Thousands of young campaigners marched through the streets of Glasgow on Friday, chanting their demand that world leaders at the U.N. climate conference safeguard their future against catastrophic climate change.
Inside the COP26 conference venue in the Scottish city, civil society leaders took over discussions at the end of a week of government speeches and pledges that included promises to phase out coal, slash emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane and reduce deforestation.
“We must not declare victory here,” said former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, who shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his work informing the world about climate change. “We know that we have made progress, but we are far from the goals that we need to reach.”
Campaigners and pressure groups have been underwhelmed by the commitments made so far, many of which are voluntary, exclude the biggest polluters, or set deadlines decades away.
Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg joined the marchers on the streets, who held placards and banners with messages that reflected frustration with what she described as “blah-blah-blah” coming from years of global climate negotiations.
“You don’t care, but I do!” read one sign, carried by a girl sitting on her father’s shoulders.
Sixteen-year-old protester Hannah McInnes called climate change “the most universally devastating problem in the world,” adding: “It’s our lives and our futures that are on the line.”
The talks aim to secure enough national promises to cut greenhouse gas emissions – mainly from fossil fuels – to keep the rise in the average global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Scientists say this is the point at which the already intense storms, heatwaves, droughts and floods that the Earth is experiencing could become catastrophic and irreversible.
To that end, the United Nations wants countries to halve their emissions from 1990 levels by 2030, on their way to net-zero emissions by 2050. That would mean the world would release no more climate-warming gases than the amount it is simultaneously recapturing from the atmosphere.
The summit on Thursday saw 23 additional countries pledge to try to phase out coal – albeit over the next three decades, and without the world’s biggest consumer, China.
A pledge to reduce deforestation brought a hasty about-turn from Indonesia, home to vast and endangered tropical forests.
But a plan to curb emissions of methane by 30% did appear to strike a blow against greenhouse gases that should produce rapid results.
And city mayors have been working out what they can do to advance climate action more quickly and nimbly than governments.
The Glasgow talks also have showcased a jumble of financial pledges, buoying hopes that national commitments to bring down emissions can actually be implemented.
But time was running short. “It is not possible for a large number of unresolved issues to continue into week 2,” COP26 President Alok Sharma said in a note to negotiators published by the United Nations.
Efforts to set a global pricing framework for carbon, as a way to make polluters pay fairly for their emissions and ideally finance efforts to offset them, are likely to continue to the very end of the two-week conference.
The new normal
U.S. climate envoy John Kerry said on Friday it was possible to reach a deal at the summit settling the final details of the rulebook for how to interpret the 2015 Paris Agreement.
He said the United States was in favor of “the most frequent possible” assessments of whether countries were meeting their goals to reduce emissions.
In Washington, President Joe Biden’s mammoth “Build Back Better” package, including $555 billion of measures aimed at hitting the 2030 target and adapting to climate change, looks set to pass eventually. It hit snags on Friday, however, as the House of Representatives was due to vote on it.
Gore, a veteran of such battles, offered conference-goers a scientific video and photo presentation filled with images of climate-fueled natural disasters, from flooding to wildfires.
“We cannot allow this to become the new normal,” Gore said.
One schoolchild’s placard put it just as well.
“The Earth’s climate is changing!” it read, under a hand-painted picture of a globe on fire. “Why aren’t we?”