U.N. climate agreement clinched after late drama over coal

    15 Nov 2021

    U.N. climate talks ended Saturday with a deal that for the first time targeted fossil fuels as the key driver of global warming, even as coal-reliant countries lobbed last-minute objections.

    While the agreement won applause for keeping alive the hope of capping global warming at 1.5° C, many of the nearly 200 national delegations wished they’d come away with more.

    “If it’s a good negotiation, all the parties are uncomfortable,” U.S. climate envoy John Kerry said in the final meeting to approve the Glasgow Climate Pact. “And this has been, I think, a good negotiation.”

    The two-week conference in Scotland delivered a major win in resolving the rules around carbon markets, but it did little to assuage vulnerable countries’ concerns about long-promised climate financing from rich nations.

    The British COP26 president, Alok Sharma, was visibly emotional before banging down his gavel to signal there were no vetoes to the pact, after the talks had extended overtime – and overnight – into Saturday.

    There was last-minute drama as India, backed by China and other coal-dependent developing nations, rejected a clause calling for the “phase out” of coal-fired power. After a huddle between the envoys from China, India, the United States and European Union, the clause was hurriedly amended to ask countries to “phase down” their coal use.

    India’s environment and climate minister, Bhupender Yadav, said the revision reflected the “national circumstances of emerging economies.”

    “We are becoming the voice of the developing countries,” he told Reuters, saying the pact had “singled out” coal but kept quiet about oil and natural gas.

    “We made our effort to make a consensus that is reasonable for developing countries and reasonable for climate justice,” he said, alluding to the fact that rich nations historically have emitted the largest share of greenhouse gases.

    The single-word change was met with dismay by both rich countries in Europe and small island nations along with others still developing.

    “We believe we have been side-lined in a non-transparent and non-inclusive process,” Mexico’s envoy Camila Isabel Zepeda Lizama said. “We all have remaining concerns but were told we could not reopen the text … while others can still ask to water down their promises.”

    But Mexico and others said they would let the revised agreement stand.

    “The approved texts are a compromise,” said U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. “They reflect the interests, the conditions, the contradictions and the state of political will in the world today.”

     

    Carbon market breakthrough

    Reaching a deal was always a matter of balancing the demands of climate-vulnerable nations, big industrial powers, and those like India and China depending on fossil fuels to lift their economies and populations out of poverty.

    Sharma’s voice broke with emotion in response to vulnerable nations’ expressing anger over the last-minute changes.

    “I apologize for the way this process has unfolded,” he told the assembly. “I am deeply sorry.”

    The overarching aim he had set for the conference was one that climate campaigners and vulnerable countries said was too modest – to “keep alive” the 2015 Paris Agreement’s target to keep global temperatures from rising beyond 1.5C (2.7 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. Scientists say warming beyond this point could unleash irreversible and uncontrollable climate impacts.

    In asking nations to set tougher targets by next year for cutting climate-warming emissions, the agreement effectively acknowledged that commitments were still inadequate. National pledges currently have the world on track for about 2.4C of warming.

    The talks also led to a breakthrough in resolving rules for covering government-led markets for carbon offsets. Companies and countries with vast forest cover had pushed hard for a deal, in hopes also of legitimizing the fast-growing global voluntary offset markets.

    The deal allows countries to partially meet their climate targets by buying offset credits representing emission cuts by others, potentially unlocks trillions of dollars for protecting forests, expanding renewable energy and other projects to combat climate change.

     

    ‘The era of coal is ending’

    Jennifer Morgan, executive director of the campaign group Greenpeace, saw the glass as half-full.

    “They changed a word, but they can’t change the signal coming out of this COP, that the era of coal is ending,” she said to Reuters. “If you’re a coal company executive, this COP saw a bad outcome.”

    Developing countries argue rich nations, whose historical emissions are largely responsible for warming the planet, must finance their efforts both to transition away from fossil fuels and to adapt to increasingly severe climate impacts.

    The deal offered a promise to double adaptation finance by 2025 from 2019, but again no guarantees. A U.N. committee will report next year on progress towards delivering the $100 billion per year in promised climate funding, after rich nations failed to deliver on a 2020 deadline for the funds. Finance will then be discussed again in 2024 and 2026.

    But the deal left many vulnerable nations despondent in offering no funding for climate-linked losses and damages, a promise made in the original pact called the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992.

    Rich nations once again resisted acknowledging financial liability for their years of emissions that drove climate change as they rose to economic prosperity.

    While Glasgow agreement laid out a pathway for addressing the issue by establishing a new secretariat dedicated to the issue, vulnerable countries said that represented a bare minimum of acceptability.

    “This package is not perfect. The coal change and a weak outcome on loss and damage are blows,” said Tina Stee, climate envoy from the Marshall Islands. Still, “elements of the Glasgow Package are a lifeline for my country. We must not discount the crucial wins covered in this package.”

     

    U.N. climate summit reaches carbon markets deal

    Negotiators closed a deal setting rules for carbon markets at the United NationsCOP26 climate talks on Saturday, potentially unlocking trillions of dollars for protecting forests, building renewable energy facilities and other projects to combat climate change.

    The final deal adopted by nearly 200 countries will implement Article 6 of the 2015 Paris Agreement, allowing countries to partially meet their climate targets by buying offset credits representing emission cuts by others.

    Companies, as well as countries with vast forest cover, had pushed for a robust deal on government-led carbon markets in Glasgow, in the hope of also legitimising the fast-growing global voluntary offset markets.

    Critics worry that offsetting could go too far in allowing countries to continue emitting climate-warming gases, making some wary of a hasty deal.

    The deal was “a Brazilian victory” and the country is gearing up to become a “big exporter” of carbon credits, its environment ministry said on social media. The country is home to much of the Amazon forest, and has huge potential to build wind and solar plants.

    “It should spur investment and the development of projects that could deliver significant emissions reductions,” Brazil’s chief negotiator Leonardo Cleaver de Athayde told Reuters.

    But nations most vulnerable to the effects of climate signaled concern over offsets possibly opening up for abuses allowing bad actors to avoid cutting emissions.

    “On Article 6, we will need to remain vigilant against greenwashing,” the Marshall Islands’ Climate Envoy Tina Stege said in a statement.

     

    Disagreements overcome

    The accord managed to overcome a series of sticking points that contributed to the failure of the previous two major climate meetings.

    Previously, there was disagreement over a tax on certain carbon trades intended to fund climate adaptation in poorer nations. The deal addressed this with a compromise that had a two-track approach.

    Bilateral trades of offsets between countries will not face the tax. The deal suggests developing nations capitulated to rich nations demands, including the United States, which had objected the levy.

    In a separate centralized system for issuing offsets, 5% of proceeds from offsets will be collected to go toward an adaptation fund for developing countries.

    Also in that system, 2% of the offset credits will be cancelled. That aims to increase overall emissions cuts by stopping other countries using those credits as offsets to reach their climate targets.

     

    Another provision resolved how to carry forward carbon credits created under the old Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement’s predecessor, into the new offset market system.

    Negotiators reached a compromise that sets a cut-off date, with credits issued before that date not being carried forward.

    The final accord carries over any offsets registered since 2013. That will allow 320 million offsets, each representing a tonne of CO2, to enter the new market, according to an analysis by the NewClimate Institute and Oko-Institut non-profit organizations.

    Campaigners had warned against flooding the new market with old credits, and raised doubts about the climate benefits of some.

    The 2013 date “is not good. So now it will be buyer countries’ jobs to just say ‘no’ to them,” said carbon markets expert Brad Schallert, with the World Wildlife Fund.

     

    Double counting

    One of the most contentious points had been on the question of whether credits could be claimed by both the country selling them and the country buying.

    A proposal by Japan resolved the issue and gained backing from both Brazil and the United States. Brazil’s past insistence on allowing double-counting had torpedoed an Article 6 deal in the past.

    Under the deal, the country that generates a credit will decide whether to authorise it for sale to other nations or to count towards their climate targets.

    If authorized and sold, the seller country will add an emission unit to its national tally and the buyer country will deduct one, to ensure the emissions cut is counted only once between countries.

    In a world shaken by a pandemic, and a fast-closing window of opportunity to avoid climate catastrophe, the pivotal COP26 UN climate conference kicks off this Sunday in the Scottish city of Glasgow – the stakes could not be higher.

    “Without decisive action, we are gambling away our last chance to – literally – turn the tide”, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has said ahead of the meeting. But why could it be our last chance?

    Here’s some answers we’ve found to the most common questions you might have about what’s coming up.

     

    Let’s start with the basics, what is COP26?

    To keep it simple, COP26 is the biggest and most crucial climate-related conference on the planet.

    In 1992, the UN organized a major event in Rio de Janeiro called the Earth Summit, in which the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted.

    In this treaty, nations agreed to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere” to prevent dangerous interference from human activity on the climate system. Today, the treaty has 197 signatories.

    Since 1994, when the treaty entered into force, every year the UN has been bringing together almost every country on earth for global climate summits or “COPs”, which stands for ‘Conference of the Parties’.

    This year should have been the 27th annual summit, but thanks to COVID-19, we’ve fallen a year behind due to last year’s postponement – hence, COP26.

     

    So, what happens at COP26? Don’t we have enough meetings about climate change already?

    Various “extensions” to the UNFCCC treaty have been negotiated during these COPs to establish legally binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions for individual countries, and to define an enforcement mechanism.

    These include the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, which defined emission limits for developed nations to be achieved by 2012; and the Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015, in which all countries of the world agreed to step up efforts to try and limit global warming to 1.5° C above pre-industrial temperatures, and boost climate action financing.

    So, here’s where COP26 gets interesting: during the conference, among other issues, delegates will be aiming to finalize the ‘Paris Rulebook’, or the rules needed to implement the Agreement. This time they will need to agree on common timeframes for the frequency of revision and monitoring of their climate commitments.

    Basically, Paris set the destination, limiting warming well below two degrees, (ideally 1.5° C) but Glasgow, is the last chance to make it a reality.

     

    So, this brings us to our initial question: why is it the last chance?

    Like a boa constrictor that slowly squeezes its prey to death, climate change has gone from being an uncomfortable low-level issue, to a life-threatening global emergency, in the past three decades.

    Although there have been new and updated commitments ahead of COP26, the world remcountries have madeor a dangerous global temperature rise of at least 2.7°C this century even if Paris goals are met.

    The science is clear: a rise of temperatures of that magnitude by the end of the century could mean, among other things, a 62% increase in areas scorched by wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere during summer, the loss of habitat of a third of the mammals in the world, and more frequent four to 10 month-long droughts.

    UN chief António Guterres bluntly calls it “climate catastrophe”, one that it is already being felt to a deadly degree in the most vulnerable parts of the world like sub-Saharan Africa and Small Island States, lashed by rising sea levels.

    Millions of people are already being displaced and killed by disasters exacerbated by climate change.

    For Mr. Guterres, and the hundreds of scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a scenario of 1.5° C warming, is the “only liveable future for humanity”.

    The clock is ticking, and to have a chance of limiting the rise, the world needs to halve greenhouse gas emissions in the next eight years.

    This is a gigantic task that we only will be able to do if leaders attending COP26 come up with bold, time-bound and front-loaded plans to phase out coal and transform their economies to reach so called net-zero emissions.

    Emissions from coal-fired power plants contribute to air pollution in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

     

    Hmm, but didn’t countries like China and the United States already commit to net-zero?

    The most recent UN Emissions Gap Report explains that a total of 49 countries plus the European Union have pledged a net-zero target.

    This covers over half of global domestic greenhouse gas emissions, over half of global GDP and a third of the global population. Eleven targets are enshrined in law, covering 12% of global emissions.

    Sounds great right? But there’s a catch: many of the commitments delay action until after 2030, raising doubts over whether these net-zero pledges can actually be achieved. Also, many of these pledges are “vague” and inconsistent with the officially submitted national commitments, known as NDC’s.

    This again explains why COP26 is so important: “The time has passed for diplomatic niceties…If governments – especially G20 governments – do not stand up and lead this effort, we are headed for terrible human suffering”, warned Guterres in the UN General Assembly this week.

     

    So, what exactly is COP26 hoping to achieve (practically speaking)?

    The official negotiations take place over two weeks. The first week includes technical negotiations by government officials, followed by high-level Ministerial and Heads of State meetings in the second week, when the final decisions will be made – or not.

    There are four main points that discussed during the conference according to its host, the United Kingdom:

     

    1.             Secure global net-zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach

    To do this, countries need to accelerate the phase-out of coal, curb deforestation, speed up the switch to greener economies.  Carbon market mechanisms will be also part of the negotiations.

    1.             Adapt more to protect communities and natural habitats

    Since the climate is already changing countries already affected by climate change need to protect and restore ecosystems, as well as build defences, warning systems and resilient infrastructure.

    1.             Mobilise finance

    At COP15, rich nations promised to channel $100 billion a year to less-wealthy nations by 2020 to help them adapt to climate change and mitigate further rises in temperature.

    That promise was not kept, and COP26 will be crucial to secure the funds, with the help of international financial institutions, as well as set new climate finance targets to be achieved by 2025.

    1.             Work together to deliver

    This means establishing collaborations between governments, businesses and civil society, and of course, finalizing the Paris Rulebook to make the Agreement fully operational.

    In addition to formal negotiations, COP26 is expected to establish new initiatives and coalitions for delivering climate action.

     

    Climate action can deliver a sustainable future for all: UN deputy chief

       

    Climate action can be the driver for a green and equitable future for all, UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed has said at the TED Countdown Summit, urging people everywhere to demand that leaders deliver on their promise to limit global warming.

    Speaking ahead of the COP26 UN climate conference, which wraps up this weekend in Glasgow, Scotland, Ms. Mohammed underlined the need for greater funding and commitment, as well as solidarity. 

    “Climate change doesn’t pause, and neither must we,” she said in her address to the TED Countdown Summitin her recently livestreamed TED Talk held recently in nearby Edinburgh and livestreamed globally.  

    Another climate change ‘victim’

     

    Ms. Mohammed, who is from Nigeria, recalled her childhood walks along the shores of Lake Chad, one of the largest lakes in Africa, with some 30 million people in four countries relying on its bounty.

    Back then, the lake was more like an ocean to her as it seemed to go on forever.  Today, it is a mere fraction of its size.

    “90% of this fresh-water basin has dried up – and with it – millions and millions of livelihoods: farmers, fisherfolk and our market-women”, she said.  “Climate change takes yet another victim”.

     

    This loss is further compounded by the damage caused by the Harmattan, she added, which in the past was just a short three-month season of dust and wind. 

     

    ‘Tipping towards catastrophe’

    The dust storms are now coming earlier and bigger each year.  The human and ecological fallout has been devastating, with job loss, hunger and displacement.

    Ms. Mohammed described this as a “perfect storm” for crushing poverty and violence, which has provided fertile ground for extremism to take root, wreaking havoc on peace.

     “Sadly, touch down anywhere in the world and you’ll hear more tragic stories of climate devastation.  Drought, floods, wildfires – lives and livelihoods in jeopardy – tipping towards catastrophe”.

    Even in the face of the mounting climate crisis, the UN deputy chief still has hope in the “human family”, and its unwavering drive to survive against all odds.

    It is this spirit which that led countries to adopt the Paris Agreement on climate change, which aims to keep global temperature rise to 1.5° С above pre-industrial levels.

     

    A critical decade

    Ms. Mohammed said the 2015 accord has the power to drive the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the blueprint for a more fair, just and equitable future for all people and the planet.

    Achieving the Paris goal will require decarbonizing the global economy by 2050 through by halving greenhouse gas emissions during this decade.

    “We must make coal history, with coal phased out in rich countries by 2030, and in other countries by 2040.  The G20 produces 80% of all greenhouse gas pollution, and so they too must – these 20 global leaders – take responsibility and lead”, she said.

    Governments must also stop subsidizing fossil fuels, and provide the resources needed for the “green and blue transition”.  

     

    Inspiration from Africa

    Ms. Mohammed asked the audience to imagine what a net-zero future could look like, using the Great Green Wall initiative in Africa as an example. 

    This epic endeavor, launched in 2007, aims to combat desertification and restore degraded lands through planting 100 million trees from Senegal to Djibouti.

     

    For the UN deputy chief, the Great Green Wall is a source of inspiration as it reveals the extent of human potential.

    “Clearly the climate benefits will be enormous. But it’s about much more than keeping dust in the desert”, she said.

    “It’s about creating a green economic corridor for more than half a billion people. Men. Women. Children. One that builds local value chains, strengthens economies, and fosters a young, fast-growing workforce.”

    “And as an economic opportunity grows, hope for the future becomes the reality in millions of lives, and the space for terrorism and extremism recedes”.

     

    A green future

    Getting there, however, will require money, specifically paying annually the $100 billion annually that wealthier nations have promised for climate finance initiatives in developing countries.  Ms. Mohammed urged Governments to step up.

    “The other ingredient we need is solidarity.  Sometimes that seems to be in fairly short supply. But we do know it exists”, she continued.

    Global solidarity is what led to the Paris Agreement, as well as the Montreal Protocol, a landmark 1987 treaty on banning substances that harm the ozone layer.  

    “We need to rekindle this spirit of solidarity.  And we need to do that now. It’s not too late, but the window of opportunity is closing”, she warned.

    The Deputy Secretary-General again expressed hope in humanity, as the “chorus for bold climate action is growing”.

    She called for people everywhere to again demand that leaders deliver on the promise of the Paris Agreement and transform our world.

     

    COP26 closes with ‘compromise’ deal on climate, but it’s not enough, says UN chief

    Negotiators marking the closing of the United Nations climate summit, COP26, which opened in Glasgow, Scotland, on 31 October. The conference sought new global commitments to tackle climate change.  

    After extending the COP26 climate negotiations an extra day, nearly 200 countries meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, adopted on November 13 an outcome document that, according to the UN Secretary-General, “reflects the interests, the contradictions, and the state of political will in the world today”.

    “It is an important step but is not enough. We must accelerate climate action to keep alive the goal of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5° C”, said António Guterres in a video statement released at the close of the two-week meeting.

    The UN chief added that it is time to go “into emergency mode”, ending fossil fuel subsidies, phasing out coal, putting a price on carbon, protecting vulnerable communities, and delivering the $100 billion climate finance commitment.

    “We did not achieve these goals at this conference. But we have some building blocks for progress,” he said.

    Mr. Guterres also had a message to young people, indigenous communities, women leaders, and all those leading the charge on climate action.

    “I know you are disappointed. But the path of progress is not always a straight line. Sometimes there are detours. Sometimes there are ditches. But I know we can get there. We are in the fight of our lives, and this fight must be won. Never give up. Never retreat. Keep pushing forward”.

    The outcome document, known as the Glasgow Climate Pact, calls on 197 countries to report their progress towards more climate ambition next year, at COP27, set to take place in Egypt.

    The outcome also firms up the global agreement to accelerate action on climate this decade.

    However, COP26 President Alok Sharma struggled to hold back tears following the announcement of a last-minute change to the pact, by China and India, softening language circulated in an earlier draft about “the phase-out of unabated coal power and of inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels”. As adopted on Saturday, that language was revised to “phase down” coal use.

    Mr. Sharma apologized for “the way the process has unfolded” and added that he understood some delegations would be “deeply disappointed” that the stronger language had not made it into the final agreement.

    By other terms of the wide-ranging set of decisions, resolutions and statements that make up the outcome of COP26, governments were,among other things, asked to provide tighter deadlines for updating their plans to reduce emissions.

    On the thorny question of financing from developed countries in support of climate action in developing countries, the text emphasizes the need to mobilize climate finance “from all sources to reach the level needed to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement, including significantly increasing support for developing country Parties, beyond $100 billion per year”.

     

    1.5° C, but with ‘a weak pulse’

    “Negotiations are never easy…this is the nature of consensus and multilateralism”, said Patricia Espinosa, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

    She stressed that for every announcement made during the past two weeks, the expectation is that the implementation “plans and the fine print” will follow.

    “Let us enjoy what we accomplished but also prepare for what is coming,” Ms. Espinosa said, after recognizing the advancements on adaptation, among others.

    Meanwhile, COP26 President Alok Sharma stated that delegations could say “with credibility” that they have kept 1.5 degrees within reach.

    “But its pulse is weak. And it will only survive if we keep our promises. If we translate commitments into rapid action. If we deliver on the expectations set out in this Glasgow Climate Pact to increase ambition to 2030 and beyond. And if we close the vast gap that remains, as we must,” he told delegates.

    He then quoted Prime Minister Mia Mottley, who earlier in the conference had said that for Barbados and other small island states, ‘two degrees is a death sentence.’  With that in mind, Mr. Sharma asked delegates to continue their efforts to get finance flowing and boost adaptation.

    He concluded by saying that history has been made in Glasgow.

    “We must now ensure that the next chapter charts the success of the commitments we have solemnly made together in the Glasgow Climate Pact, he declared.

     

    The ‘least worst’ outcome

    Earlier during the conference’s final stocktaking plenary, many countries lamented that the package of agreed decisions was not enough. Some called it “disappointing”, but overall, said they recognized it was balanced for what could be agreed at this moment in time and given their differences.

    Countries like Nigeria, Palau, the Philippines, Chile and Turkey all said that although there were imperfections, they broadly supported the text.

    “It is (an) incremental step forward but not in line with the progress needed. It will be too late for the Maldives. This deal does not bring hope to our hearts,” said the Maldives’ top negotiator in a bittersweet speech.

    US climate envoy John Kerry said the text “is a powerful statement” and assured delegates that his country will engage constructively in a dialogue on “loss and damage” and adaptation, two of issues that proved most difficult for the negotiators to agree upon.

    “The text represents the ‘least worst’ outcome,” concluded the top negotiator from New Zealand.

    COP26 attendants hang promises and petitions to world leaders in the form of leaves of different colors at the Climate Conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

     

    Other key COP26 achievements

    Beyond the political negotiations and the Leaders’ Summit, COP26 brought together about 50,000 participants online and in-person to share innovative ideas, solutions, attend cultural events and build partnerships and coalitions.

    The conference heard many encouraging announcements. One of the biggest was that leaders from over 120 countries, representing about 90% of the world’s forests, pledged to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030, the date by which the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to curb poverty and secure the planet’s future are supposed to have been achieved.

    There was also a methane pledge, led by the United States and the European Union, by which more than 100 countries agreed to cut emissions of this greenhouse gas by 2030.

    Meanwhile, more than 40 countries – including major coal-users such as Poland, Vietnam and Chile – agreed to shift away from coal, one of the biggest generators CO2 emissions.

    The private sector also showed strong engagement with nearly 500 global financial services firms agreeing to align $130 trillion – some 40 per cent of the world’s financial assets – with the goals set out in the Paris Agreement, including limiting global warming to 1.5° С.

    Also, in a surprise for many, the United States and China pledged to boost climate cooperation over the next decade. In a joint declaration they said they had agreed to take steps on a range of issues, including methane emissions, transition to clean energy and decarbonization. They also reiterated their commitment to keep the 1.5C goal alive.

     

    Regarding green transport, more than 100 national governments, cities, states and major car companies signed the Glasgow Declaration on Zero-Emission Cars and Vans to end the sale of internal combustion engines by 2035 in leading markets, and by 2040 worldwide.  At least 13 nations also committed to end the sale of fossil fuel powered heavy duty vehicles by 2040.

    Many ‘smaller’ but equally inspiring commitments were made over the past two weeks, including one by 11 countries which created the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA). Ireland, France, Denmark, and Costa Rica among others, as well as some subnational governments, launched this first-of-its kind alliance to set an end date for national oil and gas exploration and extraction.

     

    A quick refresher on how we got here

    To keep it simple, COP26 was the latest and one of the most important steps in the decades long, UN-facilitated effort to help stave off what has been called a looming climate emergency.

    In 1992, the UN organized a major event in Rio de Janeiro called the Earth Summit, in which the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted.

    In this treaty, nations agreed to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere” to prevent dangerous interference from human activity on the climate system. Today, the treaty has 197 signatories.

    Since 1994, when the treaty entered into force, every year the UN has been bringing together almost every country on earth for global climate summits or “COPs”, which stands for ‘Conference of the Parties’.

    This year should have been the 27th annual summit, but thanks to COVID-19, we’ve fallen a year behind due to last year’s postponement – hence, COP26.

     

    Opinion: After the failure of Cop26, there’s only one last hope for our survival

    Let’s take a look at George Monbiot’s column about COP26 for The Guardian. What is it about: it’s too late for incremental change. By mobilising just 25% of people, we can flip social attitudes towards the climate.

    ***

    Now it’s a straight fight for survival. The Glasgow Climate Pact, for all its restrained and diplomatic language, looks like a suicide pact. After so many squandered years of denial, distraction and delay, it’s too late for incremental change. A fair chance of preventing more than 1.5C of heating means cutting greenhouse gas emissions by about 7% every year: faster than they fell in 2020, at the height of the pandemic.

    What we needed at the Cop26 climate conference was a decision to burn no more fossil fuels after 2030. Instead, powerful governments sought a compromise between our prospects of survival and the interests of the fossil fuel industry. But there was no room for compromise. Without massive and immediate change, we face the possibility of cascading environmental collapse, as Earth systems pass critical thresholds and flip into new and hostile states.

    So does this mean we might as well give up? It does not. For just as the complex natural systems on which our lives depend can flip suddenly from one state to another, so can the systems that humans have created. Our social and economic structures share characteristics with the Earth systems on which we depend. They have self-reinforcing properties – that stabilize them within a particular range of stress, but destabilize them when external pressure becomes too great. Like natural systems, if they are driven past their tipping points, they can flip with astonishing speed. Our last, best hope is to use those dynamics to our advantage, triggering what scientists call “cascading regime shifts”.

    A fascinating paper published in January in the journal Climate Policy showed how we could harness the power of “domino dynamics”: non-linear change, proliferating from one part of the system to another. It points out that “cause and effect need not be proportionate”, a small disturbance, in the right place, can trigger a massive response from a system and flip it into a new state. This is how the global financial crisis of 2008-09 happened: a relatively minor shock (mortgage defaults in the US) was transmitted and amplified through the entire system, almost bringing it down. We could use this property to detonate positive change.

    Sudden shifts in energy systems have happened before. The paper points out that the transition in the US from horse-drawn carriages to cars running on fossil fuels took just over a decade. The diffusion of new technologies tends to be self-accelerating, as greater efficiencies, economies of scale and industrial synergies reinforce each other. The authors’ hope is that, when the penetration of clean machines approaches a critical threshold, and the infrastructure required to deploy them becomes dominant, positive feedbacks will rapidly drive fossil fuels to extinction.

    For example, as the performance of batteries, power components and charging points improves and their costs fall, the price of electric cars drops and their desirability soars. At this point (in other words, right now), small interventions by government could trigger cascading change. This has already happened in Norway, where a change in taxes made electric vehicles cheaper than fossil-fuel cars. This flipped the system almost overnight: now more than 50% of the nation’s new car sales are electric, and petrol models are heading for extinction.

    As electric cars become more popular, and more polluting vehicles become socially unacceptable, it becomes less risky for governments to impose the policies that will complete the transition. This then helps to scale the new technologies, causing their price to fall further, until they outcompete petrol cars without the need for tax or subsidy, locking in the transition. Driven by this new economic reality, the shift then cascades from one nation to another.

    The battery technologies pioneered in the transport sector can also spread into other energy systems, helping to catalyse regime shifts in, for example, the electricity grid. The plummeting prices of solar electricity and offshore wind – already cheaper than hydrocarbons in many countries – are making fossil fuel plants look like a filthy extravagance. This reduces the political costs of accelerating their closure through tax or other measures. Once the plants are demolished, the transition is locked in.

    Of course, we should never underestimate the power of incumbency, and the lobbying efforts that an antiquated industry will use to keep itself in business. The global infrastructure of fossil fuel extraction, processing and sales is worth somewhere between $25tn (£19tn) and $0, depending on which way the political wind is blowing. The fossil fuel companies will do everything in their power to preserve their investments. They have tied President Joe Biden’s climate plans in knots. It would be no surprise if they were talking urgently with Donald Trump’s team about how to help lever him back into office. And if they can thwart action for long enough, the eventual victory of low-carbon technologies might scarcely be relevant, as Earth’s systems could already have been pushed past their critical thresholds, beyond which much of the planet could become uninhabitable.

    But let’s assume for a moment that we can shove the dead weight of these legacy industries aside, and consign fossil fuels to history. Will that really have solved our existential crisis? One aspect of it, perhaps. Yet I’m dismayed by the narrowness of the focus on carbon, in the Glasgow pact and elsewhere, to the exclusion of our other assaults on the living world.

    Electric cars are a classic example of the problem. It’s true that within a few years, as the advocates argue, the entire stinking infrastructure of petrol and diesel could be overthrown. But what is locally clean is globally filthy. The mining of the materials required for this massive deployment of batteries and electronics is already destroying communities, ripping down forests, polluting rivers, trashing fragile deserts and, in some cases, forcing people into near-slavery. Our “clean, green” transport revolution is being built with the help of blood cobalt, blood lithium and bloosd copper. Though the emissions of both carbon dioxide and local pollutants will undoubtedly fall, we are still left with a stupid, dysfunctional transport system that clogs the streets with one-tonne metal boxes in which single people travel. New roads will still carve up rainforests and other threatened places, catalysing new waves of destruction.

    A genuinely green transport system would involve system change of a different kind. It would start by reducing the need to travel – as the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, is doing with her 15-minute city policy, which seeks to ensure that people’s needs can be met within a 15-minute walk from homes.

    It would encourage walking and cycling by all who are able to do so, helping to address our health crisis as well as our environmental crisis. For longer journeys, it would prioritize public transport. Private electric vehicles would be used to address only the residue of the problem: providing transport for those who could not travel by other means. But simply flipping the system from fossil to electric cars preserves everything that’s wrong with the way we now travel, except the power source.

    Then there’s the question of where the money goes. The fruits of the new, “clean” economy will, as before, be concentrated in the hands of a few: those who control the production of cars and the charging infrastructure; and the construction companies still building the great web of roads required to accommodate them. The beneficiaries will want to spend this money, as they do today, on private jets, yachts, extra homes and other planet-trashing extravagances.

    It is not hard to envisage a low-carbon economy in which everything else falls apart. The end of fossil fuels will not, by itself, prevent the extinction crisis, the deforestation crisis, the soils crisis, the freshwater crisis, the consumption crisis, the waste crisis; the crisis of smashing and grabbing, accumulating and discarding that will destroy our prospects and much of the rest of life on Earth. So we also need to use the properties of complex systems to trigger another shift: political change.

    There’s an aspect of human nature that is simultaneously terrible and hopeful: most people side with the status quo, whatever it may be. A critical threshold is reached when a certain proportion of the population change their views. Other people sense that the wind has changed, and tack around to catch it. There are plenty of tipping points in recent history: the remarkably swift reduction in smoking; the rapid shift, in nations such as the UK and Ireland, away from homophobia; the #MeToo movement, which, in a matter of weeks, greatly reduced the social tolerance of sexual abuse and everyday sexism.

    But where does the tipping point lie? Researchers whose work was published in Science in 2018 discovered that a critical threshold was passed when the size of a committed minority reached roughly 25% of the population. At this point, social conventions suddenly flip. Between 72% and 100% of the people in the experiments swung round, destroying apparently stable social norms. As the paper notes, a large body of work suggests that “the power of small groups comes not from their authority or wealth, but from their commitment to the cause”.

    Another paper explored the possibility that the Fridays for Future climate protests could trigger this kind of domino dynamics. It showed how, in 2019, Greta Thunberg’s school strike snowballed into a movement that led to unprecedented electoral results for Green parties in several European nations. Survey data revealed a sharp change of attitudes, as people began to prioritise the environmental crisis.

    Fridays for Future came close, the researchers suggest, to pushing the European political system into a “critical state”. It was interrupted by the pandemic, and the tipping has not yet happened. But witnessing the power, the organization and the fury of the movements gathered in Glasgow, I suspect the momentum is building again.

    Social convention, which has for so long worked against us, can if flipped become our greatest source of power, normalizing what now seems radical and weird. If we can simultaneously trigger a cascading regime shift in both technology and politics, we might stand a chance. It sounds like a wild hope. But we have no choice. Our survival depends on raising the scale of civil disobedience until we build the greatest mass movement in history, mobilizing the 25% who can flip the system. We do not consent to the destruction of life on Earth.

     

    ***

    The final agreement of the conference was adopted with a delay of one day and contained softer wording than was originally intended.

    In particular, in the agreement, instead of a “phase-out” from the energy obtained from coal and other types of fossil fuels, it turned out to be only a “phase-down”.

    The wording had to be softened at the last moment under pressure from states that are large consumers and producers of coal, in particular, India and China, Reuters states.

    Western countries were unhappy with the changes. COP26 Chairman, UK Energy Minister Alok Sharma has apologized for the changes. He explained that without them the final document could not have been approved.

    UN Secretary-General António Guterres said that he considers the agreements reached at the summit insufficient. Environmental activist Greta Thunberg commented on the results of the summit with the words “Blah blah blah.”

     

     

    COP26 opened in Glasgow on October 31st. It was expected that the leaders of the countries of the world will take on more stringent commitments to combat global warming than those given under the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015.

    US President Joe Biden criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin for refusing to attend a conference in Glasgow. Biden said that in Russia “the tundra is on fire, but Putin is silent about his readiness to do anything.” The press secretary of the President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Peskov noted in response that “forests are burning in California as well.”

    ***

    Read our author’s column about what matters more in COP26 news: climate pledges of the world leaders or their private flights, here.

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published.