Absence of Major World Leaders From COP26 Climate Conference Raises Concerns About Climate Future


Caroline Owen

Over the past two weeks, heads-of-state from all over the globe as well as individuals representing the European Union assembled in Glasgow to tackle one of society’s most pressing issues to date: climate change. The 26th annual UN-sponsored climate conference postponed from 2020, aptly named COP26, has been long considered a high-profile event due to increasing media scrutiny towards the negative effects of climate change on a global scale. However, the majority of the press circulating around this month’s conference profiled the absence of two major international leaders from the conference: President Xi Jinping of China and President Vladimir Putin of the Russian Federation.


Global leaders have undoubtedly faced increasing pressure over the last few years to find a solution to climate change due to the advent of social media. Aside from facilitating the spread of information regarding the reality of our environment, this invention has reared a new generation of “digital activists” headed by Greta Thunberg and other young adults worldwide, many of whom are not afraid to protest, petition, and podcast in order to educate others about our somewhat grim reality. (Increasing global temperatures have caused an increase in extreme and deadly weather events such as wildfires, mass flooding, hurricanes and tornadoes, and drastic heat waves, damaging crops and ruining livelihoods.)


Thus, with the combined pressure of local legislators and the public to find a remedy to the negative impacts of human activity, COP26 has been dubbed as “one of the most important diplomatic meetings to date” and the international community’s “last attempt” to save humanity. However, COP26 is not the first of these so-called “last-ditch” efforts to save the planet, and it certainly won’t be the last.


The international community has collectivized for decades past to work towards reducing greenhouse gas and carbon emissions on a global scale, most notably in 1997 and 2015. The Kyoto Protocol of 1997, widely hailed as the first concerted effort of UN member nations towards climate change mitigation, established national quotas, financial contribution limits, and other frameworks for specific countries to reach committee-designated benchmarks towards reducing emissions. The Paris Climate Agreement, signed by nearly every UN member nation at COP21 in 2015, is considered the modern standard for climate change legislation at an international scale and national membership in the treaty is perhaps the defining indicator of a country’s dedication to saving the planet. 


Despite the hopeful nature of this conference, there is a larger issue at stake that critics say COP26 fails to address, like many of the world’s previous climate conferences: there continue to exist large inequities in the climate change mitigation efforts. While most international leaders are in agreement over climate change’s legitimacy and harm to our environment, there is a vast divide over who should be responsible for responding to human impacts on our environment. Specifically, questions exist over: 

  • Which countries should be responsible for the mitigation efforts?
  • Is contribution determined by those which are the most financially prosperous (GDP) or those with the largest emissions? And should emission be taken at unit value or proportionate to population?
  • Is it the responsibility of “developed” nations such as the United States and United Kingdom, two of the most impactful contributors to the climate crisis, to contribute the most financially?


While mitigating climate change is a responsibility shared by all nations, several factors such as socioeconomic state, financial resources, capability of the government, and ongoing national issues (such as corruption, war, civil war, etc) impact each nation’s ability to adequately respond to this crisis. Thus, mitigation efforts, and also the limelight, are largely left to the “developed world.” This unfortunately can exclude smaller nations, such as those in Africa and Asia, from receiving adequate international aid and attention in matters of environmental issues. 


These concerns were echoed at COP26 by Felix Tshisekedi, the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (also known as the DRC, or the Congo) and chairman of the African Union, an organization of 55 nations across the African continent. In an article published in the Financial Times, Tshisekedi stated that “Africa is tired of waiting [for its turn]” and that revolutionary digital technologies created among African countries have helped citizens in 27 countries reduce their impact on the environment. However, he expressed worries about African nations being eclipsed from the conversation on climate change, despite their immense contributions, simply because they do not contribute the most to global emissions. Tshisekedi wrote that “climate change could wipe out 15 percent of Africa’s gross domestic product by 2030. This means an additional 100m people in extreme poverty by the end of the decade. This is a cruel fate for a continent that contributes so little to global warming.”


In an increasingly politically polarized world, many climate activists and concerned global citizens were hoping that COP26 could finally push the international community towards concrete action to mitigate this crisis. However, despite the extensive ideas that have been proposed to combat this pressing issue over the last thirty years, it is possible that the significant progress the public hopes to see simply will not happen. This is due in part to the opposing national interests of various countries which make it incredibly difficult to reach a census on what action should be taken. For example, the plans that would allow for a reduction of climate emissions and global temperature put significant limits on the creation, usage, and exportation of natural gas and petroleum/crude oil, which form the majority of the economic activity of countries such as Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, and Russia.


The absence of two world superpowers in particular from this month’s conference, both physically and politically, only seems to heighten international anxiety on this issue and perhaps conveys that nations are unwilling to compromise towards this goal at the cost of their economic prosperity. While there were several prominent nations other than Russia and China that didn’t attend COP26, such as Brazil and Mexico, the two aforementioned received the most scrutiny for their vague responses to the crisis and failure to physically attend the committee.


Russian president Vladimir Putin declined to attend the conference stating Covid-19 concerns. However, his administration’s previous remarks on climate change (in a 2019 press conference Putin questioned the origin of global warming being human-made) and its insufficient emissions mitigation efforts have raised concerns within the international community that Russia will continue to expand its economy at the cost of the climate. To elaborate, it is perhaps impossible to suggest that Russia’s government, which is determined to elevate the country to a prominent world power and influence, will abide by the Paris Agreement, as doing so would require a significant cut in the country’s production of natural gas. 


China is another nation whose response to the climate crisis has been worrisome; Xi did not attend the conference but sent a pre-recorded video and manifesto which the committee discussed. In the last twenty years, China’s greenhouse gas and carbon emissions have nearly tripled, both in part to the country’s push for industrialization to compete with the United States and other world powers in the labor field and its increasing population and consumption. China’s largely export-based economy also requires the use of petroleum and other plastics derived from fossil fuels to produce goods, and burning fuel to work factories contributes to deadly airborne fumes.


The country also has not suggested any alternative methods or possible mitigation efforts to its disproportionately large carbon emissions. In an official statement translated from Chinese into both French and English, the Chinese government expressed its desire to work with the international community to find a solution to this crisis, stating “Visions will come true only when we act on them. Parties need to honor their commitments, set realistic targets and visions, and do their best according to national conditions to deliver their climate action measures.” Xi added that “developed countries should not only do more themselves, but should also provide support to help developing countries do better.” While these messages sound promising, China’s own progress towards a green future has been slow. The country is currently rated as “highly insufficient” by the Climate Action Tracker, an international database dedicated to showcasing various nations’ progress towards mitigating their climate impact.


President Biden of the United States criticized both countries’ somewhat apathetic responses to the climate crisis, stating that China “basically didn’t show up in terms of any commitments to deal with climate change” and that he was disappointed in both China’s and Russia’s failure to adequately mitigate the issue.


As the conference continues until the 11th of November, it is unclear what the fate of this meeting will turn out to be or if a new resolution will be drafted. Furthermore, China and Russia show no signs of slowing down industrialization or natural gas exportation at the cost of their economic development. However, we must remain hopeful that environmental advocates and the American government will continue to press for greater environmental protections and limits on emissions, and hopefully see substantive international action taken on this issue soon.