COP26: A Political Gimmick to Fool the World?

By Liya Thomas

COP 26 had a heavyweight to carry. All eyes were glued to see how the United Kingdom (UK), the self-proclaimed climate leader, would host the much anticipated ‘stocktaking’ COP26.

Many (especially from the developing economies) would agree that COP26 was riddled with problems. Though the aim was to make it the “most inclusive COP ever”, it resulted in being an exclusive meeting of the rich. From invitees not able to attend due to vaccine inequity to civil society not given access to negotiations, COP26 disappointed many. The most ironic was the fact that a meeting to reduce carbon emissions ASAP emitted 13000 tons of carbon in travel itself (the carbon footprint of an average American is 21 tons a year). So, amongst the chaos and inequality, were governments able to agree on what COP26 set out to achieve?

Six years since the historic Paris Agreement, COP 26 set out with four broad goals:

Goal 1: Push countries to come up with an ambitious plan to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. A plan which would focus on ‘phasing out’ coal, investing in renewable’s and curtailing deforestation.

By the end of COP26, ‘phasing out’ coal became ‘phasing down’ coal. President of the COP26 and British politician, Alok Sharma, even shed tears to convey his disappointment in India and China for watering down the progress made over the two weeks with their last-minute push to change the wording. Whilst this was disappointing to say the least, amongst the photo ops and interviews Alok Sharma conveniently forgot that his own country is responsible for financing oil and gas exploration in North Atlantic Ocean.Cambo is one of the many projects in the pipeline awaiting final consent from the UK government to extract crude oil. Cambo stores 800 million barrels of oil, which once the government consents, will be extracted till 2050. The first phase of extraction (170 million barrels) itself will emit carbon equivalent to 18 power stations fired by coal. Similarly, the proposed coal mine in Cumbria which would produce 8.4 million tonnes of carbon each year makes one wonder about the UK’s standing as a climate leader. Moreover, the UK has one of the most favourable tax systems in the world attracting oil giants like Shell, who decided to shift its tax residency from the Netherlands to the UK, a day after COP26 ended.  This clearly underscores the façade that was COP26, when a country apparently ‘leading’ on the climate crisis is itself sluggish and unwilling to put the planet before profit.

While more than 40 countries pledged to shift away from dirty fossil fuels, the big players like the US and China refused to make any such commitments. Disappointingly, despite being the third-largest producer and consumer of coal, the US has not made any promises to even ‘phase down coal. In fact, merely four days after COP26, the Biden administration leased 80.9 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas extraction. Analysts suggest that Biden was more concerned with upsetting senators from coal-producing states back home than with climate action. His visit to Glasgow might have only been to amp up his approval rating among democrats. To add to this, President Xi Jinping, the head of the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, was nowhere close to being a participant at COP26. With a written statement that provided no clarity on how the country will transition towards a green economy, it is apparent that China’s priorities lie elsewhere.

Another move that has caught public attention is the commitment made by over 130 countries to end deforestation by 2030. Amidst the concerns of deforestation rates in the Amazon, Brazil’s promise to end and reverse deforestation should be taken with a pinch of salt. Climate Observatory, a Brazilian advocacy group has come out and said that delegates from Brazil went to COP26 hiding the real figures of forest decline. The Amazon lost 13,235km2 forest area (the size of Northern Ireland) this year alone, the highest since 2006. The militarised approach to forest management taken by former army captain, President Jair Bolsonaro, has resulted in increased mining activities and commercial farming in protected areas. Since he took over the office in 2019, Brazil has witnessed a severe decline in the forest area. Bolsonaro’s absence from COP26 against this backdrop makes one doubtful if commitments made at COP26 will be taken seriously.

Goal 2: Develop an adaptation plan to avoid further loss of habitats and livelihoods. The idea here was to make adaptation an equally important subject as mitigation in the UNFCC agenda.

The occurrence of more frequent disasters across the globe has signalled that cutting emissions is not going to be enough (if we ever manage to do it). We also need to adapt to live in a new world. At COP26, this need was recognised and a two-year work program called The Glasgow-Sharm el-Sheikh Work Programme (The GlaSS) was launched. This work program intends to support the climate-vulnerable countries in measuring their progress towards adaptation. By organising eight workshops between 2022 & 2024, a team of experts plans to assist developing countries to set the methodology, indicators and data to measure their progress towards the adaption goal. However, unlike mitigation with a universally applicable metric of progress (tonnes of GHG emissions), adaption doesn’t have a universal or a quantifiable measure. Only time will tell how this initiative fairs.

A gesture that signalled the seriousness of focussing on adaptation was the commitment made by the developed countries to contribute a total of USD 356 million towards the Adaptation Fund. The voluntary stature of the pledge has, however, worried developing countries. Delegates from the US and African nations went head-to-head till the last days to reach an agreement. African nations wanted a more reliable commitment of fund flow than a voluntary pledge. But when the rich refuse to budge, the weaker nations have no choice but to compromise and accept the wooden nickel.

Goal 3: Mobilise developed countries to keep the promise of supporting developing economies in climate mitigation efforts by donating USD 100 billion every year till 2020.

The switch to a green economy (renewable energy) is not an easy one for many poor economies. At COP15 in Copenhagen, developed countries agreed to channel USD 100 billion every year by 2020 to support the mitigation efforts in developing nations. Though USD 100 billion is nowhere close to the real amount needed (IPCC estimates it to be close to USD 2.4 trillion each year for the energy sector itself), this agreement was to signal the good faith between the two worlds. Not only have developed countries continuously failed to meet this commitment, but the funds channelled have been in the form of loans and not grants. Though this disappointment was expressed clearly by the developing nations at COP26, the talks failed to agree on a formal commitment. COP26 closed talks on the subject by expressing “deep regret” and assuring the flow of finance by 2023. It is fair to say that the worries of developing nations about getting the voluntary adaption fund is justified.

Goal 4: Finalise the Paris rule book which sets out guidelines to achieve the net-zero dream.

Paris rulebook has been under negotiation since COP21. This rulebook lays out clear guidance on how countries should carry out the vision of a zero-carbon future. The issue of carbon credits and the carbon market kept popping up in discussions and countries often failed to reach a consensus. At COP26, this was finally agreed upon with voluntary cooperation, non-market approaches to carbon credits and a new carbon credit system (different from the Kyoto protocol).

Is it all just a show?

Getting countries together on one platform voluntarily is a big achievement and COP continues to do it every time. However, lately, it has turned into a platform to debate, discuss and negotiate terms to save the planet while continuing business as usual. The double standards and the dominance of the rich, exclusion and disregard for the poor and the inaction by the biggest polluters have questioned the true purpose of COP.

Looking at the way the so-called leaders have flipped on their words, with no action taken to deal with the immediate threats posed by climate change, it is hard not to define COP26 as a waste of money, time and carbon.

Graphic courtesy of Nahal Sheikh.