The legacy of COP26 and the ongoing climate crisis

Protestors march down Castle Street, singing, waving flags and carrying paper sculptures. Credit: Katherine Wheeler
What impact has the recent climate conference in Glasgow has on the world at large?

By Katherine Wheeler | Comment Editor

It’s Saturday. I am walking towards town. There are a few things I have to pick up for some craft project or another I’m trying to make. It shouldn’t take more than an hour.

I stroll along the edge of campus, through the underpass and out into murky grey skies and a heaving stream of people. There are people twirling, marching, holding sculptures, holding signs, people being wheeled in chairs, toddlers scurrying along beside the crowds. Above the noise of marching feet and curious chatter, I can hear a choir and a lone conductor shouting numbers and cues. It should be a horrible day, grey and tepid, but to spite the rain, thousands of protestors have come to raise their voices: to be heard all the way in Glasgow by world leaders at the COP26 conference.

COP26 Versus The World

The COP26 march took place last November, not only Cardiff but cities, towns and villages across the UK. Climate action groups joined together alongside ordinary people to draw attention to their cause and to demand justice on an overheating climate and government promises. Now, in February, there are few echoes remaining of the COP26 conference. Climate justice is taking a backseat in news coverage; instead, there are headlines on Downing Street investigations and rising military tensions in Europe. Some people are frustrated that Partygate has supposedly stopped the government in its tracks.

To say politics is polarising in 2022 is to make a comical understatement.

In the United States, China, Europe, India, Japan, clean energy stocks are plummeting. Gas prices are hitting record highs and price hikes in the UK threaten to bulldoze the security of low income families. The hikes in gas price are so extreme that the Westminster now intend to introduce compulsory loans to cover the cost the public have no choice but to pay back.

COP26s momentum- if it even had such a thing to begin with- seems to have been lost amongst the general public. Or perhaps this is the wrong way to frame it? It is the case that issues are hitting home more than ever during the pandemic, but these problems aren’t being framed as climate change related.

A Student Perspective

I surveyed fifty people*, forty-four of them students, about their thoughts on COP26’s lasting legacy. Whilst participants were divided on whether protest marches made an impact on the government and whether they, as individuals, had any power of the prevention of climate change, they had one clear consensus. Forty-nine of the fifty participants believed that the government would not stick to its climate goals. Ninety eight percent.

“Forty-nine of the fifty participants believed that the government would not stick to its climate goals.”

Although 78% cared strongly about the negative impacts of climate change and most paid at least a little bit of attention to coverage of the conference, they were unanimous in their mistrust of government promises. It seems that amongst a group of mainly students there is cautious optimism about making an individual difference but that trust in the government to deliver climate change promises is nearly non-existent.

COP26’s promises were criticised heavily by European countries for their compromise. Greta Thunberg even called the conference ‘a failure’ and an exercise in international governments’ ability to ‘create loopholes to benefit themselves’.  It’s true that heavy compromises were made. The drastic action Thunberg has repeatedly demanded from leaders has been lost in changes in wording- the phrase “phasing out” coal turning to “phasing down” in the face of pressure. Where there is mention of “phasing out” in terms of fossil fuel subsidies, no dates were put in place. On other promises, the biggest emitters were notably absent. Where more than 100 countries agreed to cut 30% of methane emissions by 2030, Russia, India and China abstained.

The agreements made by countries during the conference are legally binding. It has to be said that, despite compromises, any progress should mean a step in the direction of a safer climate, even if right now it only exists in document form. Alok Sharma, President of COP26, said after the conference that ‘the commitments […] secured at COP26 were historic. Yet at the moment they are just words on a page.’

What About Cardiff?

The COP26 marches were a moment for hundreds of thousands of people across the UK to be heard, in the hope that they could make a difference to the planet but overwhelmingly so they could make a difference to their local community. In Cardiff, the Save the Northern Meadows (@CardiffSave) group were some of those shouting the loudest. The protest group aims to protect Northern Cardiff’s green space and the ecosystems that accompany it from the building of a hospital site that its members say would be inaccessible and unsuitable for the meadow area. They sang chants at the protest march in November and carried banners alongside, they’ve even appeared on stalls at markets, but it seems as if the destruction of the meadows has begun. On the 14th February, trailers full of tree trunks were seen leaving the area and out through metal construction barriers. By 2030, more than 100 countries pledged to stop deforestation, perhaps even reverse it. Four months on from the promise with the meadows being deforested, when will these words take effect?

“By 2030, more than 100 countries have pledged to stop deforestation.”

Another group present at the march was Cardiff’s branch of Extinction Rebellion (XR). XR’s targets are many and ambitious though its primary aim is clear: the UK must become a net zero country by 2025. However, the COP26 agreement the UK signed committed it to net zero by the middle of the century- 2050. The dates are decades apart. On November 13th, an XR truck with the words ‘COP Has Failed’ adorning the back drove through the Lord Mayor’s show in the centre of London.

So, what does COP26 leave behind? Maybe, above all else, a sense of unease, mistrust and fear for the world’s climate future. Perhaps in another sense, it is a good thing governments are pledging anything at all. In Cardiff, protest groups such as Save the Northern Meadows will continue to fight for tangible action. For them, words on a page mean nothing for ecosystems unless action is taken. Until COP27, it seems the media will be dominated by other issues where the effect of climate change is left implicit. It may be up to those concerned to read between the lines.

Katherine Wheeler Comment

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