The good, the bad and the dangerous: What to expect from COP26
As world leaders prepare to descend on Glasgow, here’s Global Justice Now’s guide to the summit.
Climate politics at COPs is complex and the stakes are high. After almost three decades of multi-pronged negotiations, understanding the significance of what is being discussed is not always an easy task. But, behind a wall of acronyms and technocratic language, the climate talks are an important battleground where visions for climate justice can be realised, or derailed by false solutions and dangerous delusions.
Amid a range of announcements from world leaders and governments, identifying just and appropriate solutions can often be difficult. Are politicians promising real change that will prevent the world breaching the maximum global average heating of 1.5C? Or are they offering more of the same or worse? That’s why we’ve put together this handy guide on what to expect from COP26.
1) Net zero targets and carbon offsetting
The 2015 Paris Agreement asks countries to make nationally determined contributions (NDCs) for emissions reductions, and these are increasingly being presented as how quickly countries aim to reach ‘net zero’ carbon emissions. The fatal flaw with net zero, however, is that it allows plans for cutting emissions to heavily rely on ‘offsets’ – increases in natural carbon sinks like forests or through carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. The higher the planned offsets in the NDC, the higher the level of emissions a country can continue to produce.
The problem is that offsetting at the planned scale is unfair, impractical and unrealistic. Offsetting overwhelmingly targets lands in the global south, but there is not enough land on the whole planet to offset all the emissions in the air. CCS technology, meanwhile, remains unproven on a large scale, and should not be used as a ‘get out of cutting emissions free’ card.
In September the UN found that, far from cutting emissions by the 45% by 2030 that scientists estimate is required, the world is on track for emissions to rise by 16% instead. Governments must agree on serious, rapid action to genuinely decarbonise and get as close to ‘real zero’ emissions as quickly as possible. Net zero gives them just another way to defer this.
2) Common but differentiated responsibilities
The principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ was agreed at the Rio Summit in 1992 (although it has not always been applied in agreements made at the COP summits which followed). This principle acknowledges that major historic emitters of greenhouse gases (mostly rich, former colonial powers) have a greater responsibility for causing climate change and should therefore bear more responsibility to decarbonise more quickly. Plus they should provide financial resources and share technology with the global south to help them both address the impacts of climate change and make the transition to a low-carbon economy. This should be the guiding principle of the whole process – but too often rich countries seek to undermine it.
While China is now the country with the single largest carbon emissions in the world, this is a misleading measurement. When you look at emissions per person, China is still behind most of the G20, with people in the United States emitting nearly three times as much per person as people in China, and people in the UK 25% more. When we look at historical cumulative emissions, China is well behind the United States and the EU. So it is only just that China reaches any decarbonisation target later than industrialised countries.
Pressure on China to bring its net zero target forward from 2060 – and relentless western media efforts to pin the blame for climate inaction on China, India and other emerging economies – should be seen in this context. The fairest way to plan decarbonisation is for the biggest historic emitters to take the quickest action, as they promised to do in 1992. This instead means that, while China must also decarbonise, the burden is really on the US, UK and others to bring decarbonisation targets significantly further forward, as well as to provide at least the climate finance they have promised and failed to deliver for a decade.
3) Climate finance
In recognition of their common but differentiated responsibilities for climate change, rich countries first pledged at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009 to provide $100 billion a year in climate finance to the global south by 2020. Not only was this target missed, however, but of the $79 billion that rich countries claimed to have provided in 2018, almost three quarters of this was in the form of loans that the global south had to pay back. This type of finance increases the debt burden of the global south and makes these countries more vulnerable to financial crisis. Instead, climate justice demands that rich countries provide at least $400 billion a year in grant-based climate finance to the global south by 2030.
4) Mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage
Often when governments talk about climate action they focus on mitigation, meaning to reduce the impacts of global warming by cutting carbon emissions. However, as reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have demonstrated, some impacts of climate change are now inevitable and indeed are already happening. This means that
communities facing these impacts, predominantly located in the global south, need funding for adaptation to climate change. However, climate finance from rich countries has so far heavily prioritised mitigation, with 63% of all climate-related finance globally flowing to renewable energy. What’s more, there is no agreed mechanism for raising finance for loss & damage due to climate change (eg. the losses caused by more frequent cyclones or hurricanes). COP26 is an opportunity for countries to increase the amount of public funding going to support adaptation measures in the global south, and to agree a new method for providing finance for loss & damage (ideally provided by major polluters such as fossil fuel corporations).
5) Fossil fuel finance
Research has repeatedly shown that to stay below 1.5 degrees of global warming, the world can’t afford to burn all of the existing reserves of fossil fuels, let alone discover new ones. In a landmark recommendation in May, the International Energy Agency declared that to meet emissions reductions targets, “we do not need any more investments in new oil, gas and coal projects”. The inclusion of gas in this statement was significant. International finance institutions, rich countries and fossil fuel corporations have shifted a lot of money into gas power in recent years, arguing that it is cleaner and greener than coal and oil and that it can be used as a transition fuel between fossil fuels and renewables. Research by Oil Change International, however, has shown this to be a myth. While a total shift to gas power would see a marginal reduction in emissions, it would be nowhere near enough for the world to keep to 1.5 degrees, and would require the creation of vast amounts of carbon-intensive infrastructure to be possible.
6) Just transition
The speed of decarbonisation is not the only issue, it also matters how we decarbonise. Without appropriate planning, a rapid shift away from fossil fuels or a drastic reduction in aviation would likely lead to widespread job losses, or may release a wave of dangerous mining projects as corporations and rich countries seek to secure metal required for renewable energy. Planning for a just transition instead means that the costs of climate action should not be borne by those who have done least to cause the problem, including workers, frontline communities in the global south and black and Indigenous communities.
This article first appeared in the October 2021 issue of Ninety-Nine, the magazine for Global Justice Now members.
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Top photo: A climate marcher during COP24 in Katowice, Poland in 2018. Credit: Diogo Baptista/Alamy Live News.