A Lost Opportunity?
Conference of Parties, or annual gathering of 200 plus heads of state or their high-powered representatives, is one such response on the behalf of humankind. Since 1995, when COP first met in Berlin, Germany, this supreme decision-making body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has achieved many milestones. COP3, which was held in Kyoto in 1997, succeeded to crystallize international consensus and commitment over reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the industrialized world; in 2007, COP13 adopted the Bali Roadmap that called for a new agreement to replace Kyoto Protocol for the reduction in emission in all countries, not the developed nations only; COP21 arranged in Paris in 2015, resulted in the historic Paris Agreement, the first of internationally binding multilateral climate treaties, which aimed at maintaining the global average temperature below 20°C from pre-industrial level. The later Conferences were more or less follow-up annual gatherings to create consensus over how to materialize the ambitious environmental targets set in Paris Agreements. Unfortunately, the pace of progress has been sluggish and it has remained disproportionately inadequate to contain fast-paced environmental degradation and brewing ecological crisis.
Before we move ahead to enlist some concrete outcomes of Glasgow-based COP26, it is in the fitness of things to discuss some technical, financial and political bottlenecks that have long plagued the strategically crucial climate negotiations and have eroded the ability of the COP mechanism to meet the expectations of climate activists.
Finance is one of the most intractable challenges that has long mired the progress over commitments made under the Paris Agreement. Green Climate Fund that was established back in 2009 by COP15 or Copenhagen Conference envisioned helping developing countries green their girds, reduce GHG emissions and build climate-resilient and adapted infrastructure. Despite the self-evident significance of this fund, the developed nations have failed so far to honor their commitment to raise $100 billion worth of fund annually for developing nations. Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) estimated, in 2019, climate financing amounted to $80 billion worth of fund, well short of the target. Financing was also made in the form of investments and loans that proved contentious. The developing nations have long argued that finance must be in the form of grants and should be provided by public resources. In addition, the calculation of a requirement of $100 billion was done a decade back. Now the requirement is much higher and stands at $600 billion per year from 2020 to 2050 just to decarbonize the energy sector. But until now, their demands have fallen flat on the Global North. The Global South maintains that developed nations have undergone rapid development and industrialization at the back of consumption of oil, gas and coal, and they are exclusively responsible for degrading the global environment. Because of this, they must shoulder the responsibility of financing the green development of developing countries and their inability to provide compensation in the form of green financing is the foremost reason for the failure of climate negotiations. Another irritant in climate finance is the demand of developing countries to provide more resources for adaptation rather than mitigation which has traditionally been favoured by the developed world. This is important because most of the funding goes to the emissions-cutting projects (mitigation) that hurts the economies of the poorest countries. The UN and lower-income countries demand a 50:50 split between funding for mitigation and adaptation. The Glasgow Summit was being viewed as a final push to urge developed nations to honour their commitment.
But, to the dismay of many countries, particularly those at risk of the rapidly-unfolding climate crisis, the Glasgow Climate Pact has again failed to live up to the expectations. Despite two-week-long intense negotiations and statements, parties could not come up with the much-needed announcement of time-bound enhancement of Green Climate Fund to the level required for mitigation, and adaptation. The communiqué reaffirmed the responsibility to honour the commitment, welcomed the call to double the number of requisite resources, and underlined the urgency to transfer resources from the developed world to the developing world. But the communiqué fell short of mentioning specific commitment and, instead, announced to launch the process to redefine new global goals on finance. The Glasgow Climate Pact does agree to double funding for adaptation but could not add further on this front. There is no denying that COP26 proved a failure, more or less, on the benchmark of finance and the Global North refused to shoulder the responsibility of helping the Global South to strike balance between national economic interests and the global requirement of the green economy.
Climate crisis-induced disasters, including but not limited to hurricanes, cyclones and inundation of low-lying areas, have forced poor countries to spend a huge sum out of their already stretched budgets on rehabilitation and reconstruction. The poorer nations are paying for the crime that they have not committed and they have persistently demanded throughout COP history that an international mechanism should be established to compensate them. To respond to their demand, Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss & Mechanism was established in the 19th Conference of Parties. There is no denying that the ravages of the climate crisis are too destructive to prevent or adapt for poorer nations. They have always raised this issue, but discussions have so far made very little progress in this regard. COP25, held the previous year in Madrid, moved on far enough to set up a database and communication and reporting system, known as Santiago Network and many countries were hoping that COP26 would further move and come up with a funding mechanism to finance loss and damage suffered by developing countries. But here again, that did not happen. COP26 did recognize the growing losses and damages and decided to “initiate” a dialogue to “talk about the arrangement for funding of activities to avert, minimize and address loss and damage. It is indeed a welcome move that COP26 has brought this burning issue to the main stage and agreed in principle to strengthen Santiago Network to build technical expertise to help countries address loss and damage, but it has moved an inch when the world needs to cover the distance in miles.
COP26 failed to convince developed nations to give money for that end. The issue will return next year. The developed countries view these calls of compensation or reparation as a damaging one because they would lay open to countless legal liabilities; nonetheless, the stubborn refusal to pay loss and damage is unfortunate as developing countries are experiencing colossal losses. As per a report, published by Christian Aid, if current climate policies remain in place, the climate-vulnerable countries are set to suffer from average GDP losses to the tune of 19.6% by 2050 and 63.9% by the end of this century. Even if the world manages to limit global warming to 1.50°C, these countries are set to face losses of 13% of GDP by 2050 and 33% by 2100. This inaction bodes ill for the prospect of curtailing losses inflicted by the climate crisis.
Adaptation was another major theme of the event and an object of particular emphasis. Adaptation has become an urgency. The world has already warmed by 1.1°C to 1.20°C above the pre-industrial level. And this warming has caused impacts, some of which are irreversible. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its sixth report back in August 2021 and it delivered the starkest every warning. The report highlighted that human activities have already caused irreversible impacts and some of the fallouts were unprecedented in hundreds of thousands of years. These irreversible and unprecedented changes in the planetary environment do warrant adjustments in transportation, telecommunication, housing, agriculture and power generation, including but not exclusive to renewable electricity production. But adaptation is prohibitively expensive and building such things as sea walls against flooding, capturing scarce rainwater for irrigation, and switching to drought-tolerant crops require massive resources. Climate vulnerable countries are not in a position to decarbonize their economies and consumption patterns. Therefore, they need adaptation financing along with mitigation financing.
COP26 has, nevertheless, made some progress vis-à-vis adaptation. The parties have agreed to launch a two-year effort to define a global goal in adaptation, well below the earlier 5-year period provided to countries to submit their NDCs under the Ratchet Mechanism of Climate Change. The Conference has also set up a Registry for Adaptation Communication that would help streamline the information collection and decision-making process. The participants have also urged the developed countries to double the adaptation financing that has been hovering around one-quarter of total international climate financing for the last many years ($20 billion in 2019). That consensus could lead to a much-demanded 50:50 split in climate financing in the next COP scheduled to be held in Egypt next year. But commitment fell short of expectations and poorer nations would continue to struggle to mobilize their already scarce resources to survive the capricious climate.
Net Zero-emission, which is a balance between GHGs released and removed, was another sticking point. Reducing greenhouse gases as much as possible and offsetting remaining irreducible gases — releases from sources like aviation or industrial processes which don’t have alternatives — is the fundamental goal of the Paris Agreement. Forty-five percent reductions by 2030 and near net-zero by 2050 is inevitable if humans want to limit global warming to 1.5°C. But NDCs submitted so far by 137 countries could only end up restricting global temperature to 2.4°C which would prove disastrous for all including humans. The emission has reached an unprecedented level. Within 100 years, the consumption of fossil fuels has taken the carbon dioxide from 275 parts per million to 419 parts per million. Furthermore, the United Nations Environmental Program revealed that an annual reduction of 7.6% in GHG emissions was required to keep the ambitious Paris temperature target of 1.5°C in play, but the current trend suggests that this target is fast slipping out of reach. COP26 has made some progress in this regard, for instance, it has decided to revisit Nationally Determined Contributions next year, instead of 2025 as required under Paris Agreement. That earlier revision of NDCs would certainly help further cut down global emissions. There is also some concrete outcome on the front of climate ambitions. The pledges made before COP26 were set to limit CO2 to the level of 52.4 Gt that has now been promised to cut CO2 further down to 41 GT, but still, we have a long way to cover to reach the level of 26.6 Gt to limit global warming within the stipulated range.
Phasing out coal-based power generation worldwide proved a very intractable bottleneck that has stymied the progress over reduction in GHGs. Coal is the dirtiest fuel out of other fossil fuels like oil and gas. International Energy Agency has warned that unless humans phase out coal-produced electricity, there is no hope of staying within 1.5°C of global warming. At least 40% of the existing 8500 coal-based power plants worldwide need to be shut down and no new one to be built to keep Paris Agreement alive. But COP26 could not generate consensus on this vital issue. The phrase ‘phase’ out was replaced with ‘phase down’ on the insistence of India at the eleventh hour and fierce opposition from oil- and coal-producing and consuming countries forced the participants to come up with a deeply watered-down agreement. That is worrisome given the fact that coal-burning has been one of the biggest sources of GHGs, but the upside of the Glasgow Pact is that it is the first climate agreement that has made direct reference to coal for the first time since Kyoto Protocol was signed back in 1997. Therefore, despite having a compromised nature of the document, the announcement of phasing down of coal-based power generation has been welcomed as a great leap forward.
Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forest and Land Use is another major outcome of the COP26. More than 141 countries pledged to end deforestation by 2030 and conserve, preserve and restore degraded forest land. The declaration is expected to strengthen the capabilities of humans to achieve 1.5°C target. In addition, $19.2 billion was promised as incentives for countries like Brazil to meet their financial needs in this regard. Global Methane Pledge came as another outcome. More than 100 countries vowed to reduce methane production by 30% from 2020 level by 2030. Methane is more heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide and it traps more than 80 times more heat than CO2, therefore, the pledge is being considered a major step forward, but the top three emitters of methane — India, China, and Russia — did not sign. But the realization of the role of methane in the warming of the atmosphere is itself worth acknowledging action. Participants have also made progress over Article 6 which governs the trading of carbon credit, and one can hope that this consensus would help mobilize billions of dollars worth of resources for renewable energy production, forest regeneration and other environment-friendly mitigation and adaptation activities.
The world stands at a crossroads and any myopic approach is set to make this beautiful Earth an unliveable planet. The developed world must understand that poor nations cannot afford the prohibitively expensive undertaking of decarbonization. They must mobilize finance for the Global South to save the planet from both poverty and climate crisis. It is a welcome development that the USA and China came up with an agreement at the end of the Summit and announced to collaborate to address the looming threat of ecological crisis. But COP26 has again made it evidently clear that national interests, contradictions, and lack of political will would continue to impede progress over climate negotiations. UN Secretary General has rightly pointed out: “Our fragile planet is hanging by a thread and we are still knocking at the door of climate catastrophe”.
The writer is a graduate of the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad. He writes on national and international affairs.