By Chris Johansen

The 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) concluded on 13th November (after extending 24 hours from the scheduled closure). Two days after Remembrance Day commemorating the end of the armageddon that was World War 1. In years hence will 13th November be commemorated as the day we blew our last chance to halt the approaching armageddon of climate change?

The overall outcome of COP26 can perhaps best be summarized by this ABC report on 14th November: COP26 president Alok “Sharma broke down during proceedings and apologised after objections by India over the wording around the phasing out of fossil fuels forced a last-minute change to the text”.

Anyone with any understanding climate change recognizes that the 2020s is the “critical decade” for taking decisive action on climate change, to have any chance of avoiding some of the tipping points into runaway climate change. The 2015 Paris agreement made it clear that we can only avoid such tipping points by keeping mean global temperature less than 2.0°C above pre-industrial levels, and preferably below 1.5°C. However, an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report published in 2019 projected that various catastrophic climate events could be precipitated within the range 1.5-2.0°C. We are currently at 1.1°C and projected to pass 1.5°C around the end of this decade.

COP26 was intended to mobilize the world’s nations into taking drastic action on emissions reductions so as to adequately address these scientific realities. Although many of the major polluting nations have pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2050 – but not China which pledges to do so by 2060 and India by 2070 – it is generally considered that a halving of emissions by 2030 would be required to be anywhere near that trajectory.

So, a prime objective of COP26 was for nations, particularly high emitting ones, to strengthen their nationally determined commitments (NDCs) for emissions reduction. Some did, like the USA, UK and some EU countries, but others didn’t, like the notable climate laggards, including Australia. Climate Action Tracker clearly illustrates, in the diagram below, that new NDC commitments only narrowed the gap between existing pledges and what the science requires by 15-17%. The current 2030 level of commitments would take us to disastrous heating of 2.4°C. A huge fail. And even more so when it is considered that these NDCs are just “promises” rather than enforceable commitments.

Nevertheless, some positive steps forward include:

  • The final COP26 document, the Glasgow Climate Pact, includes a summary of the main findings of the 2019 IPCC report, basically that getting anywhere near a 2°C warming would likely unleash a range of catastrophic tipping points. All 197 participating countries have now signed up to this, which makes it hypocritical for any country, and I’m thinking mainly of Australia, to continue downplaying/denying the present and likely future effects of climate change.
  • World leaders from over 100 countries promised to stop deforestation by 2030. But a lot of trees can be cut down before then.
  • A planned scheme to cut 30% of current methane emissions by 2030, confirmed by over 100 countries, Australia being a predictable omission.
  • 450 financial organisations, with shared financial control of $130 trillion, have agreed to back technology such as renewable energy and financing away from fossil fuels.
  • China and USA, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters, agreed to cooperate on climate action.

Less than satisfactory outcomes include:

  • Most of the 97 articles of the Glasgow Climate Pact begin with weasel words like “recognize”, “requests”, “invites”, “urges”, “calls upon”, “reaffirms”, “requests”, “welcomes”, “emphasizes”, etc. Polite requests rather than commitments to action.
  • The need for annual COPs where parties are required to strengthen their commitments, show a plan for how they would reach their targets and report on the progress so far towards previous commitments. This is a response to the miserably low NDCs presented at COP26.
  • Inadequate promises, and they remain just “political promises”, of global financing for developing countries to assist them to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Such financing to date has been disappointing and the required level of financing will inevitably increase as climate impacts worsen into the future.
  • Surprisingly, previous COP statements have never documented the need to phase out fossil fuels, the major causes of the climate crisis, due to the influence of the fossil fuel champs, such as Saudi Arabia, Russia and Australia. The present COP statement calls upon the Parties to “accelerate efforts towards the phase-out of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”. As mentioned above, at the last minute India insisted that “phase-out” be changed to “phase-down”, further weakening an already weak and non-binding statement. Australia had earlier tampered with this phrase – including “unabated” to accommodate their promise of carbon capture and storage (CCS) and limiting the “phase-out/down” to coal for electricity and not for industrial heating (e.g. steel manufacture) A very general statement not including oil and gas in the “phasing out/down” and not specifying any timeline for the phasing out of subsidies, nor defining what is a subsidy. The Australian Government in particular would be very happy with that phrase as it is essentially devoid of any requirement to do anything about fossil fuels.
  • Although there are various statements indicating that the Parties agree with the science of the 2019 IPCC Report there are few statements of agreement on the mechanisms of mitigation.

But should we be surprised by the disappointing lack of progress, essentially ending up with a blueprint for climate catastrophe? Not really, as any joint consensual statement emanating from a large number of people/organizations/countries will inevitably revert to the lowest common denominator (unless some Parties opt out of signing).

Most governments around the world are really representative of powerful corporations, which very much includes fossil fuel interests, rather than champions of the general well-being of the vast majority of their citizens. These corporations very much have an interest in maintaining the status quo, to be able to keep on selling their products, and have so far been very effective in watering down COPs despite the screamingly obvious scientific imperative for meaningful action on climate change.

So, my conclusion is that effective action on climate change is now, more than ever, in the hands of civil society bodies. These will have to step up their already prominent advocacy to be able to eventually get the ear of governments over the cashed-up lobbying of fossil fuel interests. So, I would think, is needed now more than ever.

Header photo credit: Wikimedia Commons