It’s clear from CoP-26 that rhetoric has run ahead of reality in the actual fight against climate change
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The 26th Conference of the Parties (CoP-26) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), currently being held in Glasgow, has been a public-relations success but now clearly looks headed for failure.
Caught between climate-doomsayers like teenage activist Greta Thunberg and political posturers like UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, an important opportunity for realistic and binding international cooperation is passing us by. CoP-26 has been long on rhetoric, producing such gems as “It is one minute to midnight on the Doomsday Clock" and “Either we stop it, or it stops us". The leaders of China, Russia and Brazil, Xi Jinping, Vladmir Putin and Jair Bolsonaro did not bother to make the trip to Glasgow. Even as the conference continues with working group members, returning leaders have already backtracked from some of their statements.
On the face of it, CoP-26 has made some progress. More than 100 countries, including China, India, the US, UK and Brazil, signed up to a deforestation pledge that would halt and reverse deforestation by 2030. Over 40 countries (not including the US, China, Australia and India) signed up to stop further investment in coal, which led CoP-26 president Alok Sharma to claim that the “end of coal is in sight". Over 100 countries (not including Russia, Australia, India and China) also signed an agreement to cut methane emission by 30% by 2030. The mother of all climate-action metrics, a net-zero target date for carbon emissions, has now been adopted by over 135 countries. India is the latest to declare a carbon-neutrality target of 2070 (the furthest date of all countries that have made such declarations). Australia only recently declared 2050 as its net-zero target. A surprising hold-out is Singapore, which says it will achieve net-zero “as soon as viable in the second half of the century", perhaps signifying that it is the only country that takes pledges seriously. Bhutan and Suriname are two countries that are already carbon neutral, with several small countries pledging to get there very soon, such as Uruguay (2030), Finland (2035), Austria and Iceland (2040). Largely due to membership of the Carbon Neutrality Coalition, 124 countries have set a 2050 date for net carbon neutrality. Six countries, Sweden (2045), Denmark, France, Hungary, the UK and New Zealand (all 2050), have enshrined their targets in law.
Even before the air has cooled in Glasgow, many of these agreements have come under pressure in their home countries. Indonesia, which is a signatory to the ‘deforestation’ agreement, has questioned the semantics of that word in the pledge’s ambiguously-worded communique. Indonesia’s environment minister has said that forcing her country to commit to zero deforestation by 2030 was inappropriate and unfair and that “development must not stop in the name of carbon emissions or deforestation".
Insiders believe that the US balked from signing the coal phase-out agreement to appease Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of coal-rich West Virginia who has come to hold the balance of power in the US Senate. While the G-20 group of nations held a sympathetic conference immediately prior to CoP-26, their governments will continue to spend over half a trillion dollars on oil, gas and coal each year. According to latest data from the Energy Policy Tracker, G-20 governments have given at least $233 billion in additional support to fossil fuel-intensive industries during the pandemic.
The fuel to make climate action a reality is money. A decade ago, developed countries had planned to allocate $100 billion a year to developing countries to help them accelerate their climate commitments and combat climate change. That money has been slow in coming and short in magnitude. One positive recent signal has been the initial funding of $1.5 billion to save the Congo Basin’s Forest, the second largest forest cluster in the world whose trees happen to be taller and more resilient to climate change than those of the Amazon rainforest. Former UK central Banker Mark Carney announced at CoP-26 that the private sector through the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero will direct $130 trillion towards meaningful decarbonization. The details of this monumental fund-raise are a bit sketchy, but if even a fraction of this were to be properly directed, it would be a terrific start. The task of allocating any such climate money to the right countries, projects and technologies remains a minefield without a route map.
Economists call climate change a wicked collective action problem—for its tremendous complexity and long time frames and for the inherent incentive to let others act while each country procrastinates. What the world may have learned from Glasgow is that the idea of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) developed back at the Paris Climate Conference in 2015 may not really work beyond rhetoric. We may have to develop a Kyoto Protocol-type international treaty. ‘Fairness’ in that treaty will have to balance the climate action imperative and time frame with the development imperative of emerging economies. The geo-politics of climate action, which is clearly the biggest threat to humankind this century, is in for some extreme weather.
P.S: “ If working apart, we are a force powerful enough to destabilize our planet. Surely working together, we are powerful enough to save it," said naturalist David Attenborough.