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Forum: Are large-scale climate conferences effective?

International conferences like COP26 cannot create meaningful change without capable leaders and cooperative governments
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How effective are global climate conferences? ALOYSIUS WONG/THE VARSITY
How effective are global climate conferences? ALOYSIUS WONG/THE VARSITY

The 26th United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference (COP26) was a global climate summit where some of the world’s most influential leaders gathered to mitigate the detrimental effects of the climate crisis. However, it can be difficult to determine whether any tangible results come from these large, international conferences. Below, two contributors discuss the conditions these conferences require for success: competent leaders looking out for their nations, and governments willing to collaborate for a brighter future.


World leaders determine climate conferences’ success

COP26 brought together some of the most powerful leaders in the world to fight the climate crisis, aiming to reduce humans’ carbon footprint and protect natural habitats and communities while securing net zero global carbon emissions by the middle of the century. I believe that the dedication world leaders have to fighting the climate crisis will determine our success in diminishing its detrimental effects. In addition, I believe that leaders who attend climate conferences such as COP26 are making decisions that also benefit their own individual nations.

Leaders are an integral part of any battle. As such, the competency and beliefs of the world’s leaders determine how effective we are at battling the climate crisis. Therefore, in determining which countries are committed to tackling climate issues, we must ask which countries actually attended COP26. Presidents Xi Jinping, Jair Bolsonaro, and Vladimir Putin notably did not attend. 

What do these leaders have in common? The three of them hold controversial beliefs concerning what they can and cannot do with their state’s authority. For example, more than one million ethnic Uyghurs are enduring human rights violations in Xinjiang under President Xi Jinping’s leadership. In short, authoritarianism appears to underlie these leaders’ political strategies and actions.  

While it may seem like I am going on a tangent, what I am trying to convey is that competent leaders who represent countries with strong democratic institutions are the leaders who can best combat the climate crisis. For example, a climate action tracker assessment suggests that Russia’s efforts are critically insufficient in its battle against the climate crisis. This very notion is unsurprising, considering President Putin’s absence during COP26. 

One problem regarding COP26 is that even if countries participate, there are no sufficient legally binding contracts that come out of it. Hence, there are no measures to force countries to lower their carbon emissions. Declarations that are not deemed legally binding prevent states and corporations from having to take legal responsibility for their malpractices around climate change. A lack of legal repercussions will not encourage nations to cooperate with global emergencies like climate change. 

However, this should not undermine the fact that through conferences like COP26, countries and leaders worldwide are making some effort to collaborate regarding global emergencies. Some effort is better than none. 

For instance, countries can invest in green energy, which can contribute to economic growth. More economic production — including from an increase in trade — makes nations wealthier. Moreover, when states engage in trade, this can warrant the needed diversification to transition toward a low-carbon world, conveying the benefits of large-scale climate conferences that highlight the significance of cooperation.

Leaders who demonstrate effective leadership skills — like being able to collaborate on global crises — are the ones who can increase their exports of green energy throughout the world. In short, if any nation is interested in maximizing its resources for the future, especially regarding trade, tackling the climate crisis will be necessary.

George Daniel Agia is a third-year international business, economics, and political science student at UTSC.

 

Climate conferences do achieve their purpose

The issue with climate conferences is that people tend to overestimate — and have often overestimated — their intended purpose and the way they operate. The common assumption is that a climate conference will ‘solve’ global warming, curb climate change, and revolutionize governments. So much pressure is put on climate conferences to have a notable effect that when none of those grandiose expectations are met, the public is always quick to criticize them, and controversial questions concerning the effectiveness of climate conferences are brought up.

However, the reality is a little more complicated and involves a little less action. Climate conferences don’t have the capacity to single-handedly produce groundbreaking change, nor are they supposed to be responsible for it. Instead, they are more like consultation meetings, where participating governments create blueprints. A climate conference is a very preliminary stage of action. It is a discussion platform for countries to better understand the context of the issue from differing perspectives, reach a consensus on the status quo, and draft sets of goals for the long term. 

Global media recently covered the COP26 Conference in Glasgow, a session for world leaders and prominent climate activists to provide input, reach a consensus, and decide on some goals — and take no immediate action beyond that. Similarly, in the official Paris Agreement, the preamble is filled with acknowledging the issue of climate change and noting its importance, while the rest of the articles tell what countries shall do or will aim for. 

When we look at climate conferences from that angle — not as the solution to climate change but a single component of it — then yes, they are achieving their purpose. Members at COP26 have successfully reached an agreement on the phasing out of coal, among multiple other provisions. The Paris Climate Accords produced a worldwide agreement to reduce carbon emissions and stop the global temperature from increasing beyond two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and many other previous summits have concluded with similar types of goals.

It’s important to distinguish this difference in the real role of climate conferences, particularly for when we find they produce results that are less powerful than desired. When the news came out that countries were, at best, barely hitting their proclaimed quotas under the Paris Climate Agreement, people were quick to judge the efficacy of the conference itself, asking whether conferences work at all. 

However, the wrong questions are being raised. This lack of action taken shouldn’t be held as the conference’s fault, but rather the governments’. Governments are in charge of taking the blueprints that are created at the conference and bringing them to fruition through policy. Blaming the complacency of governments on a single meeting of advisors and ambassadors is just nonsensical. Rather than asking if conferences work at all, we should instead criticize the bureaucracy for not putting in the work necessary to create change.

Conferences are quite crucial. They set the groundwork for international cooperation, which is especially important on larger global-scale issues, and they allow for the creation of treaties, goals, and standards. However, at the end of the day, it depends on the ethics and commitment of each country to meet the threshold those conferences set for there to be real change in the fight against the climate crisis.

Isabella Liu is a first-year social sciences student at Victoria College.