Kash Jain ’24
From Oct. 31 to Nov. 13, delegates from nearly 200 countries attended the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26. As the world sees the impacts of worsening, largely unbridled climate change, this was an opportunity for world leaders to ensure that we are set on the path to a sustainable future.
The conference ended with its participants agreeing to “phase-down” some fossil fuels, increase commitments to cutting emissions, and increase aid to developing countries. However, this agreement does not place the world on track to avoid increased temperatures beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), a level that scientists say breaching could lead to a significantly increased risk of catastrophe.
World leaders and activists have often been in conflict on climate policy, with the latter consistently saying that the former is failing to act appropriately — and even some of these leaders agree. This includes European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who stated that “COP26 is a step in the right direction… but the work is far from done.” The pact also is not legally binding and many of the commitments are vague, leading some to worry that countries may fail to reach these goals with no consequences.
Climate change is a policy issue that is unlike any other in two critical ways. Firstly, this simply is not an issue that can be put off. Failing to cut emissions will not only exacerbate climate disasters — it will eventually lead us to a point-of-no-return of sorts. Secondly, this is a global problem that necessitates global cooperation and global solutions. While some policy issues may be confined to state borders, climate change is not, nor are its solutions. Individual countries trying to cut down on emissions is good but given the nature of this issue and how it impacts all of humanity, it is one that can only be resolved by the world acting in lockstep. Some have stressed that individual action is necessary to combat climate change effectively. While this may be true, it does not absolve government. An issue of this scale will be best resolved by actors at the same scale: national governments and supranational entities.
The COP26 pact and similar agreements do go in this direction, but nonbinding promises from countries are not enough to ensure that they actually meet their goals. Further, these goals are not enough to ensure that we can actually avert a large-scale climate crisis. We need stronger, higher goals and ensure that the actors involved in meeting these goals are compelled to do so.
This is a collective action problem in some senses — action from all parties is required to prevent a climate crisis. However, it would be unfair to expect all world leaders and countries to act exactly the same way. Emissions are and have been disproportionate, and so must be the actions to mitigate them. But allowing participation in combatting climate change to be viewed as optional is unacceptable — for all parties.
Our future should not be optional, and it should not be beholden to the political desires of world leaders who either fail to take the threat seriously enough or simply do not wish to act.
Therefore, world leaders need to set consequences for states that fail to meet clear goals to reduce emissions so that all parties act. Additionally, these goals need to be aggressive enough to ensure that we can avoid a global temperature increase of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. We need to act in a way that secures the future of our world, and while the COP26 would help mitigate the impacts of climate change, it falls short of what we need in this moment.