COP26 may mark a turning point in history

COP26 may mark a turning point in history
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon attends a ceremonial gathering with Mapuche leader and Minga Indigena Lead Coordinator Claflin Lafkenche and other indigenous delegates ahead of the COP26, in Glasgow, on Saturday. (Reuters)
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Updated 31 October 2021

COP26 may mark a turning point in history

COP26 may mark a turning point in history
  • 120 world leaders gather in Glasgow to discuss plans to cut emissions

LONDON: UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called this week’s UN climate change summit, COP26, which kicks off in Glasgow today, a “turning point for humanity.”

Unfortunately, in the last few days, the normally Tiggerish Johnson has also warned that getting the world’s governments to agree on binding commitments to radically reset Earth’s climate trajectory, is “touch and go.”

COP26 is essentially the five-year report card on the world’s progress since the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change — the treaty that committed most of the world’s governments to stop the globe’s average temperature rising more than 2 degrees Celsius and ideally, keeping it at 1.5 degrees.

It is against this backdrop that the 120 leaders who will gather in Glasgow are expected to produce detailed plans for reducing emissions.

However, the UN has conceded that the emissions cuts offered by national governments will fall short of those needed to meet the 1.5 degrees.

Its most recent report on climate change warned the Earth is set to warm 2.7 degrees by the end of this century, almost double the target.

Instead of binding agreements on climate change, COP26 will simply see governments stressing their ambitions to further green their economies and agree on deals in other areas, such as coal investment, forest protection and other less economically sensitive sectors.

If you wanted an idea of why COP26 looks set to fall so woefully short of its Paris Agreement expectations, look no further than the announcement by the Australian government on Tuesday.

Australia, one of the world’s top producers of coal and gas, announced that it intends to target net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. However, like all but a handful of governments around the world, it has no intention of putting that aspiration into legally binding legislation.

Instead, Australia will rely on consumers and companies to drive emission reductions, although the government will invest around $15 billion to help funding for new greener technologies.

China, whose leader Xi Jinping is unlikely to attend COP26, is the world’s biggest producer of greenhouse gas, accounting for 28 percent of global emissions, compared with about 15 percent for the US in second place.

While China has invested heavily in renewables — it has a third of the world’s photovoltaic capacity, almost three times that of its closest solar rival, the US — it is also sharply increasing its domestic coal production to maintain its economic expansion.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country accounts for 5 percent of CO2 emissions, the fourth largest in the world, has also decided not to attend COP26. On the plus side, it does appear that India, No. 3 on the list at 7 percent and the world’s second-largest consumer of coal, will be represented in Glasgow by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

But the absence of those two key leaders will clearly impede the potential for any sort of meaningful progress on climate change, particularly in the current geopolitical climate of increased competing interests.

Even an agreement to get Western governments to make good the $20 billion a year shortfall in helping emerging nations transition to greener energy looks to be a forlorn hope now.

Developed nations had agreed as far back as 2009 during COP in Copenhagen to provide $100 billion per year to pay for the decarbonization of emerging nations by 2020, but have so far only paid $80 billion. It emerged this week that the $100-billion goal will not now be reached until 2023, partly because the US rejected making up the shortfall any sooner. COP26 President and UK government official Alok Sharma said that the delay was “a source of deep frustration.”

So what will emerge from COP26? It is likely that world leaders will agree to stop investing in overseas coal mining. The G7 has already signed up to this, and China recently announced that it would do the same. That looks attainable, though it will not impact domestic production amid the current energy crisis.

There will also be a commitment to reduce global deforestation. The destruction of forests, for the production of palm oil, timber and for grazing, has major implications for climate change, as trees absorb more than one-third of global carbon emissions.

However, earlier this year, Frances Seymour, an expert at the US-based World Resources Institute, said that several countries had previously made deforestation pledges they failed to meet.

Humanity may be at a turning point, but global governments, it seems, are still failing to turn.