The COP26 summit has barely begun and already many are saying that its goals to combat climate change are unactionable. Prime Minister Boris Johnson commented that: ‘there is no chance of stopping climate change next week’. Naturally, he only thought it fair to confirm this sentiment by planning to travel back to London on a private plane.

Is COP26 a cop-out?

More squarely, is the Glasgow summit all for show? I’m not suggesting we should concede defeat and watch the world burn (though it is, at times, tempting to follow in the pawsteps of our favourite ‘This Is Fine’ cartoon dog meme). But no. What I’m asking is whether it’s realistic to assume that permanent changes will be enforced when we have seen so little progress since the Paris Agreement?

On Monday, António Guterres did not hold back. The United Nations secretary-general deemed it an ‘illusion’ that global efforts to tackle climate change had made significant turnarounds. I wouldn’t exactly call that a promising start.

However, President Biden did recently announce plans for the United States to reel back on methane emissions. For America, one of the top five polluters, this is an important step forward. But it’s one thing to pledge, and another to accomplish. Biden has a deeply divided Congress to face, not to mention a thorn in his side by the name of Senator Joe Manchin. The West Virginia Democrat expressed ‘concerns’ about Biden’s $1.75 trillion spending package that would, for one, cut down on greenhouse gas emissions.

But Manchin may have a point. If Biden wants to spend $555 billion of the package to invest in renewable energy, that is a much-needed boost when it comes to rescuing the planet. But can American taxpayers be assured that their money will go towards a more sustainable planet?

No funds to save the planet

Unlike America, not every country can afford to throw vast sums of money at the climate problem and hope it goes away. COP26 has been a reality check. When it comes to developing countries, many just don’t have the economic might to transition to renewable energy.

India, for instance, relies on coal as a cheap source of fuel. In fact, over 50 per cent of India’s power comes from coal-based power plants. Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi committed the country to net-zero emissions at the summit, there are no guarantees that it won’t backtrack on its 2070 target — which, crucially, is twenty years behind most of the other countries’ 2050 deadline for net-zero emissions.

India, however, is not the only country to demonstrate resistance in reducing carbon emissions. There is a plausible view that long-industrialised nations should bear most of the economic brunt. Take Britain. Once the vanguard of industrialisation, it should now arguably contribute some climate finance to helping wean off less wealthy nations from an overreliance on fossil fuels.

India is not the problem

India’s reluctance towards clean energy is just one part of the problem.

COP26 has also shown that many other countries cannot reach an agreement (and not because of America’s insistence on using Fahrenheit instead of Celsius). The fact that China and Russia — the first and fourth largest carbon emitters — did not attend, speaks volumes. If Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin cannot be compelled to show solidarity by prioritising the common good, the future of this planet becomes that little bit less certain.

One British official has rightly pointed out that certain countries: ‘don’t see the point in making a commitment to a target like 1.5 degrees when we don’t have a clear and detailed plan to achieve it’.

A question then, for us: why continue to avoid disposable plastic like the plague when countries cannot even agree on a definitive goal? Other gloomy doubts arise. How many turtles can we save when, for a decade, nothing has been done to treat the oil spill committed by BP?

I still believe it’s better to do something than nothing at all. But the trouble is that the small actions of many cannot save the planet as effectively as the large commitments made by those at the top.

After COP26 is done and everyone has gone home, how can we be sure that leaders will follow through on their promises and commitments?  Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has done nothing to protect the Amazon rainforest so far. Yet Brazil is one of the signatories of the pledge to end deforestation by 2030.

What will happen if countries fail to comply? Has COP26 established stringent penalties for backtrackers? Will Glasgow turn out to be any different from the Paris Agreement? The future suddenly looks hazier than it did before the anticipated summit.

Just before Glasgow, a handful of world leaders were gathered in Rome for the G20 Summit. There, they were photographed tossing coins for good luck in tackling the climate emergency. If all we have to rely on are wishes from twenty of the world’s leading economies, that tells us more about the efficacy of COP26 and the future of our planet.

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