COP26: Was the Glasgow conference a cop out on climate change?

  • Living
  • Tuesday, 16 Nov 2021

Climate activists demonstrating outside the COP26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov 12, 2021. NGOs were not happy with negotiations, calling the end results indecisive. — AFP

We heaped our hopes on one two-week conference, that it would save humanity from itself and stop the planet from burning up. So, was the Glasgow climate conference a success or failure?

Well, it depends on who you speak to.

Running from Oct 31 to Nov 12, 2021, the 26th United Nations Conference of Parties on Climate Change – known simply as COP26 – was held at the sprawling SEC Centre beside the Clyde River in Scotland’s largest city (and it even had its own dedicated train station).

With over 120 heads of state in attendance – mingling with luminaries like British naturalist David Attenborough and actor Idris Elba, American politician turned conservationist Al Gore, former US president Barack Obama, and Swedish teenage climate rebel Greta Thunberg – the conference opened with a bigger bang than usual.

Not least because after a year of postponement due to the Covid-19 pandemic as well as unresolved issues from COP25 in Madrid, Spain, there was a lot for negotiators to discuss. Several bouts of disastrous flooding in China and Europe and forest fires and heatwaves in the United States and Canada added pressure to the talks too.

So leaders, including US President Joe Biden, Germany’s Angela Merkel, France’s Emmanuel Macron, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Indonesian President Jokowi Widodo, were quick to fire off a succession of pledges and commitments in the first two days of the summit.

Among others, they promised to end methane emissions while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a halt to deforestation by 2030 via the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use, which included the FACT (Forest, Agriculture and Commodity Trade) Dialogue.

Malaysian Environment and Water Minister Datuk Seri Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man (centre) with ministry secretary-general Datuk Seri Dr Zaini Ujang (left) and another ministry official in discussion in Glasgow. — ZAINI UJANG/FacebookMalaysian Environment and Water Minister Datuk Seri Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man (centre) with ministry secretary-general Datuk Seri Dr Zaini Ujang (left) and another ministry official in discussion in Glasgow. — ZAINI UJANG/FacebookEnvironment and Water Minister Datuk Seri Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man, who delivered Malaysia’s statement during the high-level segment on Wednesday, said Malaysia would join both pledges.

In fact, coming on top of earlier commitments – including one by Malaysia to slash greenhouse gas emissions’ intensity by 45% based on GDP by 2030 and to aim for net zero emissions of carbon by 2050 – the International Energy Agency predicted that global warming would be held to 1.8ºC by 2100 if all these commitments are met in full and on time. This is only a few percentage points off the 1.5ºC of global heating above pre-industrial levels that the Paris Climate Agreement 2015 sought to achieve.

So what’s not to like?

‘Mitigation-centric’ is not good

Well, for one, civil society organisations are decrying the fact that they were unable to attend many negotiations and raise their concerns. Due to Covid-19 vaccine inequity, many participants, especially from the poorer developing countries, had to undergo a quarantine period and could not attend discussions. Pandemic restrictions also meant limited space inside the venue – media accreditation was full weeks ahead of the meeting’s start – for the roughly 30,000 attendees.

“I have been following the climate change negotiations for decades and I think this one, for sure, is the most exclusive that I have seen in my life,” complained Ivonne Yanez, speaking during an online press conference; she is from Ecuadorean environmental group Accion Ecologia and had to quarantine for five days.

Then there’s the language in the draft text – known as the “cover decision” – that came out of the Glasgow meeting, which as late as Saturday afternoon was still being parsed through and argued over by negotiators.

They locked horns over issues such as loss and damage, adaptation, carbon markets, technology transfer, mitigation, fossil fuel subsidies, phasing out coal, and climate finance. (See graphic below for brief explanations of climate change jargon and keywords.)

Referring to the three cover decisions presented by COP26 president and British Minister of State Alok Sharma to the delegates, Third World Network climate change coordinator and Sahabat Alam Malaysia president Meena Raman said they were supposed to capture “what would be the spirit of Glasgow” – but fail to do so.

“For those of who have been looking at the paragraphs, it’s highly disappointing because it’s all doublespeak. If you look at all the decisions, everything is about ‘urges’, ‘recognises’, ‘notes’, whatever. The only two decisions they are pushing for are in the mitigation section,” she told a live streamed press conference in Glasgow late on Nov 12 night.

The decisions, she explained, are to have a work programme from next year to talk about enhancing mitigation ambitions as well as a proposal for an annual ministerial high level conference before 2030.

Meena: 'It's a complete fraud that this Glasgow package is going to deliver on the 1.5°C.' — ScreenshotMeena: 'It's a complete fraud that this Glasgow package is going to deliver on the 1.5°C.' — ScreenshotHowever, Meena pointed out that there is already a process underway under Article 14 of the Paris Climate Agreement that will “stock take” the global community’s responses and report on whether they will achieve the agreement’s objectives and purposes.

“That process is already unfolding next year and now you introduce this work programme on announcing mitigation ambitions and a pre-2030 roundtable only on mitigation.

“It shows you that instead of the entire Paris package, they only focused on one part of the comprehensive stock take that is supposed to take place, and that is not correct,” she said.

She also pointed out that there is no reference to enhancing adaptation, support for loss and damage, and climate finance ambitions.

“It’s ‘mitigation-centric’ with a removal of everything that was agreed to in the Paris Agreement. It’s departing from and massively killing the Paris Agreement, and we are so upset.

“I would go as far as saying it’s a complete fraud that this Glasgow package is going to deliver on the 1.5ºC,” she said, adding that the goal will continue to be impossible until and unless developed countries reduce their emissions to real zero and not net zero.

On Nov 13 night, the word out of Glasgow was that an agreement had been reached for countries to return next year with stronger emissions targets by accelerating the phasing down of coal and – something which activists have long fought for – ending subsidies for fossil fuels.

The concession to “phase down” instead of phase out coal came after India objected to phasing out one of the dirtiest fossil fuels in use – it is still highly dependant on coal, as is Malaysia, which has a power grid that is more than 50% dependant on coal-fired plants.

Sharma acknowledged the scale of the task remaining will be carried over to COP27, to be hosted by Egypt next year.

“We can now say with credibility that we have kept 1.5°C alive. But its pulse is weak and it will only survive if we keep our promises and translate commitments into rapid action,” he said at the conclusion of the talks on Saturday night.

Few concrete plans

Most devastatingly, while the pledges and commitments announced under the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of each state or third parties, such as the private sector, may sound all peachy and good – who is keeping track of and auditing them?

For example, there was a New York Declaration in 2014 which promised to halve deforestation by 2020 – this obviously hasn't happened. And then there's the US$100bil (RM415.4bil) package of climate financing which was supposed to be up and running last year but which will now only come into being by 2023 (we hope).

And all these declarations and pledges in Glasgow do not come with many details on how they are supposed to work, including that promise to mobilise finance to protect forests.

A caveat to the International Energy Agency’s calculations is that all these pledges have to be implemented on time, says Cardiff University lecturer Dr Jennifer Allan, who has been to over 40 UN conferences on global climate and waste management.

“That’s a big if. There have been other pledges in the past. We need more work than a declaration,” she said during an Earth Negotiations Bulletin webinar on Nov 7.

Many of the pledges, such as the one to stop methane emissions, are also not included in the countries’ NDCs under the Paris Agreement, which means that countries do not have to report back on how they are doing in fulfilling pledges.

Asked if she thinks that COP26 is a failure, Allan said: “It’s always a trick with the COP. How do you define what is success? I think those that are saying that [it’s a failure], in that this COP has not put the contrast to 1.5ºC ... that’s a benchmark and so far, we are falling short,” she said.

In fact, watchdog Climate Action Tracker cautions that the world is on track for 2.4ºC of warming, if not more, despite countries’ new and updated climate pledges, including those made in Glasgow. It says that while the net zero goals of 40 countries accounts for 85% of global emissions cuts, only 6% of these emissions goals have actually been backed up by concrete plans.

Private sector action?

George: 'COP26 has shown that companies are taking significant steps in decarbonising various industries.' — ScreenshotGeorge: 'COP26 has shown that companies are taking significant steps in decarbonising various industries.' — ScreenshotYet, for Perpetua George, who contributed to a multistakeholder task force during the FACT session on Nov 6, COP26 has made progress.

Malaysia-based George is general manager for Group Sustainability at Singaporean agribusiness company Wilmar International. She was at an online event held after the FACT session which also saw Malaysian Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Datuk Zuraida Kamaruddin adding a few words via video. George later replied to our emailed questions.

“If we focus on the fact that it is the first time such inclusive input and recommendations from multistakeholders – such as the FACT dialogue proposals – have been put on the negotiation table, then COP26 made progress.

“There will, of course, be varying expectations from stakeholders about commitments and progress and the efforts leading towards the development and implementation of a pathway for 1.5ºC.

“From the private sector view, though, I think COP26 has shown that companies are taking significant steps in decarbonising various industries, and this can be seen from the commitments they have made.

“It would be good, of course, to see governments also moving at this pace,” she said.

George said that from the perspective of the private sector, notably the palm oil sector, there has actually been progress and successes since the 2014 New York Declaration.

Deforestation of intact forests in the two biggest palm oil-producing countries, Indonesia and Malaysia, has dropped by 60% since 2016 and, globally, 75% of palm oil refining capacity is covered under No Deforestation, No Peat and No Exploitation commitments, with 50% of global volume already sustainably certified through a third party scheme, she said.

“What potentially could be different for Glasgow is that there is a clearer understanding among all stakeholders about what the priorities and challenges are in addressing deforestation and overall emissions reductions.

“This is the first COP where such wide and practical inputs have been provided by the private sector and nongovernmental stakeholders through the FACT dialogue – and this should not be overlooked,” she said.

The FACT dialogue, said George, has been a catalyst for increasingly active participation and commitments from the private sector in climate change, pledging up to US$7.2bil (RM30bil) towards mitigating deforestation and financing emissions reductions.

“As part of the pledges, the top 10 global agricultural trading and processing companies issued a joint statement at the World Leaders’ Summit on Forests and Land Use at COP26, committing to a sectoral roadmap for enhanced supply chain action that is consistent with a 1.5°C pathway to be achieved by COP27,” she said.

And Allan pointed out that for the first time, adaptation was on the negotiators’ agenda in Glasgow, something that African countries – which have undoubtedly suffered the worst of the impacts from the climate crisis – fought for.

“So there are small victories,” she said.

In his closing statement, Sharma said that the negotiators had responded to the challenge and that “history has been made here in Glasgow”.

But only the future will tell whether this will be enough.

Jargon explained!Jargon explained!

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