The UK is now just one month away from hosting COP26, which many activists hope will be a landmark edition of the UN Climate Change Conference.
In a recent speech before the UN General Assembly, Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared that the Glasgow conference must be a “turning point for humanity.” The sense of hope and urgency about COP26 felt by its organisers is palpable, but there is just one problem: the British public is remarkably unengaged and unenthused.
Polling by our team at Redfield & Wilton Strategies has found that over half of Britons have not even heard of COP26, including 70 per cent of respondents aged 18 to 24 and 65 per cent of those aged 25 to 34.
In fairness, the 45 per cent of respondents who have heard of the conference is certainly an improvement upon the 20 per cent our polling found in April 2021. Still, that a majority is unaware that their nation is hosting a major global summit reveals a severe disconnect between the public and its government’s efforts to take a leading role in combating climate change.
The lack of public awareness of COP26 is only half the problem. Once informed what COP26 is, just a fifth of Britons polled say they have high expectations for the conference and its outcomes. Instead, a third have low expectations and another third say they have neither high nor low expectations.
The public’s limited expectations for COP26 appear to stem from a broader sense of scepticism towards international summits and their ability to bring about genuine change. To this point, 44 per cent indicate that international climate change conferences like COP26 are “mostly meaningless,” compared to 32 per cent who say they are “mostly meaningful.”
This scepticism may arise from a variety of factors, not least of which is likely a perceived weakness of the Paris Climate Agreement, negotiated at COP21 in 2015. After all, the targets set at the Paris conference were modest at best and will not be enough according to the UN Environment Program who argue that the planet will still warm by over 3˚C by 2100 even if they are met.
To add to that, there has been no way to enforce countries into meeting their minimal targets–beyond a “name and shame” system that only 36 per cent of Britons think is likely to work. Though now reversed, the United States’ decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement in 2017 laid bare the inadequacy of this system.
Simply put, fundamental obstacles in the international sphere, such as the inability to force large states into adopting the most environmentally friendly policies or the desire for developing nations to grow their economies (and therefore pollute more), already preclude the likelihood of a meaningful (i.e. ambitious, concrete, and enforceable) “Glasgow Agreement.”
More critically, the public has had little faith in their own government’s ability to walk the talk to begin with: among those who say they understand the meaning of net zero 55 per cent do not have confidence in the UK’s ability to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050—a legally binding target the country has set for itself. And Britons may very well be right: the UK’s Climate Change Committee reported this summer that the policies currently in place will not be enough for the UK to meet its targets.
If Britons are pessimistic of their own government’s ability to enact meaningful policies that reduce emissions, how can they possibly be optimistic that their government can persuade other nations to do so?
The Johnson government should be careful. There is a political price in setting forth ambitious goals that are subsequently shown to be fluff. While the Prime Minister may hype COP26 as a potential turning point and see the conference as an opportunity to demonstrate his seriousness about reducing emissions, the public’s current expectations of yet another agreement that is essentially symbolic in nature betray a deeper risk. In fact, COP26 may very well have the opposite effect: further disillusionment among the British public regarding their government’s ability to address climate change.
This article was published in the i.