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ClimateGlobal issues

Opinion: Climate talks are slow — but they still matter

Louise Osborne
Louise Osborne
November 6, 2022

Climate activist Greta Thunberg is shunning this year's UN global climate conference, citing "greenwashing." The summit definitely has its problems, and progress is slow. But everything counts, says DW's Louise Osborne.

Greta Thunberg, at 15 years of age, wears a yellow raincoat and holds a placard reading
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg won't be coming to Egypt this weekImage: Hanna Franzén/TT News/picture alliance

The first time I saw Greta Thunberg in person she was sitting cross-legged, alone against a white wall, her "School Strike for Climate" sign propped up next to her. It was the COP24 international climate conference in Katowice, Poland, in 2018 and not many people knew much about this lone, young protester.

Fast forward a year, to the next UN climate summit in Madrid, and it was impossible to get anywhere near Thunberg, surrounded as she was by journalists and conference delegates all vying to get a photo. Three years later though, she is shunning the summit taking place in Sharm el-Sheikh altogether, labeling it a forum for "greenwashing."

Fifteen-year-old activist Greta Thunberg sits on the ground with a sign next to the words #COP24
Before she was a global celebrity: Thunberg in 2018Image: Luise Osborne/DW

Profit at the expense of the planet

Thunberg isn't wrong. The COP international climate conference leaves a lot of room for greenwashing. Governments make inconsequential pledges to cut emissions or provide funding, congratulating themselves on what they are doing to tackle climate change even though it's clear it's not enough. And companies are given the chance to showcase the minimal measures they are taking to achieve net-zero emissions, all the while raking in billions in profits, at the expense of the planet.

Then there are the infuriatingly slow negotiations themselves. While wildfires ravage forests and destroy homes, heat waves kill thousands of people and floods devastate communities, climate negotiators sit in vast halls debating each word of every paragraph that will make up the agreements on how to cut the fossil fuel emissions that are heating up the planet. 

I have attended four of the last six COP climate conferences, ever since the so-called historic breakthrough at the summit in 2015 that led to the Paris Agreement and pledges to reduce carbon emissions to levels that would limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. But countries have failed again and again to take the swift action that is urgently needed.

Flood-affected people use cot to salvage belongings from their nearby flooded home caused by heavy rain, in Qambar Shahdadkot district of Sindh Province, of Pakistan.
The impact of climate change is becoming ever clearer, as seen by the recent floods in PakistanImage: Fareed Khan/AP Photo/picture alliance

Moving in the right direction

In this year's Emissions Gap Report, the UN's Environment Program, or UNEP, has estimated that under current policies the planet would see warming of 2.8 degrees Celsius. That is far too high, particularly given the ever more extreme weather we are already seeing as a result of human-driven global heating.

But it's less than the warming we would have seen if we had stuck with initial pledges to reduce emissions. In its 2016 emissions report, the UNEP estimated we were on track for up to 3.4 degrees of warming. It's not much and movement is slow, but there is movement and it is in the right direction.

Delegates pose for a picture during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland.
Is there too much greenwashing at the COP climate conferences?Image: Yves Herman/REUTERS

Despite the problems, these international summits provide a platform for transparency and accountability. What was often done behind closed doors is brought out into the open here. Governments make public pledges on emissions reductions, including financial information that can be tracked and monitored. Nongovernmental organizations and civil society groups can scrutinize and act on what countries are doing — or not doing.

Sharing ideas and solutions

The conferences also bring together tens of thousands of delegates. More than 30,000 people, representing governments, businesses, NGOs and civil society groups from all over the world, are taking part in this year's summit in Egypt. It is the one time of the year that so many people dedicated to the important issue of climate change can come together to share ideas and solutions.

And meeting together in person fosters the basis for some level of trust. As developing nations attempt to have their voices heard and garner financial support to pay for the changes they are having to make in order to live with the effects of climate change, it is useful to be able to look the representatives of richer countries in the eye.

With climate change accelerating and the effects being felt more strongly, governments need to act quickly. The window is fast closing on any chance to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

These kinds of global climate conferences do not hold all the answers. But humanity has more of a chance of meeting these all-important goals with them, than without them.

Edited by: Sarah Steffen