COP26: Business as usual?
On Wednesday evening last week, speakers from Maastricht’s different climate organizations came together to debate the outcomes of this year’s most important climate summit – the COP26. The representatives of Maastricht4Climate, Mondiaal Maastricht, KAN Maastricht and UNU-Merit expressed their views regarding the developments and failures of the global climate conference in Glasgow. During the discussion organized by the InnBetween, the speakers also touched upon more general questions considering climate activism and the trust we can put in governments and companies when it comes to climate action.
Since 1995, global climate summits known as COPs have been held in the context of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). ‘COP’ officially stands for Conference of the Parties. As almost every country in the world is attending the summits, they play a crucial role when it comes to international decisions regarding climate change. One of the most important outcomes of past conferences was the Paris Agreement of COP21 in 2015. There, countries committed to limit the global temperature rise to well below 2°C – preferably 1.5°C – compared to pre-industrial levels.
After being postponed for a year, COP26 finally took place between the 31st of October and 12th of November 2021 in Glasgow. The conference was extended, however, until the 13th of November, as the 197 attending parties were still engaging in last-minute debates and amendments of the new Glasgow Climate Pact. Negotiations were held in view of the four targets for COP26. First, the world should hold onto the 1.5°C goal and achieve net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century. The second target refers to the protection of communities and natural habitats. In order to take effective measures, COP26 focused on mobilising the necessary finances. Finally, international cooperation was highlighted to achieve the preceding goals.
Rapid climate action has become more urgent than ever. Even Maastricht isn’t spared by the devastating consequences of climate change in the form of more frequent extreme weather phenomena. We only need to think back to the severe floods that hit Western Europe this summer, causing enormous damage and the loss of many lives. In August, the imperative of concrete and fast climate action was confirmed by the most important source for climate information, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC). Although there are still many voices that try to deny that humans cause climate change, the new version of the IPCC report clearly states that “human influence has become a principal agent of change on the planet”. By many experts, COP26 was considered as “the world’s best last chance” for world leaders to agree on the necessary steps to avoid the climate crisis getting beyond our control.
Now, the big question is of course: did they deliver? One of the major advances compared to previous COPs was the agreement that countries need to tackle fossil fuels. This might sound surprising, but historically, fossil fuels have not really been directly addressed in COP decisions. Measures against fossil fuels have been fought against mainly by nations that heavily rely on these energy sources and by the fossil fuel industries. The fact that the Glasgow Climate Agreement includes a section about coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels, was first seen as a major progress. However, due to last-minute negotiations initiated by China and India, the language about coal was changed from „phase out“ to „phase down“. Argument was that developing nations which rely a lot on fossil fuels will need more time and resources to complete the transition to sustainable energy sources. The change in language was strongly criticized by experts and climate activists. Many of the delegates attending the summit were first opposed to it as well, but finally gave in. As fossil fuels are still a sensitive topic, some saw it necessary to protect the deal instead of risking countries such as China and India opting out at the end of the summit.
While it was decided under the Paris Agreement that world leaders should present the progress of their national plans to cut down emissions every five years, it has become clear that an annual revision of each country‘s contributions is much needed. The next revisions are planned for COP27 in 2022, as well as for the summit in 2023. If and how much countries will contribute to reducing emissions until next year‘s COP remains to be seen.
A significant deal that was concluded during COP26 concerns China and the US, the countries with the highest emissions. They committed to cooperation in terms of protecting forests, reducing methane emissions and cutting out coal. This deal came as a surprise, due to the differences between the two countries and the fact that China did not join an agreement on methane limitation earlier during the summit, stating that China will instead develop a national plan.
In terms of finances, the funding provided by rich countries to support developing nations to cut down emissions and initiate a transition will be increased in the next few years. As developing countries have been criticizing past decisions by saying that not enough funding was planned for adaptations, this share of the finances will be doubled. As many nations in the Global South already need a lot of money to repair the damages caused by the climate crisis, they hoped for a better system where rich nations support them to compensate for climate damage. However, they have been left disappointed at COP26.
Although some advances were made at COP26, experts and climate activists, especially of indigenous origins, have been let down. The indigenous activists that were invited to speak at COP26 urged the attending parties to listen to indigenous communities. They are amongst the most affected by environmental destruction, but their knowledge about the environment is crucial to tackle the climate crisis. However, witnessing how nothing much has changed over the years, indigenous people consider the COPs as “big business”, where indigenous voices remain unheard. This formulation recalls Greta Thunberg’s words at protests in Glasgow, talking of COP26 as a “two-week long celebration of business as usual and blah, blah, blah”. More than 100,000 people have been protesting in Glasgow’s streets during COP26 to stress the urgency of immediate climate action.
The disappointment of climate activists, experts and people on the front lines of the climate crisis is easy to understand. We have witnessed negotiation after negotiation, but little has been done in terms of climate action. Communities are already affected by the climate crisis, whether by extreme weather, dangerous fires or rising sea levels. Tuvalu’s minister Simon Kofe was sending a powerful message to his colleagues at COP26 when he held his speech knee-deep in the ocean to symbolize that his country will soon be engulfed by the rising sea. But we cannot afford that messages like these remain unheard. World leaders praise the youth for the engagement in their future, expressing the hope that our generation will do it better. Yet, they are the ones that hold a position of power right now. They have the economic and legal resources to take action. They only need to be willing. We cannot afford any more delays.