COP26: Let’s be honest with ourselves

UN Development Programme
6 min readNov 17, 2021


A Generation17 young leader reflects on the UN Climate Change Conference

“Don’t cop out”: A protester urges world leaders at COP26 not to forget their commitments on climate action. Photo: Shutterstock

By Máximo Mazzocco

Another COP is in the books, making it 26! On the one hand, what we expected happened: grandiose declarations, announcements and promises, insufficient progress in the negotiations, delay in the implementation of concrete plans, and a constant combo of conversations, documents, mobilizations, networking, activism, partnerships, youth and the press.

On the other hand, amid all the noise, the honesty took me by surprise. “We don’t know exactly how to solve the climate and ecological crisis,” admitted Italy’s Minister for Ecological Transition, Roberto Cingolani. This was said in the presence of Alok Sharma, COP26 President, and Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, while we were discussing the Global Youth Climate Action Declaration.

The UN Climate Conference (COP26) has been called “perhaps the most important meeting since World War II”.

In the face of so much arrogance, incoherence, contradiction and non-compliance by most of our leaders, the public recognition of one’s own limitations was a welcome and pleasant surprise. Because what is at stake, remember, is ensuring that the planet is habitable for thousands of species of mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians, fish and plants, among others, as well as for ourselves. Being humble is a step forward in this odyssey.

In November 2021, the situation is clear and indisputable: we must move away from the unbridled capitalist economy, whose heart is economic profit, to an economy based on the human being and flourishing natural ecosystems. It is not possible to grow indefinitely because the planet will not support it, and there are not enough non-renewable resources.

There has to be profit but in its rightful place: at the end of the chain. It is time to move from a selfish, extractivist, consumerist, linear, individualistic model, devoted to financial bubbles, to a collaborative, supportive, circular, regenerative and resilient model for the common good.

Outside the conference halls in Glasgow, protesters, young and old, took to the streets to call attention to the climate and ecological crisis.

The World Economic Forum, in its 2020 Global Risks Report, established biodiversity loss, failure in climate action, and humanmade environmental disasters as among the greatest risks of the decade. Of the 10 risks identified, five are linked to the socio-environmental crisis. We are beyond the stage of debating. It is time to restore, to conserve and to evolve as a society.

But are we aware of how much change we need to make in order to transform the economy and achieve the desired sustainability, if it’s even possible? Two years ago, during COP25 in Madrid, we heard presidents, ministers, officials, delegates and public figures fill the rooms with promises and beautiful words. The European Union’s Green Deal, the Coalition of Finance Ministers, investments of 300 billion euros per year, the Gender Action Plan, etc. were all announced.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, some major political shifts and proposals to relieve the debt of countries of the Global South. And yet, we remain the same. Or different, perhaps, and we haven’t realized it yet.

Could it be that we don’t know how to realize these commitments? Could it be that structural changes require time and patience? Or were these words a precious gift to the winds?

Generation17 leader Máximo Mazzocco meets 12-year-old climate activist Francisco Vera at COP26 (left). Demonstrators in Glasgow demand stronger climate action (right).

“We would have to reduce emissions by more than 7 percent each year, and in 2021, they increased again,” said a group of scientists in the pavilion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Apparently, we want to change the world without the world being ready for it. And in the meantime, our normal kills.

If COP26 was “perhaps the most important meeting since World War II”, as the President of Panama said at the High-Level Dialogue on Climate Action in the Americas last September, it didn’t seem so for many of us. Or we did not rise to the occasion. As an example, I will mention that my country, Argentina, signed the new zero deforestation declaration, and yet, at the same time, it reduced the national budget designated to protect native forests in 2022 (as has been happening to a greater or lesser extent for 14 years). Surely this is an indication that we need effective action mechanisms rather than signed pieces of paper. My friend Lizzy, whose house was flooded due to passive socio-environmental and agroforestry activities, did not see the impact of these new commitments at her doorstep.

Also, once again, youth were the protagonists. “Why are they deciding our present and future for us?” we said inside and outside the Conference. We demand:

  • 1) concrete, realistic and inclusive energy transition plans;
  • 2) easier access to climate finance with transparent and accountable instruments;
  • 3) guaranteed participation of youth in decision-making with implications for climate change (those who will inherit the consequences of decisions must have an important voice at the table); and
  • 4) that comprehensive universal education on climate change be provided, adapting the message to each reality.
Youth climate activists from Latin America and the Caribbean meet up at COP26.

The great transition needed to stop emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is not just a climate issue but also the quest for a world that is peaceful, just, without poverty and hunger, with gender equality and equal opportunities, educated, and full of underwater life and healthy terrestrial ecosystems. It needs to meet all the Sustainable Development Goals. And for that we need to mobilize resources — yesterday, not tomorrow.

Those who want to lead, must be up to the task. Otherwise, we should open up the game to those who are willing to do the job. If the goal of COP26, according to Alok Sharma, was to leverage US$100 billion per year for adaptation and mitigation measures to protect our communities and natural habitats, the negotiations made it clear that this was not met.

Young protesters show what’s at stake in climate negotiations (left). Máximo meets Txai Suruí, an Indigenous activist from the Amazon who participated in the opening of COP26 (right).

“Unfortunately, the collective political will was not enough to overcome some deep contradictions,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said.

So now what? Do we hold on to hope in the non-binding pledges on methane, coal, deforestation and financing? Or should we radically change our approach?

Another COP has just ended. The first since the pandemic. And the first with so many social actors involved. Celebrations, compliments, criticisms, technical analyses and discussions were made and will be made. The transition has arrived, it’s in the air, you can feel its pulse.

Right now, to confront the climate, ecological and social emergency, the international bureaucracy must be urgently updated in the same way as it was done for the COVID-19 health emergency, but without losing sight of inclusion, cultural diversity, freedom and a just transition. From COP25 to COP26, my conclusion is the same: if thought must be global and action local, every individual, town, municipality, city, province, country and continent has one simple homework assignment: it is time to act, and there is no escaping.

Photos by Máximo Mazzocco

Maximo is one of the young leaders in the UNDP and Samsung #Generation17 initiative. He has been a youth delegate at COP26, COP25 and the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit. He is co-organizer of the Youth Climate Summit of Latin America and the Caribbean (RCOY LAC 1), founding member of the Climate Alliance, coordinator of Youth4Climate and of Eco House Global. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.