Explainer

The Gap Between Talk and Action on Climate Is on Full Display in Glasgow

Environmental disasters are rapidly engulfing the world. Can bureaucracy meet their pace?

An aerial picture shows smoke rising from a forest fire outside Berdigestyakh, in Sakha, Siberia.
An aerial picture shows smoke rising from a forest fire outside Berdigestyakh, in Sakha, Siberia, on July 27. Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images

Since last week, hundreds of world leaders and environmental advocates have descended on Glasgow, Scotland, to attend the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP26, in a renewed commitment to mitigate the future impacts of climate change.

So far, the pressure is on: Leaders have made pledges to phase out fossil fuel projects such as coal and gas, expand the use of cleaner technologies through new standards and global policies, and end deforestation by 2030. African countries collectively called on G-20 countries—which emit some 80 percent of the world’s harmful greenhouse gases—to stand true to their 2009 commitment to give poorer countries $100 billion per year to protect themselves against climate change.

Yet some of the world’s biggest perpetrators of environmental harm were notably quiet: Although both countries sent delegations to the talks, China’s Xi Jinping was not present, nor was Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who refused to join more than 100 countries in a pledge to limit methane emissions.⁠

Since last week, hundreds of world leaders and environmental advocates have descended on Glasgow, Scotland, to attend the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP26, in a renewed commitment to mitigate the future impacts of climate change.

So far, the pressure is on: Leaders have made pledges to phase out fossil fuel projects such as coal and gas, expand the use of cleaner technologies through new standards and global policies, and end deforestation by 2030. African countries collectively called on G-20 countries—which emit some 80 percent of the world’s harmful greenhouse gases—to stand true to their 2009 commitment to give poorer countries $100 billion per year to protect themselves against climate change.

Yet some of the world’s biggest perpetrators of environmental harm were notably quiet: Although both countries sent delegations to the talks, China’s Xi Jinping was not present, nor was Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who refused to join more than 100 countries in a pledge to limit methane emissions.

An aerial view shows a partially deforested area and partially forested area of the Amazon rainforest.

An aerial view shows a deforested area of the Amazon rainforest in Lábrea, Brazil, on Sept. 15.Mauro Pimentel/AFP via Getty Images

Meanwhile, the planet has continued to burn, flood, and overheat: This year alone, wildfires ripped across millions of acres in California, Australia, and Siberia; flash floods pounded through cities in Germany, Brazil, and the northeastern United States; and sea ice in the Arctic dwindled to the second-lowest levels on record, exacerbating its grim march from a perennially frozen region to an entirely different climate altogether.

These are the incredible stakes the world faces—but will the high-level talks result in newfound commitments to the environment and those most vulnerable to the climate crisis?⁠ We’ve rounded up the year’s most defining photos to make sense of what has come to pass and what lies ahead as leaders reckon with their decisions.


The biggest carbon emitters are still stuck on coal.

Shepherds watch over their flocks inside the Pavagada Solar Park in Kyataganacharulu village, Karnataka, India.

Shepherds watch over their flocks inside the Pavagada Solar Park in Kyataganacharulu village, Karnataka, India, on Oct. 11.Abhishek Chinnappa/Getty Images

Last week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the most ambitious climate commitment his country has made to date: pledging to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2070. It’s part of an aggressive five-point plan that includes moving the country toward getting 50 percent of its energy from solar and other renewables by 2030.

By 2022, the government plans to create at least 50 solar farms with a capacity of 500 megawatts each, as it seeks to reach 500 gigawatts in renewable energy capacity by 2030. (1 gigawatt of energy can power as many as 750,000 homes.) So far, 42 solar farms have been built, one of which covers tens of thousands of acres across desert in Bhadla, Rajasthan, and is the largest of its kind in the world.

India is the world’s fourth-biggest emitter of carbon dioxide after China, the United States, and the European Union; as such, many welcomed Modi’s announcement. However, India is still heavily dependent on coal, and Modi has resisted signing on to an international pledge to phase out coal. China and the United States, the other two largest coal consumers in the world, have also declined to join the pledge, though China did pledge in September to stop building new coal-fired power plants abroad.

According to research by the climate-focused financial analytics company TransitionZero, the world needs to shut down some 3,000 coal-fired power plants before 2030 to prevent global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius compared with preindustrial levels, the target set at the 2015 Paris climate summit.

A child wearing a face mask rides on a scooter along a street with ginkgo trees with bright yellow leaves on a foggy and polluted day in Beijing.

A child wearing a face mask rides on a scooter along a street with ginkgo trees on a foggy and polluted day in Beijing on November 6.Jade Gao/AFP via Getty Images

Xi’s absence from COP26 was noticeable, as China is the leading emitter of greenhouse gases, and cities from Beijing to Hotan to Kashgar are among the most polluted in the world. Undoubtedly, whatever China decides to commit to to help the environment, its actions will make a difference to the rest of the world due to its sizable population and its exponentially growing economy. Some experts contend the next great-power competition will be over the strength of climate change commitments made by China and the United States.


It’s getting hot (and dry) in here.

A man works at the Rhone Glacier partially covered with insulating foam to prevent it from melting due to global warming near Gletsch, Switzerland on October 27.

A man works at the Rhone Glacier, partially covered with insulating foam to prevent it from melting due to global warming, near Gletsch, Switzerland, on Oct. 27.Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

In Switzerland, researchers are fighting to keep the country’s oldest glaciers intact, as seen in the above image of the Rhone Glacier, which is partially covered with insulating foam to prevent it from melting away. But ahead of COP26, leaked documents showed that the country was among several rich nations that fought to play down the need to cut emissions in the fight against climate change and even worked to stifle discussions about providing financial support to developing countries to meet those reduction targets.

While Switzerland reinforced its commitment to halve its greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and achieve climate neutrality by 2050 during the talks, critics say that doesn’t go far enough. In fact, if all countries followed the same path, the planet’s temperature could rise by 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, which is 2.5 degrees higher than the limit set in the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

Even the world’s iciest region—several latitudes north of Switzerland—has faced uncharacteristic change: The Arctic is “the epicenter of warmth for the entire globe,” Brian Brettschneider, a researcher at the International Arctic Research Center, told Foreign Policy last March. The entire region is warming three times faster than the rest of the world, threatening infrastructure set atop melting permafrost and decimating the area’s fragile fauna.

Experts warn that a melting Arctic would pose devastating consequences for the world if COP commitments continue to be unmet: If all of the Earth’s ice ever melted, it would mean severe sea level rise by more than 195 feet, more intense heat waves and droughts worldwide, and even a change in the planet’s rotation.

The world’s warmest region has gotten even warmer: This summer, the Middle East recorded skyrocketing temperatures—as high as 127.8 degrees Fahrenheit in Kuwait and 123.8 degrees in Iran, as FP columnist Anchal Vohra noted in August. Vohra argued that there are inarguable linkages between poor governance, urbanization, civil unrest, and an environmentally uninhabitable region.

Yet, as with many parts of the world, there’s still a struggle to keep countries in this region honest with their climate commitments. In the same leaked documents that outed Switzerland’s diplomatic manipulations, Saudi Arabia—the world’s largest exporter of oil—was among the cohort of rich countries that worked to play down the need to cut heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions.

Ahead of COP26, Riyadh committed to reaching net-zero carbon emissions within the country by 2060, but oil exports remain a critical piece to the Saudi economy, and the country shows no sign of stopping its export of the depleting fossil fuel. The fossil fuel industry has had the largest delegation at the summit these last two weeks, but critics are wary that its presence is more for show and about preserving the status quo.

Pictured above, Turkey is facing its own climate demons, as it is the last of the G-20 nations by far to embrace the 2015 Paris climate accords, which the government has implemented just this week. Despite the recent embrace of greener principals, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan canceled his trip to the high-level talks. Rising temperatures are also causing literal boogie monsters in the water: Phytoplankton in the form of a jellylike slime have proliferated the country’s marine biomes since 2007—a direct result of rising global temperatures.


Indigenous people are finally recognized for their good stewardship.

The environmental defender Melvin Akmad shows the scars of his gunshot wound when he was shot by assailants while he was resting inside a ranger station inside the Masugi Georeserve, in Manila, Philippines, on November 3.

The environmental defender Melvin Akmad shows the scars of a gunshot wound he received in July while he was resting at a ranger station inside the Masungi Georeserve, in Manila, the Philippines, on Nov. 3.Jes Aznar/Getty Images

Recent years have seen a rise in the visibility of Indigenous climate change activists and a shift toward granting Indigenous communities greater legal and political leverage to push their climate change agendas forward.

Despite the brighter spotlight, threats against Indigenous climate change activists persist, and last year was the deadliest for Indigenous activists on record. For the eighth straight year, the Philippines was ranked as Asia’s deadliest country for land and environmental defenders, but such dangers are also seen in Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil.

Indigenous people from the Amazon rainforest perform a sacred blessing ritual at Cormonachan Woodlands in Glasgow, Scotland.

Indigenous people from the Amazon rainforest perform a sacred blessing ritual at Cormonachan Woodlands in the Argyll Forest Park, Scotland, on Nov. 7.Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Last week, world leaders agreed to grant $1.7 billion of funding to Indigenous communities worldwide for their efforts to protect areas most susceptible to the negative impacts of climate change. It’s said to be just the start of a larger and long-term relationship between Indigenous communities and international governing bodies, especially since studies show that lands protected by Indigenous communities worldwide tend to have less deforestation and greater biodiversity.

Despite the unprecedented surge in funding, a lot of the pressure put on by Indigenous activists has happened outside the COP26 venue. More than 100,000 protesters marched the streets of Glasgow to raise awareness of climate change’s impact on Indigenous communities and the global south in the largest protest in the city’s history since 2003 protests against the war in Iraq.

As NPR reported this week, the Indigenous climate activist Ruth Miller was invited to speak at a COP26 Indigenous peoples event with the president of COP26 but ultimately was prevented from speaking due to time constraints. It’s but one signal that bolstering the relationship between Indigenous communities and the international governing bodies working against climate change has a long way to go.


Overconsumption and resource scarcity are sleeping giants.

Noticeably absent from COP26 discussions is the issue of overconsumption: A massive 80 percent of the world’s natural resources are consumed by only 20 percent of the global population, and study upon study proves that climate change is a major polarizer between the haves and have-nots, making richer countries richer and poorer countries poorer.

During the talks, other controversies over consumption came to the fore: Environmental activists have widely criticized the dining menu at the Glasgow event series, pointing out that dishes such as haggis and beef burgers have high carbon footprints. As Joel Scott-Halkes, a spokesperson for the climate change volunteer movement Animal Rebellion, said in a tweet, “Serving meat and dairy at COP26 is like serving cigarettes at a lung cancer conference.”

When it comes to fashion, the textile industry is one of the fastest-growing and most polluting industries in the world, producing more emissions than international flights and maritime shipping. It also contributes to the global crisis of water scarcity and water pollution: The fashion industry is the third-largest user of water globally, and it takes 2,700 liters (713 gallons) of water to produce a single cotton shirt. These are all components to the larger conversation involving resource scarcity. If governments can’t nail down policy measures that dampen water and energy footprints, the world will continue to struggle to meet other climate change goals.

“There is a consensus among scientists that 80 percent of all impacts of the climate crisis can be felt through water,” Hungarian President Janos Ader said during a speech at COP26 on Tuesday. Indeed, the U.N. weather agency has warned that climate change will continue to exacerbate water-related tragedies such as droughts and floods if COP26 goals aren’t met and if population growth continues to soar.

Amid mounting climate emergencies worldwide, COP26 stands out as one of the most consequential international high-level talks to date. As Emma Ashford put it in our latest It’s Debatable column, “climate policy is a global collective action problem,” and only time will tell if world leaders will work beyond lip service and act on their promises by installing national policies.

Kelly Kimball is the social media editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @kellyruthk

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