COP26: Away from Rhetoric

lasgow hosted the 26th edition of the Conference of Parties (COP) under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to achieve an extremely ambitious yet simple agenda i.e. stabilising the climate by reducing levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (GHG) in the Earth’s atmosphere. Before we discuss how far the 40,000 COP26 delegates – representing politicians, bureaucrats, thought leaders, business tycoons, academia and civil society – were successful in achieving this objective, let us recap how the climate got destabilised, and what is at risk?

Today we know that the level of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere remained unchanged, about 275-285 parts per million (ppm), since some 1,500 years before the birth of Christ till the middle of the 19th Century. By 1910, it had reached 300 ppm, and by 2020 risen to 412 ppm. One hundred years of industrialisation proved way costlier in terms of Earth’s CO2 accumulation than a millennium of anthropogenic activities.

But why should one worry about rising CO2 level in the Earth’s atmosphere? The answer is that CO2 absorbs infrared radiation, emitted by the Earth’s surface to cool itself down. More the CO2, methane and other GHG in the atmosphere, warmer the surface of the earth (global warming). This in turn leads to intense and frequent droughts, heatwaves and melting of glaciers.

The major agenda item for COP26 is to bring a consensus among the global community to reduce its COemission through reduced use of fossil fuels, halting deforestation (trees are a major sink for CO2), reducing methane gas emission, and through ecosystem restoration and its protection, among others. All these steps are aimed at cooling down the average global temperature “to well below 2 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels”, as was agreed in COP21 at Paris.

According to the Paris Agreement, this should be achieved by “the second half of this century”. The countries agreed to give their plans for GHG reduction (Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs), report against those plans, and get their progress monitored and verified. The Paris Agreement was made possible largely due to US-China convergence (their combined carbon emissions constitute a third of the global emissions) in 2015.

However, the details regarding what constitutes CO2 reduction, reporting template, the mechanism to verify and monitor the reported progress, and enforcement mechanisms for non-performers were left for future discussions. These details were to be included in a Paris Rules Book. The Rule Book also had to lay down clear modalities on how developing and least-developed countries (who have not gained much from industrial revolution, and hence their share in global greenhouse gases emission is negligible) would be compensated for the losses and damages that they have suffered (or will suffer in future) due to global warming caused by industrialist nations (the principle of climate justice). Details on how the developed nations would support developing countries in “adaptation”—learning to live with a changing climate, and “mitigation” – making the impact of climate change less severe, were also to be included in the Rules Book. The UNFCCC members had agreed to establish a dedicated climate financing fund of $100 billion per annum by 2020. Who would have access to that fund and which projects would be eligible for funding were to be elaborated in Paris Rules Book, so were the details of technology transfer, carbon markets and many other issues.

Enter Donald Trump (as US president), the US withdrew from the Paris Agreement. This was a major blow to any meaningful progress on the Paris agenda. The Climate Financing Fund never saw the committed $100 billion.

The COP26 which was to be held in 2020 got postponed (first time since 1995) due to Covid-19. The US’s rejoining the Paris Agreement under Biden’s presidency, British government’s attempt to bring post-Brexit UK in the limelight through a globally acceptable deal in Glasgow, and the hope for climate financing from the rich world were keeping the hopes alive for many developing countries, including Pakistan who went to COP26 with high ambitions of GHG reduction (through their revised NDCs).

The Glasgow moot was about achieving net-zero emissions of GHG (overall balance of GHG produced and GHG emission reduced) by year 2050. However, the Glasgow outcomes remain worryingly unbalanced between the issues. An analysis of revised global NDCs (with higher ambitions) reveal that the target of remaining “below 2 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels” would be missed by wide margins; expect more unpredictable weather, heat waves, forest fires, cyclones, droughts and their ripple effects in the near future.

Although the US and China surprised COP26 on the second last day of the summit by releasing Joint Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s, the absence of Chinese (the largest emitter of CO2) and Russian (the fourth largest emitter of CO2) presidents from the “high level summit” was a sign that global political economy would continue to haunt the global climate change agenda. China has announced that it plans to achieve net-zero-emission by 2060. India (the third largest emitter of CO2) plans to achieve this goal by 2070, meaning they would continue to produce more CO2 than they would offset.

The rich countries that aim to achieve net-zero emission by 2050, remained vague around any meaningful contribution for climate change mitigation, climate financing fund, or adaptation fund. These countries that doled out trillions of dollars as Covid-19 stimulus package for their citizens but could not spare $100 billion as a collective pledge for climate cause. Whatever action has been announced also lacks clarity on how their solidarity elements around financing are to be mobilised in time and in sufficient quantity to address existing and future needs of the developing countries.

Among some of the positive outcome of COP26 are the initiatives taken by individual members (not formal part of Glasgow declaration); the pledge to reduce use of methane by 30 percent by year 2030, the pledge to stop deforestation by year 2030, formation of Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (to stop expansion of fossil fuel exploration), and formation of Glasgow Alliance of financial institutes for net-zero-emission.

Pakistan has joined the methane reduction pledge (read: reduced use of gas for electricity production and better solid waste management) and stopping deforestation pledge. It is worth mentioning that China and India have not joined these pledges and the US has not joined Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance.

My personal point of consolation is that while the Paris Agreement does not even contain the words “fossil fuels”, accelerated phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels was intensely discussed and debated at Glasgow. Due to the resistance of large fossil-fuel producing countries like Australia, Russia and Saudi Arabia, no timeline for complete phasing out of coal could be agreed in the final draft.

A consensus is required to adopt a COP draft, meaning that the pace of action is set by the least willing. However, that is why the COP process is important. Consistent pressure on largest emitters can force them to adapt and work on a minimum agenda for reducing global warming.

Human history has witnessed a race between material comfort and catastrophe. The world cannot continue to prosper based on economies powered by fossil fuels. The harms from the cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide are piling up so rapidly that fossil-fuel-fired development would not stall but can revert in another century from now. Are we willing to leave our future generations in that situation? If not, then it is time to act.

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