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Was COP-26 in Glasgow Successful?

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While moving in the direction of a fossil fuel ‘phase out’, India announced a 2070 goal for achieving ‘net-zero’ emissions and set a number of climate targets for 2030.

By ANCA VERMA


Constructing a global response to climate change is a challenging task that we are facing today. Glasgow — a small Scottish town in the United Kingdom — hosted the 26th annual Conference of Parties (COP-26) between October 31 and November 12, 2021. Aimed at working together in a show of solidarity at the global level to tackle climate change, signatory countries to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) converged here.  It was the moment wherein countries revisited climate pledges, made six years ago, under the 2015 Paris Agreement. The Conference started on October 31 with the heads of countries ratcheting up expectations with astonishing announcements.

After the COP26 deliberations were extended by a day, the Glasgow Climate Pact was finally signed on November 13 by 197 countries that are parties to the UNFCCC and the 2015 Paris Agreement and a new global agreement was reached. Countries agreed to focus on the 1.5°C (which scientists say is required to prevent a ‘climate catastrophe’) target including cutting global emissions of carbon dioxide— the key greenhouse gas— by 45 per cent by 2030. COP President Alok Sharma said that Glasgow has ensured that the 1.5°C goal is still in sight, though countries will have to raise ambition significantly next year.

Interestingly, in what was described as an example of the compromise needed to achieve a consensus amongst all of the parties, the reference to ‘well-below 2°C’ was retained in the final version of the Pact. The US and China — the world's biggest CO2 emitters — pledged to cooperate more over the next decade in areas including methane emissions and the switch to clean energy. The goal is to keep cutting emissions until they reach net zero by mid-century.

Reducing Use of Coal

Within the Glasgow Climate Pact, there was a broad consensus on reducing use of coal, which is among the most polluting fossil fuels and responsible for 40 per cent of annual CO2 emissions. This is the first time that coal has been explicitly mentioned in any COP decision. However, after a late intervention by China and India, countries only agreed on a commitment to ‘phase down’ rather than ‘phase out’ coal. Even as  no definitive dates were set, they agreed to phase-out subsidies that lower the price of coal, oil, or natural gas. They also promised to stop deforestation (there is no denying the fact that trees absorb a vast amount of CO2) and cut 30 per cent of methane (a powerful and potent greenhouse gas) emissions by 2030. It is, however, unclear how countries will implement such commitments.

Also, many experts and environmentalists say that nationally-determined contributions (NDCs)— the current national plans on reducing emissions — are inadequate to limit temperature rises to targeted levels. Although India, a key emitter, brought in a new NDC at the Glasgow conference, getting the work of NDC in line with the 1.5°C goal was going to stretch beyond this climate pact.  Under the 2015 Paris agreement, nations are required to set new NDCs every five year. The Glasgow meeting has asked countries to strengthen their NDCs by next year.

As far as India’s stand on NDC is concerned, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced to go carbon neutral by 2070 by reducing aggregate carbon emissions by a billion tonnes by the same year. “We are not particularly concerned about the text language whether it says 1.5 or 2°C. We are very categorical about our carbon space and climate finance. I think there will be a breakdown if these are not resolved,” he added, suggesting India’s NDCs may be contingent on the other issues.

One of the major sticking issues at the Glasgow meeting was pertaining to climate finance — money that will help countries mitigate and adapt to climate change — and the delivery of the $100 billion climate finance that was agreed on in 2009 pledge, according to which developed countries were to have raised this amount as Climate Finance by 2020. The Glasgow pact urged developed countries to “at least double” their contributions towards adaptation finance (a part of climate finance) by 2025. But the possibility of that happening appears remote.

Fault Lines

The Glasgow conference clearly highlights the fault-lines in nations’ will to tackle climate change. In fact, the wording of the final agreement is not much different from decisions in previous conference of parties (COP), although there are some positive takeaways, particularly on coal, fossil fuels and new emission review mechanisms. Negotiators had not assembled in Glasgow only to sign a new agreement, but also to operationalize the 2015 Paris Agreement.

One needs to understand that the Glasgow pact by itself is just a non-binding statement. Of course, it shows intent of the world leaders and stakeholders to unitedly act on several fronts namely cutting greenhouse gas emissions from coal and reducing subsidy on fossil fuels; enhancing NDCs before the next climate conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, in 2022; a carbon trading market to be in place by 2023; and $100 billion every year by 2025.

In Glasgow, some other agreements between countries outside the UN ambit were signed. Significant among them was one on reversing deforestation by 105 countries, methane emission reduction by 30-odd nations, climate finance deal to reduce fossil fuel dependence in most climate vulnerable nations and a global mechanism to infuse electric cars in personal transport. India is not part of these agreements even though the US agreed to become part of International Solar Alliance, a multilateral form announced by India to enhance transfer of solar technologies to the developing world. Another breakthrough at Glasgow was a US-China joint statement that placed specific timelines on emission mitigation. It is the first of such agreements between two biggest carbon polluters of the world at COP.

Inadequate Climate Finance

Although such multilateral agreements would also lead to some emission cuts, these are more aligned towards pushing new cleaner technologies. However, one may recall that such agreements have been signed at COP in the past as well, but many of them have not achieved much because of the funding issues. An afforestation agreement signed by close to 100 countries in Paris in 2015 failed to take off as Norway backed out from funding two years later. The final text of the Glasgow pact expressed deep regret about the funding failures while urging rich countries to provide adequate climate finance as soon as possible.

So, many experts argue that it would be prudent to wait to see how many of these agreements really come off on the ground. Many in the developing countries feel that COP26 has failed to push rich countries to substantially enhance their financial commitments to fight the crisis. Without adequate finance, countries like India will not be able to deal with the rising vagaries of the climate crisis which were visible with devastating rains in Kerala and Tamil Nadu in October and November and in Uttarakhand in early October.

Agreed in Warsaw COP in 2013, progress on ‘Loss and Damage mechanism’ — to compensate the developing world for devastation wrought by the climate crisis — remains inadequate as there is no indication on how much money would be provided. Rich countries continued to block its implementation on the grounds that there's no clear system to evaluate the contribution of climate change to any damage. On this, the Glasgow pact speaks about asking a UNFCCC subsidiary body to draft a science-based compensation mechanism before Egypt.

Commitment to ‘Net Zero’

The Glasgow conference has agreed on rules on carbon trading as per the Article 6 of Paris agreement. In a carbon market, countries, regions or even companies are able to trade emissions reductions.  Major economies like India, China or Brazil, are allowed old carbon credits, earned under the Kyoto Protocol mechanisms, to be traded in the new carbon market being set up. They have been allowed to use these credits to achieve their emission reduction targets till 2025. 

However, some climate advocacy groups said carbon markets will allow rich countries to green wash their emissions through buying credits from the developing world.  Greenwashing is a form of marketing spin which is deceptively used to persuade the public that an organization's products, aims and policies are environmentally-friendly.

Today, commitment to "net zero" (carbon neutrality target) is the buzzword with several countries announcing their net zero target year. Net zero, or becoming carbon neutral, means not adding to the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Many countries including India joined the bandwagon during the conference. Even though it missed a key goal of the COP26 summit to commit to reach that target by 2050, India has promised to cut its emissions to net zero by 2070. China has announced plans for carbon neutrality by 2060, while the US and EU aim to hit net zero by 2050.

No doubt, there are definite small steps forward, but limiting temperature rise to 1.5°C still remains an elusive goal. Achieving this goal with rising emissions now looks almost impossible. Collaboration and cooperation between countries have found some place in the pact but environment experts say it may not be enough. The Earth is headed for an environmental disaster and Elon Musk’s plan of terraforming Mars to colonize it with Earthlings may really be the only option left for human race to survive beyond 500 years, though on another planet!

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