’s advice for youth interested in getting involved in the climate change movement is to “[make] yourself available to opportunities.” She also encourages youth to not feel “discouraged if you feel like a small fish, that’s totally okay and it helps either way. For any of those small changes and actions you really need everybody to be on board.”