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  • Michelle Gopaul

COP26 - The Met Gala of International Climate Politics

Lights, Cameras, but where was the real climate action?

COP26 was more than just a conference—it was a spectacle. The multi-week event—also the largest ever hosted by the UK and most significant for climate change since the 2015 Paris Agreement— welcomed the most influential global leaders and the most prominent names in climate activism. It was the place to be for “anyone who’s anyone” in climate change mitigation and policy making. At its core, though, the conference’s purpose was to gather the 197 nations included in the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and uphold the Paris Agreement to “keep 1.5 alive.”

However, so many aspects of the conference contradicted the climate-forward image they were so strongly pushing.

Largely due to air travel, COP26, which had a major focus on reducing carbon emissions globally, had its own carbon footprint of 102,500 tons (equivalent to the annual emissions of 8,000 U.K. citizens). While a large carbon footprint can be expected of any international gathering, this COP’s emissions were around double that of 2019’s COP25 in Madrid (51,101 tons).

To add to the irony, the largest delegation present at the conference were fossil fuel lobbyists. There were 503 attendees linked to fossil fuel interests, which was a higher number than that of any single nation (Brazil having the largest with 473 delegates). Youth activist Magali Cho Lin Wing of the UNICEF U.K. Youth Advisory Board noticed this trend in attendees, and recalled, "When I arrived at COP26, I could only see white middle-aged men in suits . And I thought, 'Hold on is this a climate conference or some corporate event? Is this what you came for? To swap business cards?'"

The irony and ostentatiousness of the conference was a major point of criticism from activists in Glasgow protests surrounding the conference. One demonstration featured climate campaigners sporting large masks of world leaders recreating the Netflix hit Squid Game, saying “stop playing climate games.” They are drawing a parallel between the conference and the deadly games of the show: both flashy, extravagant events that have the whole world watching, while the people behind them commodify human existence and toy with human rights. The world leaders may not do so as obviously and extremely as those in charge of the Squid Game, but there is a massive market for the greatest contributing sources to climate change responsible for causing massive harm to vulnerable populations, and they are the ones leading it. In this sense, the conference—being such a grand meeting with little follow-through—feels like a cruel joke toward humanity in the same way Squid Game does.

A “Squid Game” themed protest in Glasgow during COP26. // Scott Heppel l/ AP -

Similar criticism comes from Greta Thunberg’s speech at Italy’s September Youth4Climate summit, where she calls out leaders for constantly making empty promises by referring to the terms they’ve adapted such as “Build Back Better” as no more than “Blah blah blah.”

So was COP26 just another example of ‘blah blah blah?’ Even with its hypocrisy, was there any significant progress to come from the conference?

On one hand, it technically fulfilled the purpose of a COP perfectly. Viewing the event solely as a conference of parties, it accomplished everything it set out to. The parties met, drafted an agreement, and just by meeting, the nations did ensure that warming will be reduced more than it would have without the conference. The new pledges are set to reduce warming by -0.1°C, and even if that change seems underwhelming, for even each tenth of a degree cooler the earth is kept, countless disasters can be prevented and lives saved.

But this conference was not just any conference. In this day and age, as the climate deadlines come closer than ever and the damage done becomes more fatal each day, COP26 is considered one of the last chances international leaders have to solidify their plans and take action by moving away from fossil fuels, yet it fell short on major expectations. China and Russia—two of the world’s wealthiest nations and most significant emitters—were not present. The final agreement to come from the conference, The Glasgow Climate Pact, promised to phase out the use of coal entirely. In the final draft, however, they weakened the language to say “phase down” instead.

While many outcomes of COP26, most notably its promises regarding coal, were unprecedented, they still are not enough to “keep 1.5 alive.” As shown by Carbon Brief’s graph, COP26’s commitments will reduce warming, but not nearly enough to prevent it from passing 1.5*C.

Progress on Near and Long-term Climate Commitments - “Do COP26 promises keep global warming below 2C?” -

And so, despite any irony and unnecessary ostentatiousness of COP26, there was some progress made that will save lives long-term and positively contribute to the international effort to mitigate climate change. However, with the rapidly increasing severity of the threats posed by global warming, the new pact was not and will not be enough to save the planet on its own.

To find full summaries of all of the COP26 pledges, here is some further reading:

Unfamiliar with any climate terminology? Here’s a quick guide:


Clark, S. (2021). COP26: success or failure? In YouTube.

Climate Change: What is COP26, and why is it happening in Glasgow in 2020? - CBBC Newsround. (2021, October 31).

Evans, S., Gabbatiss, J., McSweeney, R., Chandrasekhar, A., Tandon, A., Viglione, G., Hausfather, Z., You, X., Goodman, J., & Hayes, S. (2021, November 15). COP26: Key outcomes agreed at the UN climate talks in Glasgow. Carbon Brief.

Friedman, L. (2021, October 20). What Is COP26? And Other Questions About the Big U.N. Climate Summit. The New York Times.

Hassan, J. (2021, September 29). Greta Thunberg says world leaders’ talk on climate change is “blah blah blah.” Washington Post.

Hausfather, Z., & Forster, P. (2021, November 10). Analysis: Do COP26 promises keep global warming below 2C? Carbon Brief.

McCarthy, J. (2021, November 9). Squid games, poetry, and drinking oil: 9 powerful moments of activism at COP26. Global Citizen.

McGrath, M. (2021, November 8). COP26: Fossil fuel industry has largest delegation at climate summit. BBC News.

Newburger, E. (2021, November 12). The COP26 conference set a record for CO2 emissions, with air travel the main culprit. CNBC.

Santora, M., Troianovski, A., Gall, C., & Friedman, L. (2021, November 1). Who’s attending (Biden and Modi), and who isn’t (Putin and Xi). The New York Times.

The Associated Press. (2021a, November 5). Clean up your mess, young activists tell leaders at COP26 climate summit. NPR.

The Associated Press. (2021b, November 13). At COP26, nations strike a climate deal with coal compromise. NPR.

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