COP26 -- many promises but few likely to be implemented

COP26 -- many promises but few likely to be implemented

It has become very evident that the world at large is currently aware of the potential full-frontal tide of climate impacts but their leaders are continuing to avoid making strong commitments on climate action. Discussants and analysts, environmentalists and the corporate sector have highlighted very carefully that the climate front lines are not just Tuvalu or the Maldives or Bangladesh but also include most of the world's economic heartlands-- including Japan, Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Australia, Indonesia, Brazil, the USA and Canada.

The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), has clearly underlined to all participants including the largest economies, consisting of G20 nations - which emit 80 per cent of all greenhouse gases - that sluggish commitments to staving off climate risk will not be enough. It has been reiterated by the European Climate Foundation and the Euro-Mediterranean Centre on Climate Change that the reality is that all G20 nations face a full-frontal tide of climate impacts that could tear through their economies within 30 years. There appears to be adequate evidence that heat waves, draughts, fires and floods will increase in severity and frequency that will create further trauma and instability. There are going to be greater risks to coastal and major urban centres. Consequently, agriculture and tourism will certainly emerge as prime economic casualties all over the world. This development will fundamentally threaten food supply and livelihoods of millions.

As a case in point reference has been made to India- currently the fastest growing G20 economy. It will possibly face acute economic stress by 2050, with climate shocks leaving its millions of farmers significantly poorer, while up to 18 million people will face a permanent danger of river flooding, and heat waves that last 25 times longer. Heat waves, in fact, will also emerge as a major stressor in all the G20 countries - they will last at least 10 times longer by 2050, and in the case of Argentina, Brazil and Indonesia, over 60 times longer. The dynamics of development and prosperity, in all likelihood will disintegrate right before their eyes in one generation.

In this regard it has been clearly reiterated that one must not, particularly the world leadership, consider just the 1.5C goal and the 2050 net-zero horizons. They will need to understand that time has come to move away from rigid treaty obligations, competition and national interest to a global regime based on mutual self-interest. It will require unique and creative responses. Otherwise, the price for lack of coordinated action could be high.

We also need to remember what has been underlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) about how the global climate crisis is already affecting hundreds of millions of people in general and smallholder farmers in particular, who depend on agriculture to survive.

It needs to be noted that dry lands are home to more than 2.5 billion people and cover 40 per cent of the world's land surface. Many dry land countries, such as -- Botswana or Burkina Faso in Africa -- home to fast growing populations, face a large number of environmental challenges, from water scarcity and droughts to temperature extremes and floods. They are particularly vulnerable to climate change and suffer some of the largest concentrations of food insecurity and poverty in the world.

It has been repeatedly stressed during COP26 discussions that for such affected people, investment in agricultural research and development will help provide the tools needed to adapt to changing weather patterns and build resilient food systems that can produce more and better nutrition for communities. This will also enhance greater economic stability.

Eventually, supporting smallholder farmers will not only build more resilient food systems but will also strengthen economies in the countries and reduce poverty through the creation of employment opportunities. Such a measure will be an example of inclusive adaptation.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has also observed that a devastating convergence of conflict and climate change is driving displacement and making life even more precarious for those forced to flee. It has been mentioned by the UNHCR that ninety per cent of refugees under UNHCR's mandate, and 70 per cent of people displaced within their home countries by conflict and violence, come from countries on the front lines of the climate emergency.

One need to remember in this context the warning issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in August this year that irreversible changes in the Earth's climate are being observed in every region. They underlined that this year alone, catastrophic flooding killed more than 200 people in Europe, heat waves caused deaths in Canada, and wildfires have raged in Siberia, across the Mediterranean and along the western coasts of the United States and Canada.

The UNHCR with operations in more than 130 countries and 70 years of experience thinks that without ambitious climate action, the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance due to disasters could increase to 200 million annually by 2050-- two times the current number.

In this regard UNHCR has also mentioned how they are trying to tackle deteriorating environmental conditions that have resulted from receiving and providing shelter to refugees-- as has happened in Bangladesh. They have drawn attention that the UNHCR and partners have been helping Rohingya refugees reduce the risk of flooding and landslides during monsoon season by planting fast-growing trees to stabilise hillsides, providing alternative energy sources to firewood for cooking, and training refugee volunteers as first responders. It would however have been appropriate if the UNHCR had also reaffirmed that the way forward should also include full repatriation of the Rohingya refugees to their homeland, Myanmar.

Nevertheless, there appears to have been some concrete progress regarding averting deforestation. CNN has reported that the first substantial deal in this regard was announced at COP26. This was significant given that this has been reached after years of negotiations on how to protect forests. More than 100 countries , including Brazil that represent more than 85 per cent of the planet's forests committed during COP26 discussions that they will end and reverse deforestation and land degradation by 2030. Out of these countries, 12 governments have promised US Dollar 12 billion of public funds and US Dollar 7.2 billion through private investment. If this does take place it will be commendable.

Coal is the single biggest contributor to climate change. Although progress has been made in reducing its use, it produced about 37 per cent of the world's electricity in 2019. However, more than 40 countries including Poland, Vietnam and Chile have agreed to shift away from coal.

Another important point of convergence has drawn the attention of climatologists. They are still sceptical about 25 countries agreeing to end financing of fossil fuel projects abroad by 2022. However, hopefully this will be implemented carefully by the USA, Japan, China, South Korea and development banks who have been involved in supporting the financing of overseas gas projects worth over US Dollar 17 billion per year-- four times the financing for renewables. China has already reaffirmed that it would stop financing coal projects outside its borders. This step will be helpful in shifting resources towards renewable energy. The sooner the better.

At this point one needs also to refer to the anxiety of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres regarding phasing out of coal by 2030 for developed nations and 2040 for developing ones-- that means the potential for much more greenhouse gas emissions.  This assumes another connotation because China, India and the US did not sign the Global Coal to Clean Power Transition Statement.

In the midst of all the discussions and analytical outbursts by climate activists, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has announced its intention to double the mobilisation of private sector climate financing by 2025. This was indeed creditable for this institution and underlined that the European Union gives priority to tackling climate variability. The way to achieve this was set out in an Action Plan on Mobilising Private Capital for Climate Finance, unveiled at COP26. With this plan the EBRD will support the transition to a low carbon economy in its countries of operations. The EBRD's plan will focus on stimulating investment from green and sustainability-linked bonds.

At the heart will be the emphasis on policy activities to develop a regulatory environment that will make low carbon investments commercially viable. These activities, from the implementation of renewable energy auctions to the design of low carbon sector pathways, could assist in triggering sustainable demand for a climate-friendly investment through availability of private capital.

During COP26 around 100 nations and parties signed the Global Methane Pledge to cut methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas by 30 per cent from 2020 levels by 2030. Scientists feel that limiting methane emissions is one of the quickest ways to turn the dial down on global warming. Invisible and odourless, methane has 80 times more warming power in the near-term than carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, China, Russia and India have not signed it. Neither has Australia.

Nevertheless, towards the conclusion of the COP26 meeting, in a surprise announcement, the US and China -- the world's two biggest CO2 emitters -- have pledged that they will boost climate cooperation upon a range of issues, including methane emissions, the transition to clean energy and de-carbonisation.

The Glasgow Climate Pact has been the first ever climate deal to explicitly plan to reduce coal, the fuel for greenhouse gases. The deal also presses for more urgent emission cuts and promises more money for developing countries to help them adapt to climate impacts. However, the pledges don't go far enough. Countries agreed to "phase down" rather than "phase out" coal, amid expressions of disappointment by many including COP26 President Alok Sharma.

It will be difficult to suggest that COP26 has been a success.  We now have a glass which is only half-full. Hopefully the empty section will be filled with oxygen through required financial support and implementation of promises rather than the creation of a catastrophic climate change. Nearly 200 States will now wait and see what transpires between now and the next Conference.


Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.
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