Our Leaders Failed Us at COP26. To Succeed at COP27, They’ll Need to Put Self-Interest Aside

“How late it was, how late.”James Kelman, a Glaswegian writer and novelist who was born in 1927, shocked the literary world by winning the Booker Prize.

His raw portrayal of poverty in Glasgow tenements and discrimination was a world apart from the conference halls of the Clyde. However, I found the title to be a consistent theme during the two weeks that I was in Glasgow attending the COP26 climate summit.

How late it was, how late indeed for world leaders to take seriously the existential threat posed by the climate crisis, despite decades’ worth of warnings from scientists and those bearing the full force of its impacts. Even though it was late, they still failed to take on the challenges. Their national commitments collectively constitute an act of dereliction on a global level and are a damning failure in leadership and diplomacy.
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Granted, some progress was made in the negotiations, including a commitment to double finance to developing countries for adaptation, and – significantly – a requirement for countries with weak climate targets to “revisit and strengthen” them over the next 12 months.

Side-deals to reduce methane, coal and reverse deforestation were reached. Some countries also pledged to stop oil and gas production.

But overall, the refusal to act at the scale and speed required means the world remains on course for at least a 2.4°C increase over preindustrial levels, with terrible consequences for the lives and livelihoods of millions of people in every part of the planet.

Learn more No One Really Feels Happy at COP26

Faced with this inexorable denial, it’s time to name those who have hindered the negotiation process at Glasgow.

The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, has a critical role to play in pressuring countries to meet their obligations, not only to the Paris Agreement but the wider UN Sustainable Development Goals and the principles of the UN Charter.

These include G20 nations that have not increased their 2030 emissions reduction targets (Australia, Brazil, China, Mexico), as well as those such as Saudi Arabia or India, who insist on reducing the language about fossil fuels.

It was certainly welcome that the United States and China delivered a joint statement on future co-operation, and this now needs to be fleshed out with practical steps and commitments, acknowledging that neither country has shown the leadership befitting their status as the world’s two biggest carbon emitters.

Alok Sharma, U.K. Minister charged with the COP Presidency’s leadership, was well-respected for his efforts. However, the United Kingdom did not achieve the leader-to–leader diplomacy necessary to make a better agreement.

Sometimes, international negotiations can be dangerously flawed. After fraught and flawed summits, diplomats dust themselves down and resign themselves to “business as usual” at the next gathering, recycling pious platitudes to little effect.

It is absolutely unacceptable that this should happen. It will be critical to fill the gaps left unfilled in Glasgow over the next 12 months, including Sharm El Sheikh’s COP27. The climate crisis is too severe for leaders to ignore.

This pressure on politicians must go hand-in-hand with activists around the world who continue to fight for climate justice. These courageous people and growing numbers of business leaders are essential to the political mindset.

Learn more It’s so hard to understand what really happened at COP26

The thing that gave me hope was seeing young people from developing and small island countries in action. They explained both their frustrations and their determination to make this planet more habitable.

Also, I took inspiration from the financial and corporate sectors that are now focusing their entrepreneurial and investment efforts to create a new world beyond fossil fuels. The momentum is evidently with those who want to see change.

However, my optimism is temperated by growing fears that climate diplomacy will continue to be controlled by politicians’ shallow self-interests and undermine the trust of the younger generation in the multilateral system as well as the rules-based international order.

COP26 proved that leaders can be brought to the table by the UN-backed framework on climate change. It is too late to abandon the multilateral system. Only countries that work together can address climate change.

The next COP must see all sides step up to agree on a stronger common agenda. It is the responsibility of Egypt’s Presidency to bring civil society voices into discussions, regardless how disconcerting this might be for certain rulers.

During the COVID-19 epidemic, African leaders demonstrated that they are willing to speak up for vaccine equity and have done so repeatedly. Now is the right time to do the same on climate change. The African Union will play a crucial role in coordinating the continent’s engagement before COP27.

It is indeed too late. With resilience and determination, however, I believe we can create the new exciting, innovative world we want: A safer, better, more secure, and healthier shared home.


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