World Leaders Drag Their Feet at COP26

Swedish activist Greta Thunberg said that world leaders are just "pretending" to take the climate crisis seriously.

COP26 protests at night. Protestors hold a sign that says "End Climate Betrayal."
Peter Summers / Getty Images

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, has been billed as the “last best chance” to prevent climate meltdown but so far world leaders have failed to announce bold carbon emission cuts to halt the rapid temperature increase that planet Earth has suffered in recent years.

Nonetheless, the conference in Glasgow, Scotland, has seen some significant announcements this week. Approximately 100 countries issued a pledge to end deforestation by 2030 and nearly 90 nations have joined an effort led by the U.S. and the European Union to reduce methane emissions by 30% over the same timeframe. 

In addition, the U.S. rejoined a coalition of nations calling for more drastic reductions in emissions, and India, the world's fourth-largest carbon dioxide emitter (after China, the U.S., and the EU), has pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2070.

But experts are skeptical about some of these announcements. The 30% methane target is too low to significantly slow warming and some large methane emitters, including China, Russia, and India have not joined the effort. On top of that, it’s unclear if the pledge is actually binding and many countries have not said how they plan to meet this target. 

The world’s forests absorb roughly a third of carbon emissions so protecting them must be a centerpiece of efforts to stabilize the climate. 

The problem is that although world leaders have pledged to end deforestation before, the global tree cover decreased by 10% from 2001 to 2020. And it’s unclear how the new agreement will be enforced or whether countries face penalties if they fail to reach their targets.

“Signing the declaration is the easy part,” said U.N. secretary-general António Guterres. “It’s essential that it’s implemented now, for people and the planet.”

Activists say they feel “deflated” and “hopeless” due to the lack of bold commitments at COP26 and many complain that while they have been left out of the summit, fossil fuel companies have been given a platform.


Dozens of world leaders have attended COP26, including U.S. President Joe Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and most EU leaders. However, the presidents of China, Russia, and Brazil skipped the meeting. 

Critics argue that their absence signals that climate change is not a priority for these countries. Biden said Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian leader Vladimir Putin "made a big mistake.” 

"We showed up. And by showing up, we’ve had a profound impact on the way, I think, the rest of the world is looking at the United States and its leadership role," Biden said.

However, Biden’s climate agenda is against the ropes in Congress amid strong opposition from Republicans and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, who has strong ties to the fossil fuel industry. The West Virginia Senator has reportedly forced the Democratic leadership to drop some key climate change provisions from the reconciliation bill, including a measure that would have forced power companies to boost renewable energy generation.

Although the framework includes some $555 billion for renewable energy and electric vehicles, it does not scrap fossil fuel subsidies. On top of that, Biden himself urged oil-producing countries to pump more crude in the short term this week, saying that the “idea that we're going to be able to move to renewable energy overnight” is “just not rational.”

In another sign that the world is not ready to end its addiction to fossil fuels, BP this week announced plans to invest $1.5 billion in its U.S. shale oil and gas operations in 2022, up from $1 billion this year.

Negotiations over emissions continue at COP26, which is set to conclude on Nov. 12. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he is “cautiously optimistic” about the possibility of a global deal to limit the average global temperature from rising above 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius).

Talking to a group of protesters outside the center where the summit is taking place, Swedish activist Greta Thunberg said that world leaders are just "pretending" to take the climate crisis seriously. 

"Change is not going to come from inside there, that's not leadership. This is leadership. We say no more 'bla, bla, bla'... we're sick and tired of it and we're gonna make the change whether they like it or not," she said.