To the world’s most famous climate activist, Greta Thunberg (like Malala, now elevated to a mononym), the summit was just more ‘blah, blah, blah’ – vacuous speeches by politicians unable to grasp the urgency of the climate crisis. For optimists, such as the relentlessly upbeat US envoy John Kerry, Cop26 was ‘not the finish line’ but just ‘starts the race’.
Cop26 started with dire warnings from the assembled leaders of more than 120 countries but few hopes for a breakthrough. Beijing proposed a target little different from the one it made in 2015, Washington’s focus on the climate had become distracted by domestic skirmishes, while Canberra, Delhi and Moscow were stalling on new pledges. The New York Times noted: ‘Many countries will press against such specific measures, and the absence of leaders from Russia and China from the meeting cast doubts on how united the world can be in the struggle.’
Of the countless studies, drafts, speeches and discussions at the UN climate summit, one word summed up the polarised attitudes welded together into the ‘Glasgow climate pact’. A pledge to ‘phase out’ coal globally was reluctantly changed in the third and final draft of the resolution to ‘phase down’, under pressure from India (which relies on 135 coal-fuelled power plants for 70% of its energy). Delhi denied introducing the strange term but its environment minister did ask: ‘How can anyone expect that developing countries make promises about phasing out coal and fossil fuel subsidies?’ The BBC, asking ‘Did India betray vulnerable nations?’, said it was a far cry from India’s more promising stance as the summit opened, when the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 1bn tonnes by 2030 and emissions to net zero – albeit only by 2070 (by which time India is predicted to be suffering more extreme heat, drought, rainfall, erosion and storms than most other countries).
Australia and Saudi Arabia also tried hard to water down pledges. The Saudis, with 17% of global oil reserves, were accused by Greenpeace of ‘utterly cynical’ moves to undermine the talks. Australia was the only major developed country that refused to increase its 2030 emissions reduction targets at Cop26. The pledge by the prime minister, Scott Morrison, of a 2050 net-zero target had ‘very little meaning’ without shorter-term goals, said Al Gore. Australia’s Labor opposition accused Morrison of ‘lying about lying’ (partly over his poor climate record).
Small and vulnerable countries, given a rare voice on the world stage, saw the craven failure to stand up to big polluters watering down pledges as symbolising rich nations’ lip service to their existential crisis. Tuvalu’s foreign minister, Simon Kofe, addressed Cop26 while standing knee-deep in water where there was once land to illustrate his country’s losing fight against rising sea levels. ‘It’s basically the survival of countries like Tuvalu,’ he said. ‘We would’ve liked to see bigger countries take bigger cuts on their emissions.’ For the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne, who chairs the Alliance of Small Island States, private-sector lobbying was blocking progress. Speaking at the G20 summit in Rome just ahead of Cop26, he said: ‘We are here to save the planet, not to protect profits. There are very powerful multinational firms and lobbies … who benefit from fossil-fuel subsidies.’
There were some successes, such as a declaration to cut methane by 30% on 2020 levels by 2030. The gas, which is 80 times more potent in warming the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, accounts for about 30% of global warming, according to the UN Environment Programme. The US president, Joe Biden, called the pledge to tackle methane leaking from oil and gas wells, pipelines and other infrastructure, as well as from sources such as livestock and landfill sites, ‘game-changing’ but one expert warned that ‘unless we get CO2 under control, action on methane is kind of moot’, the New Scientist reported. Another positive was the unexpected US-China declaration, in which the world’s two biggest economies committed to keeping the increase in the global average temperature to ‘well below’ 2C and to ‘pursue efforts’ to limit it to 1.5C. The agreement, even if somewhat vague, surprised most observers – ‘shock climate deal sparks cautious optimism’, CNBC reported.
An agreement to create ‘green corridors’ to help decarbonise shipping (a major source of CO2) was welcomed, though Reuters said it was unclear how the plan would get shipping emissions to zero. The 2015 Paris climate agreement established a ‘ratchet mechanism’, in which it was agreed to revise nationally determined contributions (NDCs), as each country’s plans for cutting emissions are known, every five years. Getting countries to agree to come back to the table at next year’s Cop in Egypt with NDCs that have been ‘ratcheted up’ was considered to be a win, if a modest one.
How the climate change adaptation would get funded was a ‘make or break issue’, the Financial Times said. Molwyn Joseph, Antigua and Barbuda’s environment minister, said the $100bn target was an ‘acid test’ of rich countries’ sincerity about tackling climate change. ‘We are not asking for handouts,’ he said. ‘We are asking for compensation for damages, as a result of the profligacy of these developed countries. Those that emit this carbon, that is causing climate events, should pay.’
This question of who will pay for the climate adaptation needed by developing countries remains unclear and may prove to be the biggest obstacle of all. The OECD said there was $79.6bn of climate finance in 2019, still short of the $100bn pledged but far above Oxfam’s calculation that it was only a third of this if loans are discounted. An Overseas Development Institute study proposed using three metrics – gross national income, cumulative carbon dioxide emissions and population – to decide which countries pay their fair share. It found that only Germany, Norway and Sweden had done so; in lowest place, unsurprisingly, was the US. But Australia, Canada and New Zealand, three of the Commonwealth’s heavy hitters, also paid less than 20% of their share of climate finance.
Many developing countries are spending vastly more on servicing debt than on climate emergency adaptation: the Jubilee Debt Campaign estimates 34 of the world’s poorest countries are spending $30bn on debt payments compared with $5.4bn on the climate. Many countries in the ‘global south’, already spending heavily on recovering from climate-induced disasters such as ever-more destructive hurricanes, succeeded at the last Cop in establishing a reporting system and database known as the Santiago Network. The failure in Glasgow to go further and set up a new ‘loss and damage’ funding facility was seen as a grave disappointment. However, richer nations have baulked at calls for reparations they fear would create an open-ended legal liability.
And illustrating the difficulties of monitoring money already disbursed, Mushtaq Khan, economics professor at Soas, told the Financial Times that a third of finance for climate adaptation projects in Bangladesh was embezzled – countries vulnerable to climate change are also some of the most susceptible to corruption. Even so, for the veteran commentator John Vidal, the ‘shameful refusal’ of rich nations to honour funding pledges ‘poisoned climate negotiations for a decade and may go down in history as one of the biggest diplomatic blunders of the age’.
For many, Cop26 signalled a retreat from proclaimed efforts to ‘keep 1.5 alive’ – environmentalists’ rallying cry to limit global heating to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, as agreed at Cop21 in Paris six years ago. Aminath Shauna, the Maldives’ environment minister, pointed out that to keep 1.5C alive, the world must halve CO2 emissions in eight years. It’s an almost impossible target but, she warned: ‘The difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees is a death sentence for us.’ Unfortunately, analysis by the respected Climate Action Tracker (CAT) found participants’ short-term goals would lead to a 2.4C rise.
In a sign of how exhausting but also bitterly disappointing the final late-night talks were for participants, Alok Sharma, the UK minister presiding over Cop26, seemed overcome with emotion as he apologised for sacrificing the key passage on coal to keep the deal in play. India and China, he declared, would have to justify themselves to vulnerable nations. However, many observed that the declaration ignored oil and gas. Friends of the Earth accused the UK government of hypocrisy by warning about climate change while apparently being ready to approve drilling in Scotland’s new Cambo oilfield.
This gap between pledges and action haunts each Cop summit. Sharma said: ‘We have kept 1.5C alive. But its pulse is weak and it will only survive if we keep our promises.’ Bill Hare, of Climate Analytics, one organisation behind CAT, said: ‘It’s great that countries have long-term net-zero targets, but they need to close the gap with short-term measures.’ He criticised countries such as Brazil, Australia and Russia for their lack of ‘seriousness of purpose’, calling their targets ‘very hypothetical’.
In the search for something positive to take away from this crucial yet largely disappointing summit, Time magazine pointed out that before Cop21 in Paris, the world was on track for not 2.4C but 3.6C of warming, according to a 2015 CAT report. Another of those looking for the positives was Tom Whipple, the Times newspaper’s science editor, who said: ‘So much has changed. Three years ago 30% of countries had net-zero targets. Now, 90% do.’
But Vidal was pessimistic: ‘There was little urgency and we are still heading for catastrophe. Any chance of halving fast-rising emissions by 2030 – the declared aim of the talks – is now negligible … UN climate process [is] slow and measured and requires consensus and compromise. This is usually admirable, but it works against the scale and speed of action needed in a global emergency.’
Helen Mountford, of the World Resources Institute, tried to square these opposing views: ‘The reality is you’ve got two different truths going on. We’ve made much more progress than we ever could’ve imagined a couple years ago. But it’s still nowhere near enough.’