As negotiations stalemated in previous years, activists (and youth) protest for climate action (Source: Sarah Whipple, 2018).

Are We Still In? Reflections from the 26th United Nations International Climate Negotiations

Guest Post By Sarah Whipple, 2021-2022 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability and the Graduate Degree Program in Ecology at Colorado State University

As negotiations stalemated in previous years, activists (and youth) protest for climate action (Source: Sarah Whipple, 2018).

On November 1, 2021, the United States (U.S.) had a voice, once again, in the United Nations international climate negotiations (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 26th Conference of the Parties). “Ladies and gentlemen, to state the obvious, we meet with the eyes of history upon us and the profound questions before us.  It’s simple: Will we act?  Will we do what is necessary?  Will we seize the enormous opportunity before us?  Or will we condemn future generations to suffer?” (Biden 2021).

Former President Trump left the Paris Agreement on behalf of the U.S. during his term. Grassroots movements and local governments continued to act, which led to current President Biden rejoining the Paris Agreement on his term day. However, the status and pathway forward on U.S. climate policy is still relatively unknown. On top of this lies uncertainty with which countries will act amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, climate catastrophes impacting every part of the world, and voices shut out of the current climate discussion. To Biden’s quote, “Will we act? Or will we condemn future generations to suffer?” 

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 26th Conference of the Parties (COP) ended on November 13th after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic. COPs hosted by the UNFCCC started back in 1995, and since its inception, has transformed international climate policy through documents such as the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement (UNFCCC n.d.). During COP26, delegates attended the negotiations with hopes for more urgency, ambition, and action, especially from developed nations like the U.S. As part of the Paris Agreement Rulebook, countries needed to update their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCS) by 2020 to help in reducing global temperature rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius. Nonetheless, scientists and policymakers see a greater sense of urgency since the last COP (2019) as recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports say we are not even on track for the original target of 2 degrees Celsius. Since in-person negotiations took a pause last year, world leaders, activists, and observers predicted this year’s COP to be transformative in making effective change.

Paris Agreement Implementation timeline, which highlights the updating of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) by 2020. Source: World Resources Institute

In the beginning of the conference, Biden highlighted national opportunities, such as investing in clean energy through his Build Back Better Plan, working towards cleaner air and water, and increasing the U.S. job market with a focus on sustainable futures. He also mentioned increases in aid to developing countries in need of climate finance support, as well as supporting pledges towards methane emission reductions and reductions in deforestation. As the conference progressed, world leaders were questioned on their intentions to act, especially as voices were excluded from the conversation due to stalemates, controversial topics, and building capacity limits.

As a former in-person attendee of COP24 and 25, and this year attending as a virtual delegate for COP26, the U.S. delegation dynamic completely shifted. Over the past four years, the U.S. has not had a pavilion space to share national efforts (this year, the U.S. hosted over 80 events at its center). For many negotiations, Trump refused to show up, and U.S. representatives would be reluctant to share their responses on climate action topics. When attending the negotiations and presenting research on behalf of a U.S. higher education observer group, we were advised to be cautious with our opinions towards national climate policies.

Now that we are back in the negotiations, will our action make a difference? Does the U.S. have a stake in these negotiations, and can we regain momentum to help make change? Major outcomes of COP26 include new net-zero reduction commitments as part of the NDCs, pledges to end deforestation by 2030, funding to support indigenous and local communities that are reliant on forests for their livelihoods, the Global Methane Pledge to reduce emissions by 30% by 2030, and the Glasgow Climate Pact, which speaks for climate action and reducing temperature rise on behalf of over 200 countries. However, the implementation and accountability of much of these agreements still seems unclear at best. As communities and livelihoods are destroyed due to the impacts of climate change, will developed nations step up to help others?

Even though my experience in the negotiations was different this year—typically, I would leave my Airbnb at around 6 AM to arrive at the convention center before 8 AM meetings, this year I woke up at the same time and could participate from my bedroom with coffee and pajamas—the power of these negotiations still ran true. The number of youths, researchers, and local and indigenous voices, all striving for climate action and a sustainable future, is what keeps me as a scientist engaged in a space filled with “doom and gloom”. COP26 did not solve our climate crisis problems over night, but developed nations are starting to step up and act, and more countries are listening to the scientists such as the IPCC who work to synthesis worldwide climate change effects.

Biden concluded his remarks to start the conference with the following statement. “Those of us who are responsible for much of the deforestation and all the problems we have so far have an overwhelming obligation to the nations who, in fact, were not there, have not done it.  And we [must] help much more than we have thus far. God bless you all, and may God save the planet” (Biden 2021).  These words rang true throughout COP26, and for those developed/developing countries, we can only hope that the efforts towards ambition, emissions reductions, and accountability will only continue. As an observer, scientist, human, and optimist in this space, I hope he (and the rest of the world knows) that we are watching and want to be agents of such change.

For a full breakdown of COP26 outcome documents, visit the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change website. If you are interested in attending future climate negotiations on behalf of CSU, reach out to the School of Global Environmental Sustainability (SoGES). COP27 is slated for Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt November 7-18, 2022.  


Biden, Joseph R. “Remarks by President Biden at the COP26 Leaders Statement.” Scottish Event Campus as part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 26th Conference of the Parties. November 1, 2021. Accessed November 1, 2021.

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. “History of the Convention.” Accessed November 16, 2021.

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