What COP26 achieved and what it didn’t
The United Nations climate conference in Glasgow started on October 31 with the heads of over 140 countries scaling up expectations with impressive announcements. But, a fortnight later, 197 countries agreed to a political outcome dubbed the “Glasgow Climate Pact” which would, according to experts, continue to take the world down the over 2 degrees Celsius trajectory and clearly highlights the faultlines in the combative political will to tackle climate change.
In fact, the wording of the final agreement is not much different from decisions in the previous conference of parties (COP), although there are some positive takeaways, particularly on coal, fossil fuels and new emission review mechanisms. Negotiations had not assembled in Glasgow to sign a new agreement, but to operationalise the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015. The Glasgow pact, by itself, is just a non-binding political statement.
It shows the intent of the world to collectively act on several fronts — reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal and reducing subsidy on fossil fuels; enhance National Determined Contributions (NDCs) before the next climate conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, in 2022; a mechanism to review NDCs by 2023; a carbon trading market to be in place by 2023; and $100 billion every year by 2025.
The political decision at Glasgow asks nations to enhance NDCs every five years instead of 10, and double money for climate adaptation by 2025.
In the fortnight at Glasgow, some other agreements between countries, outside the UN ambit, were signed. Significant among them was one on reversing deforestation by 105 countries, methane emission reduction by 30-odd nations, climate finance deal to reduce fossil fuel dependence in most climate-vulnerable nations and a global mechanism to infuse electric cars in personal transport.
India is not part of these agreements, though, at Glasgow, the United States (US) agreed to become part of the international Solar Alliance, a multi-lateral form anchored by India to enhance the transfer of solar technologies to the developing world.
Another milestone at Glasgow was a US and China joint statement that placed specific timelines on emission mitigation. It is the first of such agreements between the two biggest carbon polluters of the world at COP.
These multi-lateral agreements would also lead to some emission cuts but are more aligned towards pushing new cleaner technologies. However, one may recall that such agreements have been signed at COP in the past as well, but many of them have not achieved much because of the funding issues. An afforestation agreement signed by close to 100 countries in Paris in 2015 failed to take off as Norway backed out from funding two years later. So, it would be prudent to wait and watch to see how many of these agreements really materialise on the ground.
For many in the developing world, Glasgow has failed to push rich countries to substantially enhance their financial commitments to fight the crisis. Without adequate finance, the world will not be able to deal with the rising vagaries of the climate crisis. This was visible in India with devastating rains in Kerala and Tamil Nadu in October and November and in Uttarakhand in early October.
Considering that science clearly says that the impact of the climate crisis has intensified, historical polluters – rich countries that have contributed the most to cause climate change – have not substantially increased climate finance. They promised $100 billion at the failed 2010 conference at Copenhagen, and the Glasgow pact says they should ensure that $100 billion is delivered every year from 2025 onwards, 15 years since Copenhagen.
“We are disappointed that the $100 billion pledge remains outstanding, and I call upon all donors to make it a reality by next year,” said UNFCCC executive secretary Patricia Espinosa.
Although the Glasgow pact talks about doubling climate finance from the 2019 level, the possibility of that happening by 2025 appears remote. At best, it may happen by 2030. The final text of the Glasgow pact expressed “deep regret” about the funding failures while urging rich countries to provide “adequate” climate finance “as soon as possible”.
Progress on Loss and Damage, a mechanism to compensate the developing world for the devastation wrought by the climate crisis, remains insignificant as there was no indication on how much money would be provided. Rich countries continued to block its implementation on the grounds that there’s no clear system to evaluate the “contribution of climate change” to any damage. On this, the Glasgow pact speaks about asking a United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) subsidiary body to draft a science-based compensation mechanism before Egypt. In a nutshell, eight years after the Loss and Damage mechanism was agreed in Warsaw COP in 2013, there’s no clarity on how it would work.
The Glasgow conference has agreed on rules on “carbon trading” (as per Article 6 of the Paris agreement) that provides for setting up carbon markets to offset emissions of rich countries by mitigation measures in the developing world. This is replete with shortcomings seen in the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) that was implemented for a decade under the Kyoto Protocol from 2002 onwards. “An agreement was reached on the fundamental norms related to Article 6 on carbon markets, which will make the Paris Agreement fully operational,” the UN said in a statement. Espinosa said the operationalising of carbon markets will allow countries to scale up their cooperation and mobilise additional finance through private sector participation.
Some climate advocacy groups said carbon markets will allow rich countries to greenwash their emissions through buying credits from the developing world, an accounting exercise fraught with potential scam as certain emissions could be counted twice.
The fault with net-zero
Before Glasgow, commitment to “net zero” (carbon neutrality target) was the buzzword with close to 120 countries announcing their net-zero target year. Many countries including India joined the bandwagon during the conference. In a way, net-zero implies that if there is a certain amount of climate-changing emissions in one place, it can be “offset” elsewhere in a number of ways such as capturing it in trees or the oceans or through storage. It does not necessarily mean reducing emissions at the place where they are happening. So, emissions from power plants, factories, which have harmful effects on biodiversity may not be reduced, and in effect, may increase.
A report by Corporate Accountability, a group that looks at emissions reductions, said that projections for net-zero are based on unrealistic projects on land availability, or unproven technologies. In India, it may translate to grabbing land from communities for massive new plantations; this is already happening in the name of compensatory afforestation carried out purportedly to “offset” the ecological damage caused by cutting down natural forests for mining, dams, highways, said Ashish Kothari, a veteran Indian environment activist, who has worked with communities across the countries for the past 40 years.
2°C vs 1.5°C
There are definite, small steps forward, but not adequate to limit the global temperature rise to 2°C by the turn of the century as enshrined in the Paris agreement. Limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C still remains an elusive goal. Achieving the 1.5°C goal with present intentions and rising emissions, now looks almost impossible.
The Climate Action Tracker earlier this week said that the temperature would rise to 2.4°Celsius by the end of 2100 if all countries meet their enhanced commitments made before and at the Glasgow conference. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announced net-zero emissions by 2070, saving one billion tonnes of carbon by 2030, 500GW of renewable by 2030, 50% of energy needs from renewable by 2030 and reducing emission intensity for a unit of GDP by 45% by 2030. India is yet to submit these announcements as its enhanced NDCs. So, the announcements in Glasgow mean a marginal improvement, as the projected temperature rise before the conference was 2.7°C.
COP president Alok Sharma said that Glasgow has ensured that the 1.5°C goal is still in sight, though countries will have to raise ambition significantly next year.
But experts disagree. Sunita Narain, director general, Centre for Science and Environment said with no mention of a carbon budget and right of the developing world to occupancy the remaining carbon space, the pathway to 1.5°C is almost closed. “The refusal of developed countries to open up carbon space for poorer countries is unfortunate,” said Arunabha Ghosh, chief executive officer of Council for Energy Environment and Water (CEEW).
The way forward
Glasgow has tailored down its commitment to “phasing out” coal saying the countries would work to “phase down” coal emissions following stiff resistance from India and China, where coal still remains the main source of energy. It has also shifted most goalposts to the next climate conference in Egypt while keeping the 1.5°C goal alive. Collaboration between countries has found some place in the pact, but experts say it may not be enough. And, the call for climate justice was partially heeded in Glasgow. “The failure to ramp up hard targets for climate finance and provide adequate support for loss and damage, in particular, has further eroded trust,” Ghosh said.
As Kothari said the final agreement is a “compromise” that reflects the contradictions and state of political will of the world today. Unfortunately, the collective political will was not enough to overcome some deep contradictions and the aim of the world to achieve net-zero could actually be itself a zero. However, as the motto of climate activism is to never give up, much is needed to be done at COP27, whose road map was drawn in Glasgow. And, as Ghosh said, “work starts now.”