The bold declarations on ending deforestation and transitioning to zero emissions vehicles that emerged from the negotiations were replete with caveats and were not endorsed by the states and private sector firms that had the power to make them meaningful.
As for the US-China commitment to cooperate “to tackle the climate crisis,” it was “thin gruel, even by UN standards.”
“The whole event had a prepackaged feel to it,” Yakabuski concludes, “and more than a whiff of self-indulgence among the participants who live for such gatherings and the networking opportunity they represent.”
There was a time when I would have agreed with him, but I have come to believe that to recognize the value of international conferences, you can’t take them literally.
The way I see it, international gatherings like COP26 make four significant contributions to efforts to effect global environment reform.
First, the institutionalization of an annual meeting all but forces participating member-states to review their environmental positions on a regular basis.
In liberal democracies like Canada, this means that environmental policy receives serious attention from Cabinet every year.
It is that attention, rather than the details of the policy, that can often make the difference between progress and stagnation.
Second, the networking opportunities decried by Yakabuski are in fact terribly important geopolitically, even if their significance cannot be measured in traditional terms.
International conferences enable states with shared interests to establish new partnerships, to gather new intelligence, and even to deal with issues that have little to do with the meeting itself.
It would be foolish to assume, for example, that Prime Minister Trudeau limited his conversations in Scotland with his fellow heads of state and government to the environment.
Third, the outcomes of these conferences serve as signals to the private sector. In doing so, they affect decision-making on the investments in new technologies that will be so critical to reform in the future.
I find it hard to believe that India’s adamant refusal to support the phase out of coal as a source of energy will deter speculators from acknowledging that the end of coal as a viable investment is near.
Finally, end-of-conference declarations shape international norms.
Over time, the global default position on the need for environmental reform has shifted.
Whereas delegates used to debate whether the science of climate change was real, now they argue over how urgently they need to respond.
National publics that pay little attention to world affairs internalize these shifts, often without even knowing that they have.
In this case, the acknowledgement (or validation) of the reality of climate change has led them to demand more of their governments.
So, sure, the COP26 conference delegates spent hours debating – perhaps sanctimoniously at times – the inclusion or removal of commas, semicolons, adverbs, and adjectives in statements that the overwhelming majority of us will never notice.
And, sure, the resultant conference declaration was aspirational, unenforceable, and is unlikely to be fulfilled.
But process matters in diplomacy. It draws attention, strengthens relationships, sends signals to the public and to the private sector, and moves international goalposts.
The problem is not events like COP26, it’s our expectations of them.
The best summary I've seen of COP26 thus far is this one by the always thoughtful Adam Radwanski. On the broader subject of environmental politics, look out for Michael Manulak’s forthcoming book, Change in Global Environmental Politics: Temporal Focal Points and the Reform of International Institutions.
To be notified of my next post, follow me on Twitter @achapnick.
You can subscribe to my newsletter at https://buttondown.email/achapnick.