Good COP/bad COP? Maybe both. The Queen is going to Glasgow. That’s good – she’s always a crowd puller. But at the time of writing, China, India and South Africa have yet to commit to sending their heads of government – and that’s bad. Their presence is less important than the pledges that they make on their nationally determined contributions (NDCs), but the higher-ranking the attendee, the greater the signal of support.
NDCs are the pledges that each country gives, based on its individual priorities, needs and prospects, to reduce carbon emissions by ‘x’ per cent by a given date, along with the date by which it commits to reaching net-zero emissions. The 2015 Paris Agreement aims to limit global average temperature rise to well below 2°C, preferably no more than 1.5°C higher than it was prior to the Industrial Revolution. To do this, the world must reach net zero by 2050. We’re way off target.
On the plus side, 113 countries, including the USA, the EU and the UK – that is, most of the developed world – have already submitted updated NDCs. However, those updated commitments will still only reduce emissions by 2030 by about four gigatonnes, whereas we need to reduce them by at least 12 gigatonnes by that date. This brings us to China and India – the first- and third-worst polluters in the world (the USA is second). It also brings us to diplomacy.
First, China. This new era of strategic rivalry between the USA and China complicates the fight against climate change. Washington argues that climate change is a stand-alone issue and seeks to negotiate with Beijing on that basis. Beijing rejects this, saying the subject can’t be separated from the broader relationship between the two countries. US Climate Envoy John Kerry is reported to have spoken with his opposite number Xie Zenhua 18 times in the past six months without achieving a breakthrough. Essentially, China would like to be able to bring criticism of its treatment of the Uyghurs and the issue of Taiwan into the negotiations, which is a nonstarter for the Americans. China has missed an extended deadline to submit its NDC, says it can’t reach net zero until 2060, and although it has pledged to end support for overseas coal projects, it’s still building new coal plants at home.
Arguably the single biggest contributor to reducing emissions would be for China to rapidly shut down its coal facilities. However, Beijing believes that it must continue to rely on coal in order to support its economic activity. The hope is that China is keen to rework its global image after taking a hammering recently and so might be persuaded to show up in Glasgow and pledge an ambitious new NDC.
Another stumbling block is that nations such as India (and China to some extent) argue that they are still developing nations and that wealthier countries have a greater responsibility to tackle climate change. India’s energy minister, Raj Kumar Singh, recently said that poorer nations need to continue to use fossil fuels to raise people’s standard of living. He singled out richer nations for criticism, saying: ‘You have countries whose per capita emissions are four or five or 12 times the world average… The developed world has occupied almost 80 per cent of the carbon space already. [Developing nations] have 800 million people who don’t have access to electricity. You can’t say that they have to go to net zero. They have the right to develop, they want to build skyscrapers and have a higher standard of living. You can’t stop it.’ He pointedly asked what extra measures the developed world will take in the next five years.
India is investing in renewable energy, especially solar power, but it has also announced a major increase in coal production as part of a plan to boost its post-Covid economic recovery. It has yet to announce a new NDC or net-zero target. Its position – that the moral responsibility is on the advanced industrialised countries to do more – is shared by many developing nations, which is why Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s speech to the UN General Assembly about humanity having to ‘grow up’ wasn’t well received in some quarters. It’s an issue likely to be revisited in Glasgow.
It can also be argued that the UK’s decision earlier this year to temporarily cut foreign aid undermines its moral stance as a leader in the battle against climate change, particularly as some of the projects hit are connected to combatting the problem. One of the UK government’s slogans for COP26 is ‘Consign coal to history’. It made it into the G7’s Final Communique at Cornwall this summer but was then undermined by the announcement of plans to open a new coal mine in Cumbria. If Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, attends the summit, it will be something he’ll be keeping in mind if pressed to end coal production, a move Australia isn’t prepared to make.
So, as the UK is finding out, leading 197 countries to net zero is, to say the least, challenging. It will be the largest summit the UK has ever hosted: 30,000 delegates are expected and media coverage will be intense. It’s the most important climate change meeting since 2015.
Unlike Paris, Glasgow isn’t about a treaty. Instead, it’s the showcase for countries to state their individual commitments to the cause. Many have acted, but the overall situation remains fairly unimpressive. Climate Action Tracker, a science-based non-profit organisation, tracks government action and measures it against the goals set out in Paris. Only one country, The Gambia, is rated as taking ‘sufficient’ action to meet the 1.5°C aim. Th e UK, Nepal, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Kenya and Morocco are rated as taking ‘almost sufficient’ action.
The USA, formerly ‘critically insufficient’, is now ‘insufficient’ following President Biden’s new policies. He has pledged to reduce US emissions by half by 2030, decarbonise electricity by 2035 and achieve net zero by 2050 – a remarkable change of direction from his predecessor, especially after the economic hit of Covid-19 (although he does support fracking). Biden recently pledged to raise the USA’s annual overseas climate aid to more than US$11 billion by 2024.
The hosts can also attempt to play the good cop. Publicly, Boris Johnson can make the (disputed) claim that the UK has reduced emissions by half since 1990 and is thus halfway to net zero. He can explain how the second half is going to be more difficult as it will affect business more. In private, he and the UK team will need their diplomatic skills to make their case to countries such as India, and may need to hint at a few future sweeteners in the areas of trade and aid to get as many positive NDCs as possible. That will be one of the measurements of good COP/bad COP.
Most of the big hitters in Glasgow will talk the talk. A commitment to tackle climate change is now a pre-requisite for a senior politician on the world stage, which is a sign of how markedly the issue has been brought to public attention and how it’s now regarded as a top-tier geopolitical issue. COP26 president, Alok Sharma, says a ‘golden thread’ of climate action now weaves through all international gatherings.
Given that politics can be a drag on action, as well as an agent of it, it’s just as well that the years since Paris have seen a serious shift in public and corporate attitude. Many big banks now factor ‘climate’ into their investment choices, and major companies spend huge sums of money burnishing their green credentials, some with more concrete policies than others. For example, 201 big companies, including Proctor and Gamble, Amazon, HP and BT, have signed the Climate Pledge to become carbon neutral by 2040.
But it’s at the state level that the biggest moves are made and so the ‘Conference of the Parties’ needs China and India on board. If they don’t come up with NDCs, it won’t be the UK’s fault but it will be a dent in any claims that the conference is a major success. Th ere are also another 80 countries that need to submit their contributions, and as the UN warns, the collective ambition of those submitted to date are ‘very far’ from the trajectory required.
Of course, there must also be follow-through. Legion are the summits of grandiose promises and flowery rhetoric, later found not to have been delivered. The developing nations face a huge infrastructure funding gap. If that isn’t bridged, it’s difficult to see them building carbon-neutral economies – they aren’t yet even receiving the annual US$100 billion pledged in 2009 by the wealthy nations to help them combat climate change.
Every little helps. The top ten global polluters – China, the USA, India, Russia, Japan, Germany, Iran, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia – could help a lot.
This article was originally published in the November 2021 issue of Geographical. It has been updated to reflect the fact that Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has announced he will be attending COP26