COP26: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
So the much-awaited UN Global Climate Summit in Glasgow, known as COP26, is over – but what did it really achieve? Lewes resident Dr Martin Meadows – former UK Government science and policy advisor on environment and energy policy – gives a frank perspective.
Let me first share somebody else’s view who attended the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow: “When it comes to our leaders I want to thank them for wasting our time. They have snatched our happiness, they have snatched our present and they have snatched our future from us. We had hopes in the COP but I want to say it hasn’t been a success.“ (Patience Nabukalu, Uganda. Fridays For Futures, Most Affected Peoples and Areas (MAPA). Speaking on the New Scientist podcastno.93, 12 November 2021)
Now I’ll share my thoughts about what was good, bad and ugly about the conference and why the outcome means we need to do a whole lot more.
Science and the Paris Agreement’s temperature goals are the foundation of the Glasgow Climate Pact
The major outcome from COP26, the Glasgow Climate Pact (GCP), places science front and centre. Previous conferences had been hampered by many participants, principally OPEC nations, supported by the USA and fossil fuel corporations. They cast false doubt on the science of climate change, claiming humans weren’t responsible, that fossil fuels were not to blame and using this doubt to delay and obstruct progress. Those lies have largely stopped. The GCP unequivocally backs the science and the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement.
Recognition that current pledges are not enough to meet the Paris goals and that increased ambition and action is necessary
The Paris Agreement requires nations to declare their ambitions on climate in the form of pledges to cut their emissions of global warming pollution. The Agreement also has a ratchet mechanism that provides for nations every five years to update their pledges to ensure they are consistent with their Paris goals.
The pledges first put forward at Paris were entirely insufficient and gave the world an 8% chance of limiting temperature change to below 2oC and 0% of limiting temperature change to 1.5% by 2100. COP26 was the first meeting where updated pledges to cut emissions were presented and discussed. The increased ambition some nations declared before the Glasgow meeting however still falls well short of what’s needed to meet the Paris temperature goals. But at least under the new pledges, the chances of meeting the Paris goals has increased to 34% for keeping global warming below 2oC and 1.5% for keeping it below 1.5oC. That’s only if those pledges are successfully fulfilled and reinforced with policies. Clearly those chances are not good enough and the GPC requests nations to return next year (2022) – rather than in five years’ time – with updated pledges (paragraph 29, GPC). A five-year delay would have almost certainly marked the failure of the 1.5oC goal. This new request keeps 1.5oC alive – but, even according to the conference chair, the pulse is fast fading.
Leadership from the global south
For me the speeches and interviews from political and civic leaders and citizens from the global south provided the leadership that was mostly lacking from the leaders in the global north. Striking examples came from Mia Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados who in a moving and compelling speech told the conference that “2 degrees is a death sentence” for many countries in the global south; Tuvalu’s Foreign Minister Simon Kofe spoke about countries in the front line of the climate crisis while standing knee deep in seawater; and Ugandan climate justice activist Vanessa Nakate told COP26 that we’re staring into the abyss and the atmosphere doesn’t respond to promises.
Complacency and lack of practical action doesn’t match what the science demands
In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that “….limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide would need to fall by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030….” Yet planned policies will increase emissions by 16% compared to 2010. Actual policies of nations, as opposed to promises, even if fully and successfully implemented, are moving the world to a disastrous 2.7oC of warming. Even if the new pledges at Glasgow are implemented, the world is heading for disastrous warming of 2.4oC. COP26 was yet another demonstration of the gap between climate talk and climate action.
Fossil fuels are finally in the conference spotlight but there’s no end in sight to their use
Paragraph 20 of the GCP calls on nations to accelerate ‘efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies’. This call is notably the first mention of the main cause of climate change – fossil fuels – in a COP decision. You shouldn’t underestimate what a stride forward this is after decades of obstruction and obfuscation by OPEC countries supported by the USA to avoid naming the chief cause of climate change. So why isn’t this clause on my ‘Good’ list? Let’s go back to what science tells us. The world must halve emissions of polluting greenhouse gases by 2030 compared to 2010 and stop adding any new carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by mid century, for a good chance of halting warming at 1.5oC. The GCP doesn’t make any material progress to these requirements. Firstly there is no date for implementation of the phase down of coal or phase out of some subsidies. Without a date it is weak and vague. Secondly, only two-thirds of coal is used globally for power (electricity generation), the remaining third is used mainly by industry and is excluded from this clause. And most importantly there’s no call to phase down or phase out oil and gas. Pollution from oil and gas is increasing, whereas pollution from coal may already have peaked. Richer countries use oil and gas more than coal and petrol cars contribute far more to climate change than coal. Phasing out ‘inefficient fossil fuel subsidies’ is also vague and easy to outmanoeuvre. Simply, 1.5oC is unattainable without monumental cuts to fossil fuel use starting now
Size of the fossil fuel lobby
At least 503 fossil fuel lobbyists were granted access to COP26. Global Witness found that ‘If the fossil fuel lobbyists were a country delegation, it would have been the largest at COP26. Fossil fuel lobbyists dwarf the UNFCCC’s official indigenous constituency by around two to one. The fossil fuel lobby at COP was larger than the combined total of the eight delegations from the countries worst affected by climate change in the last two decades – Puerto Rico, Myanmar, Haiti, Philippines, Mozambique, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Pakistan’. Fossil fuel companies are also spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year lobbying on climate. It’s not surprising that the GCP didn’t call for the phasing out of coal, oil and gas.
At the heart of the climate crisis lies injustice
Those that have done the least to cause climate change are the most impacted. Vulnerable, mostly poorer countries are suffering now from the impacts of climate change imposed on them by mainly rich industrialized countries. Around 20 industrialized nations are responsible for around 50% of global warming to date. Climate change and increasingly extreme weather events have caused a surge in natural disasters over the past 50 years disproportionately impacting poorer countries. People of the world’s most climate-harmed countries have been calling for decades for help not only to adapt to climate change but also for payment for the damage already caused to their lives. There was a welcome commitment to double adaptation finance by 2025 (helping countries manage current and future climate change) – although this commitment must be seen in the light of developed nations’ failure to keep promises made in 2009 on adaptation funds. But COP26 did little to address climate justice. Most telling was how the European Union and the USA blocked moves from vulnerable countries to secure compensation for the victims of damage already caused at global warming of 1.1oC. Meanwhile, carbon dioxide pollution will continue and the most vulnerable that have done the least to cause climate change will continue to be hurt more and more.
So what do we need to do now?
Another COP passes and meanwhile the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continues relentlessly upwards. Global warming will only halt when the Keeling Curve (see Figure 1) peaks. And that will only happen when carbon dioxide stops accumulating in the atmosphere. It’s like a bucket filling with water. The level stops rising only when the tap is turned off. The tap is our use of fossil fuels. Whatever we think of the Glasgow conference, from the point of view of the atmosphere, COP26 changed nothing. The atmosphere doesn’t respond to negotiations and promises.
Figure 1. The Keeling Curve.
Only drastic action outside of a conference room can turn the tide. Adam Vaughan of the New Scientist (20 November 2021 edition) sums it up well: ‘The battle to keep 1.5oC alive will be won at ballot boxes, on the streets, in the courts and in boardrooms’.
Now COP26 is over, our role as citizens is to keep the pressure on government and businesses to increase ambition on climate and most importantly match their ambition with effective action. I’ll finish with another quote from a voice from the global south:
“It [COP26] has failed. We’ve done it at least 26 times and climate change has not stopped. It’s happening already as we speak. But we have to carry on. We’ll hope we do it again next year in Egypt and do it better next time. Pressure from the outside [of COP] is incredibly important and it has to continue.”(Professor Saleemul Huq, Director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development and Professor at the Independent University Bangladesh; advisor to the Group of Least Developed Countries, interviewed on Channel 4 News, 13 November 2021.)