Climate Action

How can COP26 change the planet’s future? An expert explains

forest wildfires like the ones shown here are a dangerous impact of climate change

COP26 has a good chance of helping the planet if policymakers play their part. Image: UNSPLASH/Malachi Brooks

Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Climate Action?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how SDG 13: Climate Action is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

SDG 13: Climate Action

Listen to the article

  • Since the first COP talks took place in 1995, the climate crisis has evolved from a future threat to an everyday reality.
  • Climate change caused 3-times more extreme weather events last decade than occurred in the 1970s.
  • Greenwashing and the failure of major polluters to act has exacerbated the climate crisis.
  • Several policy options are available that could hold polluters accountable for their actions.

As the UK prepares to host the make-or-break COP26 climate talks, the burgeoning impact of climate change is a stark warning that urgent action is needed.

this diagram shows the impact of climate change
This is the impact of climate change. Image: World Meteorological Organization

As the planet warms, the number of storms, floods, droughts, wildfires and other climate extremes increases. The planet has seen a three-fold rise in extreme weather events since the 1970s, reaching 2105 incidents between 2010 and 2019, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

Radio Davos looks back to the first COP meeting held in 1995 in Berlin, a quarter of a century in which climate change has gone from a future threat to a growing reality.

Jennifer Morgan, Executive Director of Greenpeace International, was at the inaugural COP talks and has attended every meeting since. Here she gives her take on what has changed since the early days of COP climate discussions and what needs to happen to make the current talks a success. (This interview had been lightly edited.)

Q. What has happened since your first COP meeting?

What's happened is those who don't want the world to deal with climate change, the oil and fossil fuel companies, the large industrial agriculture corporations, have managed to sow doubt, block progress and make it very difficult for the world to move forward in addressing this climate chaos.

That's part of the story. From a technological perspective, we’ve seen fast progress in renewable energy. Wind and solar are taking off and becoming economically viable. Efforts are increasing to shut down coal around the world — not fast enough and not in enough places yet, but that’s moving.

Q. What hasn’t changed since COP1?

What hasn't changed is the combination of opposition and greenwashing from the global elites and corporates, which has now created climate anxiety among our youth.

We are in a situation where the emission reductions that should have happened haven't. And we are approaching the worst edge of what climate scientists told us could happen. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report is both stunning and scary because of the intensity of things that are already happening around the world.

this is Jennifer Morgan, Director of Greenpeace International
Jennifer Morgan, Executive Director of Greenpeace International, has attended every COP meeting. Image: World Economic Forum/Walter Duerst

Q. Are climate warnings any more stark now that they were in the 1990s?

The warnings have always been stark. Had we listened to the scientists back in the 1960s when Lyndon B. Johnson got the first climate science report on his desk, we would be in a different situation.

What has changed is the impacts themselves are happening. Forests are going up in flames around the world. We are seeing immense storms wash away homes in developed countries like the US and Germany, but developing countries have been experiencing this for some time.

What was seen as a faraway problem is now here affecting me, you, all of us. That panic, that anxiety is much more tangible than it was and we can no longer ignore it.

Have you read?

Q. Do you think the world will deliver on the Paris Agreement?

The Paris Agreement contains this long term goal that countries have signed up to and a ratchet mechanism built in for every country to increase its ambitions. What the coming COP meeting is about is will they do it, and will they do it at scale?

But the other thing is people’s support for climate action. There is so much urgency to act, from youths to grandparents all around the world. And I continue to hope that our leaders are going to listen to that in a much more direct way than they have in the past.

Smoke billows from a chimney at a coking factory in Hefei, Anhui province
China is the world’s biggest CO2 polluter Image: REUTERS/Stringer (CHINA - Tags: ENVIRONMENT ENERGY)

Q. How do the global politics of economies like the US and China impact the Paris Agreement’s chances of success?

The United States has not been a stable ally in tackling the climate crisis - ever. It is vital the Biden administration and US Congress deliver something that has legal character, that gives the world confidence that the US will reduce its emissions at the scale that's required.

Clearly what China does is also very important. China has made good progress in building clean and renewable energy capacity, but progress has stalled in industrial processes and the continued dependence on coal as the dominant energy source. President Xi Jinping has indicated that efforts to decarbonize are in China’s self-interest. But like every other country, China has to step up. Its emissions need to peak earlier, by 2025 at the latest.

Q. What would be the ideal outcome of the COP26 meeting?

It's important to remember that COPs don't magically solve the problem. Every country, particularly the G20 nations, must be more ambitious with their nationally determined contributions, committing to targets that keep 1.5 degrees in sight. Currently, we’re on course for 2.7 degrees. And there's a set of countries that haven't come forward with anything yet. Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, China and the developed countries need to act.

A solidarity pact is also fundamental. COVID has highlighted the inequalities around the world and how that creates gaps between rich and poor countries. The vaccine equity problem needs to be sorted so poor countries can vaccinate their people.

Climate finance has an important role to play here. Wealthy countries need to look at what they're going to do to support countries already suffering loss and damage.

Finally, we have to wipe out the opportunity for greenwashing from corporations. Many of the net-zero pledges by companies, particularly from the fossil fuel industry, depend on unregulated offset schemes like planting trees to continue business as usual. Glasgow needs to expose greenwashing and create an accountability mechanism to bring offset practices in line with climate science.

this image shows a man planting a tree
Tree planting scheme like this one. Image: UNSPLASH/Vitor Monthay

Q. What major changes in this decade can help us stay within 1.5℃?

We need to shift the entire dynamic so the short-term interests of a few don't dominate the long-term interests of people or the planet. It means a different mindset, putting the climate emergency and social issues at the top table.

Policies need to reduce emissions, but also protect the most vulnerable and the poorest. So people in developing countries no longer have to deforest their land to export wood to Europe or the US, for example, instead adopting local models will benefit local communities. That's totally possible, but companies need to pay for these transitions, not taxpayers.

Governments need to stop exploring for new fossil fuels and switch their investments and subsidies from fossil fuels to clean and renewable energy.

We have all of the policy solutions we need, that's not the issue anymore. We have the technology to move things quickly. But what is lacking is the courage to stand up to those that want to keep things as they are, and that requires focus, ingenuity and absolute determination.

Q. What short-term actions can policy-makers take to address the long-term threat of climate change?

Leaders need to address the root causes of climate change head-on and make space for the solutions to work.

Policy-makers can refuse to accept any more fossil fuel money, shut down corruption and be transparent about how things work.

Laws can be enforced that bind all corporations to reduce their emissions to zero, complete with an accountability system. And if they don't, they can't pay out shareholder dividends.

Financial regulations can be used to integrate risks from the impacts of climate change and potentially stranded assets, straight into our economies.


What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

These types of system changes are all possible and could be put in place within a few months. The greatest risk is actually failing to act.

Leaders need to hold liable the companies that caused this problem. Polluting companies could be made to pay into a fund to support the loss and damage faced by millions of people around the world. And while that may sound far-fetched, it’s already happening as a number of legal cases and climate damage litigation is surfacing.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

The planet’s outlook is in our hands. Which future will we incentivize?

Carlos Correa

April 22, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum