COP26: A tale of five stories
The Glasgow climate meet was marked by a hard push for the interests of rich countries, soft wording for those of vulnerable countries
My nine-year-old likes to listen to stories. When she asks what happened at COP26, I will narrate five stories and let her draw her own conclusions.
The drunk driver: A man was being prosecuted for drunk driving. Realising how dangerous this was, he promised to stop. The prosecutor protested that the defendant was a repeat offender. A few years earlier, he and some of his friends had stopped abiding by the rules altogether. The driver pleaded, “There are other drivers out there who might drive drunk in future; they should also stop driving.” How did the judge rule?
At COP26, there was no judge. No one held developed countries accountable for failing to meet climate commitments. There was no acknowledgment that many had emitted greenhouse gases well over their prescribed limits, in some cases choosing to withdraw from commitments altogether. Now they promised to change.
The broken pots: In a faraway land, village folk collected water in clay pots. It was arduous labour. One day, they hoped to enjoy the simple luxury of running water. On a nearby hill, rich people lived in big houses and had no water shortage. Their wealth came from quarrying stone in the valley. Occasionally, the dynamited rocks would fly into the village and smash into the clay water pots. Initially, the quarry owners denied responsibility. Later, they agreed to pay for the losses but no payment came. The quarrying intensified. Smashed pots lay strewn in the village. Stored water seeped away. The villagers packed up and left. Did the quarry owners pay?
At COP26, discussions on loss and damage (first introduced in 2007) progressed onwards to more discussions. A Glasgow Dialogue was established until 2024, in the hope of finding resources to address loss and damage.
The merchant: Once upon a time, a merchant came to a bazaar with fine silk and quickly sold her wares. Realising the demand, the merchant agreed to come every year in return for guaranteed orders from the retailers. Next year, the merchant’s caravan carried more stock, and got bigger orders. One day, the shopkeepers questioned the silk’s quality, refusing to pay. While some bales were questionable, the inventory was mostly superior grade. For years they argued. Then the shopkeepers announced they would open a bigger bazaar. Did the merchant supply more fine silk?
At COP26, the knotty issue of creating a new emissions trading market under Article 6 of the Paris Agreement was partially resolved. Decisions were taken to avoid double counting emission cuts. Some of the stock of emissions credits issued under the earlier Clean Development Mechanism can also be sold. Will the integrity of the new mechanism be maintained?
The rocket without fuel: One day, schoolchildren got notice of a competition to build a rocket. The rules said that middle school students from poor neighbourhoods must compete with high school students from fancy suburbs. The younger students would get rocket fuel. On competition day, there was no fuel. The dismayed children were assured they would get fuel the following year. The rockets got taller but the upscale high schoolers consumed the fuel. A new promise was made: Fuel after five years as long as the poorer kids built a bigger rocket each year. What did the middle schoolers do?
At COP26, countries agreed to strengthen nationally determined contributions by 2022. The promise of $100 billion in climate finance (originally due by 2020) remained unfulfilled. A new process for a collective goal on long-term climate finance will conclude in 2027. There were no funds to de-risk climate investments, even as climate ambition keeps rising. There was no decision to co-develop climate technologies. The tech divide between rich and poor will remain even in a low-carbon world.
The land grabbers: A wealthy man’s ancestors worked fallow land, gradually becoming big landowners. When he came upon the inheritance, others complained that there was no land left. They compromised. The man would not take possession of any more land; others would try to grow more crops on less land. With each passing year, however, the man fenced in a little more of what remained, telling his frustrated neighbours to stop farming. Did they find other ways to get rich or did they grab land too?
At COP26, there was last-minute controversy over a change in language to phase-down rather than phase-out coal. While correct in principle, India’s focus should be on attracting investment for its bold renewable energy targets and its pledge to transform the economy en route to net-zero emissions by 2070. India must realise that China is the new land grabber. China, the United States and the European Union will consume 90% of the remaining carbon space.
All stories have one lesson: The climate crisis will not be resolved until we can hold each other accountable. In Glasgow, initiatives were announced to cut methane emissions, end deforestation, shift to sustainable transport, or clean up heavy industry. Will the enhanced transparency framework shine a light on defaulters?
All stories have one moral: Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you. There was a relative absolutism in climate negotiations: Hard push on the interests of rich countries with soft wording for the concerns of vulnerable countries. The call for climate justice was partially heeded and unsubstantially answered.
My nine-year-old likes to write stories. When she writes historical fiction about climate negotiations, there will be few heroes. For her sake, I hope reality turns out better.
Arunabha Ghosh is CEO, Council on Energy, Environment and Water
The views expressed are personal