The Irony of a Climate Change Conference: COP26

I recently had the opportunity to travel to COP26 as a member of the University of Michigan’s Delegation. What an experience! Attending events and plenaries where the discussions of climate action were taking place was exciting and yet frustrating. Frustrating because the negotiations were not progressing fast enough and were not aggressive enough to combat climate change. The world had its eyes on COP26 and COP26 let the world down.

The University of Michigan Week 2 Delegation

Aside from the political frustration and navigating the COVID-19 pandemic at an international conference, the conference itself is quite ironic. The vast number of delegates flying to Glasgow, emitting enormous amounts of greenhouse gas emissions to attend a climate change conference is simply contradictory to COP’s mission. How can COP and the world’s leaders pledge to fight climate change when their actions are hypocritical to the climate actions they preach?

COP26 was a carbon-neutral conference and the first COP to achieve validation using PAS2060 international standard on carbon neutrality. The carbon emissions that cannot be eliminated with sustainable alternatives were offset through the purchase of UNFCCC-recognized offsets. However, offsets do not eliminate the source of the problem and are a cop out for the actor to avoid directly reducing emissions or taking meaningful action.

The waste generated from COP26 was immense that it garnered media attention like The New York Times article Outside Climate Summit, Trash in Glasgow Piles High. I was able to see firsthand the waste produced by the conference and I know that the UK could have done better. Specifically, the plastic waste created from COP26. Let us dive deeper into the plastic pollution crisis and its dependency on fossil fuels.

Plastics are made from fossil fuels. Production of plastics accelerated after WWII so many of us cannot imagine a world without it. Plastics have transformed many things and made a lot of products possible, easy, and convenient for humans. Unfortunately, plastic does not just disappear when tossed and so now we have gotten ourselves into a plastic crisis.  About 8 million tons of plastic waste enters the oceans annually. The harm that that causes aquatic wildlife as well as coastal nations that end up getting plastic washed up on shores = devastating! Not to mention the microplastics that end up finding its way up the food chain and inside humans.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch – The Ocean Cleanup

It seemed that the world was progressing forward with campaigns to end single-use plastics and to find alternatives to plastic packaging until the COVID-19 pandemic took over. People everywhere switched back to plastic-everything during the phase of unsureness of how the virus was transmitted. But now the world must switch back to refocusing on phasing out single-use plastics.

COP26 was focused on “keeping the 1.5 degrees alive”. A phrase that references the Paris Agreement and keeping global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees C. However, it seems that COP26 failed to recognize that fossil fuels and plastic go hand-in-hand. COP26 failed to recognize that plastic at all is an environmental threat that goes with the climate crisis.

The only existing international treaty addressing marine debris on a global scale is MARPOL, which bans ships from dumping plastic waste into the oceans as of 1988. Although that does not seem like a long time ago, we live in a rapidly changing world and it is important to maintain policy as new technology and information becomes available. Countries, specifically developed nations, need to reevaluate their plastic production and consumption manners and enact legislation that phases out single-use plastics. Opposing viewpoints would argue that the medical field cannot eliminate their dependency on plastics. I agree that plastic is seen as hygienic and important for medical use but that does not mean we cannot find ways to properly dispose these plastics or recycle them while searching for alternatives that still maintain medical integrity.

Recycling is itself an issue because of the lack of infrastructure and proper recycling techniques. Only 9% of all plastic ever made has been recycled into new plastics. Only 9%! Recycling plastic by conventional means is difficult and the demand for buying recycled plastic pellets (to be melted and shaped into a new plastic item) is low. But if the human race wants to continue living and in a sustainable manner, there has got to be a major change in lifestyles, a revamp to the recycling system, better product designs, in addition to government action about the plastic crisis.

While COP will continue to be an ironic conference with the amount of greenhouse gas emissions created by tens of thousands of people traveling to negotiate climate action and creating tons of waste, this brings about more questions. First, some numbers. In total, 39,509 people registered for the conference: 21,967 representatives from parties and observer states; 14,033 observers; and 3,781 media. At COP26, almost all negotiations were closed off for only party delegates. This was frustrating as an observer and made me question “what is the purpose of the observer if we cannot a) observe the negotiations and b) voice our opinions and concerns?”. Does COP need to have this many observers flying to the conference? Can it reduce the number from each organization or make it more accessible virtually? Policymaking is a very slow process and having countries meet every year seems to be redundant – does COP need to meet each year? What if only party delegates met to negotiate (and this would include representatives from Indigenous Peoples as well)? By reducing numbers, COP reduces its carbon footprint. But on the opposite, we would be eliminating the opportunity that people like me got in addition to eliminating the stage for many organizations to showcase their climate projects from all over the world.

However COP proceeds in the years to come, its outcomes must be more aggressive and legally binding. Every year countries provide the same excuses “we need more time” but the climate crisis will not wait for anyone. COP27 will be under extreme pressure to contribute more to climate action.

Natasha Dacic is a PhD student in the Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering Department at the University of Michigan. Dacic’s COP26 trip was funded by the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Student Development Grant and the College of Engineering Graduate Student Co-Curricular Experiences Grant.

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