COP26: Good Cop or Bad Cop? by Raphael Conte
‘The word ‘crisis’ has a second, less well-known meaning, from the original Greek - a turning point, an opportunity.’ (Katharine Viner, The Guardian, 31st October 2021)
From 31st October to the 13th November 2021, Glasgow hosted the 26th summit of the Conference of the Parties, the result of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change agreed in 1992, under the Presidency of the UK and Secretary of State for Business, Alok Sharma. The summit went into overtime, concluding with an agreement on Saturday evening after a fortnight of intense negotiations. Although Sharma has hailed the deal as ‘historic’, will the deal ensure that the headline figure of a 1.5C rise in the average global temperature is not exceeded?
On the one hand, it can be argued that this has really been a ‘Good COP’. Firstly, the agreement is ground-breaking in various respects, despite the gulfs between the 197 parties involved. Most significantly, it is the first ever climate deal containing an explicit statement for the reduction of coal usage. Such a move has been described by the UNFCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa as a ‘huge step forward’ and lauded by Boris Johnson as ‘the death knell for coal power.’ Other related pledges include the Global Coal to Clean Power Transition Statement, signed by 46 countries, with 23 countries including ¼ of the global top 20 coal-consuming economies, making more ambitious commitments.
Additionally, progress could be seen from the outset with multiple important pledges within the first week due to extensive pre-COP discussions. For example, on the second day of the conference, the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests & Land Use was announced, involving more than 100 countries, including Brazil, Russia, China and Indonesia, and 85% of global forest. The main thrust of this pledge was to cease and reverse deforestation by 2030, backed by unparalleled financial support, equating to almost $19.2bn, labelled by ecologist Dr Nigel Sizer as ‘a big deal’. Further early achievements include the Global Methane Pledge with over 100 adherents, aiming to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030. This is a particularly important deal for halting global warming in the short-term as methane has 80 times the heating capacity of carbon dioxide, but only remains in the atmosphere for 12 years.
Moreover, there is abundant evidence that COP26 has fostered newfound vigour and energy, on behalf of both developing and developed states, a further indication of its success. For example, the Chinese Communist Party’s media outlet Xinhua has emphasised the importance of decreasing coal consumption while Lord Deben, chairman of the Climate Change Committee has argued that future UK trade deals should be negotiated with ‘some congruence with the world battle on climate change’, utilising Australia as an example. Although Boris Johnson’s statement that the world will ‘look back on COP26 as the beginning of the end of climate change’ appears to be mere self-aggrandising rhetoric, the element of newfound vigour should not be ignored. This cooperative spirit has also been acted upon in the form of a US-China Joint Glasgow Declaration on Enhancing Climate Action in the 2020s, pledging to ‘recall their firm commitment to work together’. The document covers a range of critical areas, from methane decarbonisation to green energy, with the emerging sense of urgency encapsulated by the fact that the ‘2020s’ appear eight times throughout the text.
On the other hand, however, many observers argue that it is more fitting to describe the summit as a ‘Bad COP.’ Such a view was strengthened in the dying hours of the conference as India and China intervened to alter the phrasing of Article 3 concerning coal, to ‘phasing down’ instead of the stronger ‘phasing out’. This is symptomatic of much of the accord which features evasive clauses and gaps. For example, clauses permit states with ‘differing national circumstances’ to keep their emissions schedules, paving the way for countries like India and China to wait until next year to move their programme forwards. Similarly, the South Korean government has interpreted the clause stating that countries should cease burning coal in the ‘2030s or as soon as possible thereafter’ to mean stopping in 2049, while Lars Koch, policy director for ActionAid, has pointed out that the lack of pledges concerning oil and gas represents a major shortcoming. Additionally, even supposedly leading countries have failed to act, with the US and Germany’s refusal to divert from petrol and diesel engines providing a poignant case study.
However, even if one ignores the semantic particularities and lack of participation in some areas, the data and projections cast COP26 as a relative success at best and an abject failure to solve the crisis at worst. As the bar chart drawn from data from the Energy Transitions Commission displaying the projected greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 in gigatons below shows, there remains a 15.3 gigaton difference between the pledges and the estimated requirements to ‘keep 1.5C alive.’ Even if all the pledges of COP26 are fulfilled – a highly optimistic scenario – global warming will, according to Climate Action Tracker, still reach 2.4C.
Furthermore, the recurring issue of finance has not been completely overcome, implying that COP26 is perhaps not the turning point many had hoped for. For instance, China’s Vice Minister Zhao Yingmin commented that developed states had to ‘make further efforts to honour their commitments, enhancing support for developing countries, instead of merely urging other parties to raise their ambitions.’ This statement comes despite twofold increases in the support for developing countries, with the hope for a ‘trillion dollar a year fund from 2025.’ Similarly, India’s climate minister Bhupender Yadav has pointed out that developing countries ‘still [have] to deal with their development agendas and poverty eradication’, highlighting that money is still the issue.
Overall, as Alok Sharma has characterised it, COP26 represents a ‘fragile win’. Although there is a sense that the 1.5C aim is still ‘alive’, it is – as described by Ed Miliband – ‘in intensive care.’ While achievements ranging from coal and deforestation to a broader sense of revitalised cooperation should not be underestimated, the barriers of finance and implementation within the ever-reducing timeframe remain.