Written by Professor Molly Scott-Cato
The purpose of COP26 was to ‘Keep 1.5 Alive’, to ensure that our climate does not heat up by more than 1.5 degrees. This is the target against which the diplomatic agreement, signed by nearly 200 countries after two weeks of tortuous negotiation, should be judged. And by that measure it has failed disastrously. In spite of claims that the target is still there this is true in word only; the promises made to reduce emissions – much less the action taken – fall far short of that target.
The mechanism to achieve this increased ambition was for countries to strengthen the promises on reductions (the jargon is ‘nationally determined contributions’ or NDCs) they made in Paris in 2015, in other words to cut deeper and faster. While there has been some increased ambition, according to the well-respected Carbon Action Tracker, the pledges made put us on track for 2.4 degrees of warming.
While the difference between 1.5 and 2.4 might not seem like very much it is the difference between a liveable climate and one where thousands die from heat shock in Europe and millions are faced with starvation in Africa due to drought. It is the difference between the loss of all the corals in the world and having some chance of saving them. For low-lying island countries like the Maldives or the Marshall Islands, it is all the difference in the world; with 2.4 degrees of warming and the sea level rise it entails, their countries will simply disappear.
So what went wrong? Much attention has rightly focused on the eleventh-hour blackmail by India (with China behind them) that watered down the commitment on coal to ‘phasing down’ rather than ‘phasing out’ and reduced COP President Alok Sharma to tears. More attention should be paid to the decade and more of betrayal felt by these two major players and the many smaller countries in the Global South that are feeling the impacts of the climate crisis caused by the historic emission of the wealthy countries of the Global North. Their manoeuvre on Saturday night was one indication of their refusal to accept that climate injustice.
The geopolitics in the run-up to the conference was never promising, with the Western countries falling out with both Russia and China, neither of whose leaders attended. These countries are vital because the first relies on exporting gas for its economic survival and the second relies on coal to power its industry and electricity. Without both fully committed COP26 was always going to fail. This was a diplomatic failure lasting decades during which geopolitical manoeuvring has dominated the climate crisis.
Even those countries that were fully signed up put self-interest above the common project of saving the climate. The need to remove fossil fuels from our global economy was held up by many of the most powerful countries – the UK and US included – sheltering their fossil fuel interests. And the UK presidency lost focus on the global diplomacy at the heart of COP with its desire to tout for sustainable finance business for The City.
So the COP merry-go-round moves on to Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt next year, with the UK continuing to hold the Presidency during that year, when countries have to try harder to live up to the needs of future generations and put hard pledges and policy proposals on the table.
Every year of delay makes preserving a liveable climate harder, because the emissions we produce this year and next year will persist in the atmosphere, trapping heat, and adding to the disastrous droughts, floods, forest fires and famines that are occurring with increasing frequency.
While this is a gloomy picture, there are some individual rays of light, with deals on methane and forests helping to reduce the burden on the atmosphere. And the acceptance of the need to phase out fossil fuels by countries responsible for the vast majority of the world’s economic activity can only be welcomed. To reach any agreement between so many countries is an achievement in itself.
Such widescale agreements inevitably work on the principle of the lowest common denominator and we are likely to see more ambitious agreements by coalitions of countries, an early example being the Beyond Oil and Gas Initiative led by Denmark and Costa Rica. If the EU were to get on board with such agreements it could use its powerful trade muscle to impose carbon tariffs on countries that are failing to keep up with the action the climate demands, creating a powerful ratchet to improve climate performance across the globe.