In Glasgow, a historic tragedy may reach its climax. Where to from here?

Nov 4, 2021
COP26 summit Glasgow
(Image: Flickr/COP26)

The Glasgow climate summit may end long on rhetoric and short on substance. Among the sobering questions: are our institutions fit for purpose?

The world is watching to see how COP26 in Glasgow responds to the global climate emergency. Over time, the international community has come to expect governments would find a way to limit global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius.

The stakes in Glasgow could not be higher yet these expectations may soon be dashed.

Leading scientists have long warned of climate catastrophe. More and more voices have joined the call for drastic action to curb carbon emissions, uniting intellectuals, seasoned activists, entertainers, artists, sportspeople, doctors, business groups and others. Fearful of what the future may hold, young people have taken to the streets in their hundreds of thousands

Despite these Herculean efforts and barring a last-minute miracle, Glasgow will fall well short of the mark. The more likely outcome is a declaration long on rhetoric and short on substance.

Is this an unduly bleak assessment? No, if one is to judge by events since the Paris Agreement of December 2015. This was a legally binding international treaty adopted by 196 parties at COP21, in which they agreed to hold global warming to “well below 2C”, with a strongly worded intention to aim for 1.5C.

However, the pledges on emissions — known as nationally determined contributions or NDCs — governments brought to the French capital would have led to catastrophic heating of at least 3C.

To bridge the gap, a clause was inserted in the agreement, requiring countries to return in five years with more ambitious targets. Six years later (COP26 is one year late because of COVID-19), the new targets so far are unlikely to produce anything lower than a 2.7C rise.

The lack of ambition on the part of major carbon emitters reflects trends over several years. Every year between 2010 and 2019 has set a new high for energy consumption. In 2019, fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) still accounted for 84 per cent of the world’s primary energy consumption.

Global energy demand is set to increase by 4.6 per cent in 2021, surpassing pre-COVID-19 levels. The International Energy Agency expects electricity demand to rise by 5 per cent in 2021 with almost half the increase met by fossil fuels, notably coal. This will push CO2 emissions from the power sector to record levels in 2022.

Against this depressing backdrop, the Glasgow summit faces multiple challenges:

  • Governments must commit to targets that collectively make it possible to limit temperature rises to 1.5oC.
  • They need ​to​ spell out a credible pathway ​to reaching these targets, including substantial emission reductions between now and 2030, with business fully supporting such a pathway.
  • National energy ​​plans must become fully transparent, requiring detailed international monitoring of these plans and their implementation.
  • Technical fixes alone​​ cannot solve ​the climate change crisis. The shift to renewable technologies must be accompanied by new patterns of reduced energy consumption.
  • The transition​ to a​ carbon-​free economy has to accord with principles of justice applied within and between countries
  • The immense​ military contribution to climate change can no longer be ignored. Energy usage by military establishments must become an integral part​ of any ​international climate change strategy.
  • To be ​credible or effective, agreements on these and related issues must be given legal force.

On all these fronts, the signs are less​ than ​promising.

The absence of the leaders of many of the world’s major emitters — including China, Russia, Japan and Brazil — speaks volumes. The highly strained relations between China and Russia on the one hand and the US and the UK on the other have been singularly unhelpful.

Other attendees, notably leaders from India, Australia, Saudi Arabia and Mexico, are presenting plans totally lacking in ambition. At best, they are prepared to set targets for 2050 or 2060, but with little or no substantive commitment to action between now and 2030.

Yet, the science makes it clear that to keep the 1.5oC temperature goal within reach, the world needs to slash global emissions by 45 per cent by 2030. Regular and specific ratcheting up of emission reduction targets, a core tenet of the Paris Agreement, is unlikely to make much headway in Glasgow.

Even the more ambitious plans on the table in Glasgow leave much to be desired. The Biden plan, for example, sets demanding targets but leaves key questions unanswered.

Will the necessary congressional support be forthcoming? Does the plan have sufficient concrete detail for implementation to proceed in timely fashion? Will the most powerful business interests, including the leading fossil fuel companies, go beyond glossy ad campaigns about clean energy to lend their weight to the radical shift in energy production and consumption?

Additional issues await resolution. Two years ago, COP25 in Madrid failed to resolve several key questions: how to distinguish real emission reductions from cosmetic accounting; how to fund climate adaptation efforts; and how to bring closure to the unhelpful pre-2020 credits generated by the Kyoto Protocol. Failure then makes success even more difficult now.

One other problem looms large. The Global South, accounting for some three billion people,  cannot mount an effective climate change mitigation and adaptation program without hefty financial and technical support.

The responsibility for this lies largely with the highly developed countries, notably the G7. Less developed countries are the most vulnerable to climate change but have done the least to cause the problem.

Developing country coalitions — including the Least Developed Countries Group, the Alliance of Small Island States and the African Group of Negotiators — have made relatively modest demands. They expect COP26 to ensure that the annual $100 billion commitment is met without delay, that half this sum is directed to climate adaptation and that this paltry annual commitment is increased by 2025.

Ideally, such support will take the form of grants rather than loans. Lending with strings attached can only exacerbate the crippling problem of debt repayment faced by many of these countries, whose resources the pandemic has already stretched to the limit. Glasgow’s challenge is to avert the “climate change apartheid” that would simply mirror and reinforce the already existing “vaccine apartheid”.

There is little prospect that the climate summit will deal with these multiple problems, let alone those that have yet to make its agenda. It is hard to see how years of missed opportunity, wilful neglect and over-reliance on technological solutions can be remedied overnight.

COP26 should therefore be seen as an important moment of reflection. If governments and businesses have been chronically deficient in developing appropriate responses to climate change, it is because powerful interests stand in the way — not just at the margins but at the very heart of economic and political decision-making.

If this is so, then a difficult and sobering question arises: are our institutions fit for purpose?

Clearly, civil society everywhere must now urgently confront this long neglected question. Responding to the prospect of catastrophic climate change may require more than alerting people to the science, designing better policies and advocating for these alternative policies.

What if political institutions as presently structured, both national and international, are not emotionally, intellectually or organisationally capable of dealing with an emergency of this magnitude? The same may be said in the light of our experience with the pandemic and the nuclear sword of Damocles that continues to hang over the world 75 years after the first use of such weapons.

The Glasgow summit provides a unique opportunity to consider this governance deficit. On November 11, the penultimate day of COP26, a timely international online conversation will be led by experts and activists at the forefront of the climate change debate. Conversation at the Crossroads is hosting this event as a contribution to the public discussion.

Climate change will no doubt require immediate short-term measures to give humanity the breathing space it needs for a more holistic approach. But it is high time to start asking the probing questions that for too long have gone unanswered.

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