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COP26 was a cop-out — here’s why it gets a failing grade

AP Photo/Alastair Grant

COP26 in Glasgow concluded Saturday. Much work was done on various agreements: From commitments by 105 countries to cut methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030 (methane is 80 times more warming than CO2); to end deforestation by 2030 to speeding the phase-out of gasoline-powered vehicles and the EV transition, to an apparent agreement by firms responsible for $130 trillion in assets to pursue the net-zero goal to the jumpstarting of global carbon markets. 

At first glance the image of a dynamic and effective conference is visible. Bravo. Unfortunately, when you look underneath the announcements and self-congratulation, the Glasgow conference instead gets a poor grade — a C-minus at best — far below what is required if we are to secure the planet’s livability and halt our march towards a dystopian hot-house world.

The ambition and success of the conference were limited by who was there, who was not and what was possible domestically. Some leaders were not in the room at the outset. Neither President Xi Jinping nor President Vladimir Putin attended, sending the signal that they were not ready to do a new deal and did not feel the need to participate. Boris Johnson, chairing the meeting, was unable clearly to exert pressure on global leaders to leap to a better result.

China, the world’s largest greenhouse gas polluter, did not step up and commit to more than it had already on the table — a net-zero 2060 pledge. Neither did India, who offered a net-zero by 2070 pledge at the conference, then did much to undermine COP26’s collective commitments. Russia was absent as a player. Saudi Arabia and other oil producers predictably worked to weaken statements and goals. Brazil committed to protecting the Amazon, but few believed them. 

Even as the Biden administration and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry worked hard to push deals forward, especially on methane, the president was unable to make more ambitious commitments, hamstrung by his Senate, low approval ratings and looming midterms.

The final summit declaration committed leaders to return by next December with more ambitious concrete plans to further reductions to achieve the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal. Leaders punted on climate change, putting off that which must be done today for another year. We continue to dig humanity’s grave, just a little slower. To be sure it is better to force leaders to come back with new commitments in 2022 — but is still a failure for Johnson and the COP process that we lose another year. 

On speeding the transition for less developed countries, leaders also missed their own goals — failing to provide the $100 billion a year promised a decade ago.  This time they made it look less embarrassing by committing to doubling the headline number by 2025. But recipient country leaders will leave COP26 wondering if they can believe such weaselly words, which have always proven false before. I believe the commitment can be kept. Such an increase is possible utilizing the multilateral development banks (including the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and others), without any real cost to the lending nations. 

The COP26 declaration was weakened to appease the polluters.

The agreement to “phase out” coal, which is responsible for 40 percent of CO2 emissions, was replaced with a commitment to a “phase-down,” at India and China’s insistence — whatever that means. China and India each have their reasons for this foot-dragging. The former suffered from power cuts last month as it sought to shift to green. The latter has no credible exit plan from coal and in fact, embraces its continued use.

To make matters worse, the final declaration’s language on the phase-out of fossil fuel subsidies was also undermined. It was adjusted downward to call for the phase-out of “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies, yet again providing loopholes for continued polluting practices. There is no such thing as an efficient subsidy of fossil fuel when we must stop and divert resources to green transition. We need to urgently move away from fossil fuel usage as fast as possible if we are to have any chance of ensuring a livable planet for our children and grandchildren. A recent study in Nature put this starkly, estimating that by 2050 we need to leave 58 percent of oil, 59 percent of methane gas and 89 percent of coal unextracted in the ground. 

As it stands today, the national commitments made in Glasgow, even if fully adhered to (a big if), would only limit global temperature increases to 2.4 degrees Celsius by 2050. This is a level far above what is required, a level that will trigger terrible tipping points of no return and cost the global economy tens of trillion of dollars in lost economic output, dislocations, misery and states in crises. 

Glasgow shows again a massive failure by our leaders to protect the global commons, as they tend to their myopic short-term political concerns, while our world burns and floods, and we draw climate disaster closer and closer. 

Dr. Stuart P.M. Mackintosh is the author of “Climate Crisis Economics,” and executive director of the Group of Thirty.

Tags Boris Johnson Climate change Climate change mitigation Climate variability and change Environment Greenhouse gas emissions greenhouse gases international monetary fund John Kerry Methane United Nations Climate Change Conference Vladimir Putin

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