Sustainability & CSR
COP26 – Success or failure?
Will the Glasgow Climate Pact save us from global warming?
By Mike Jewell
Oh, good! Yet another picture of an industrial landscape with plumes of toxic muck belching into the atmosphere. So, this must be yet another article pointing out that we’re changing the climate for the worse and we must all do something about our carbon footprints.
Let’s talk about something more interesting…like, what’s happening in Britney Spears’ conservatorship case and why did Alec Baldwin shoot that cinematographer?
Climate change, though, is highly topical, given all the hype surrounding the just-completed COP26 conference in Glasgow. And, slowly but surely, people all over the world are coming round to realising that climate change is a big problem. The United Nations Development Programme surveyed 1.2 million people in 50 countries late last year and found that 64% believe that climate change is a "global emergency", while the EU found that 78% of European citizens see climate change as a serious problem. The august Pew Research Center in Washington DC made the same observation in their global study in 2020 and noted that people are more aware of the seriousness of the situation than six years ago at the time of the Paris COP meeting.
The good people at Pew, unlike the UNDP or the COP26 authorities, also believe that the views of the people of Taiwan are worth taking into account. According to their 2020 survey, 80% of Taiwanese believe that climate change is a "very serious problem", a higher level of concern than in any of the other 19 countries included in the study. In the US, for example, the figure is just 53%, and in several nations which are generally assumed to be strongly committed to the green ideal, public sensitivity is surprisingly low, such as Australia (53%), the Netherlands (52%), Greta Thunberg’s Sweden (55%), and Germany (64%).
So where does the responsibility for taking action lie?
In a GlobeScan survey conducted for the BBC just before COP26, respondents in 31 countries said that, while it is the duty of each individual to do their bit, the greatest responsibility belongs to governments (61%), to the private sector (57%) and to international bodies like the UN (54%). The same picture emerges from the EU’s study and a striking feature of both surveys is the strong growth over time in the expectation of action from governments.
Turning back to the Pew Center research, a majority in 14 out of the 20 countries covered expressed the belief that their governments are doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change. In the UK, which, through its chairmanship of COP26, has sought to reinforce its claimed position in the vanguard of the global movement towards decarbonising the Earth, fully 69% said they thought the government wasn’t doing enough. Furthermore, a Dynata survey found that only 42% of British adults actually believe that the UK "is a leader in fighting climate change". (Clearly some serious brand image building is required from the folks in Number 10 Downing Street).
Which brings us to COP26
COP26 was the opportunity for most of the world (not including Taiwan) to come together to forge a universal strategy to tackle climate change and live up to the expectations of their populations. It was characterised as "an opportunity and a time to move from commitments to real urgent action."
Ahead of the conference, four key goals were defined by the leadership. Paraphrasing the official website…
- Countries were called on to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, in order to limit global warming to a maximum rise of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
- States were encouraged to protect and restore ecosystems and build resilient infrastructure to withstand climate change.
- Developed countries were asked to mobilise US$100 billion a year in climate finance to help poorer nations tackle climate change.
- Participants at COP26 were expected to collaborate to finalise the so-called Paris rulebook, which set out the rules for implementing the much-lauded Paris Agreement, albeit some six years after the original deal was signed, during which time, we have pumped out another 200+ giga tonnes of carbon dioxide, pushing the concentration level in the atmosphere ever closer to the tipping point beyond which we won’t be able to control global warming.
Looking back at what actually came out of COP26, the two weeks were punctuated by regular optimistic announcements about supposed landmark agreements in different areas and the event culminated – eventually – in the adoption of the "Glasgow Climate Pact", signed by all 196 participating countries, but delivered late after many tense days and hours of negotiation.
The UK Government was very upbeat about the outcome, posting on the official website, with more than a little hyperbole:
"Over the last two weeks, tens of thousands of people from 196 countries have come together in the UK to make history. The ‘Glasgow Climate Pact’ … commits countries to phase down unabated coal, supports a just transition for developing countries and action to tackle loss and damage, and agrees for the first time a common timeframe and methodology for national commitments on emissions reductions.
Crucially, countries are also asked to return next year with a more ambitious 2030 emissions reductions target … in line with the 1.5°C target, ensuring we maintain crucial momentum on climate action this decade. The UK will continue to push for greater action on reducing emissions and supporting developing countries with finance and access to new green technology over the next year of our COP Presidency.
The negotiated text … comes on the back of a series of pledges and announcements made during the COP26 World Leaders Summit and theme days, which have driven transformative action on coal, cars, cash and trees and mark a shift in the relationship between people and planet.
The COP26 Summit follows nearly two years of intensive global climate diplomacy, led by UK COP President Alok Sharma, to listen to the needs of climate-vulnerable countries and push big economies to take greater action on cutting emissions. At least 90% of the global economy is now covered by net zero commitments, up from 30% when the UK took on the COP presidency in 2019, and 154 countries and parties representing 80% of global emissions have submitted NDCS [emissions reduction targets]."
Strong stuff, and I guess we should at least be encouraged that 196 countries and numerous other vested interests managed to agree on something, given how fractured, self-seeking and non-collaborative the global response to Covid has been in the past two years.
One area where there does seem to be universal consensus, despite the official bullishness, is that the Glasgow Climate Pact does not go anything like far enough, a compromise cobbled together for the sake of having something to show for two weeks of activity. One participant put it this way:
"This is not a good deal that could have been better. It is a bad deal that could have been worse!"
Interviewed on Deutsche Welle, experienced environmental and energy consultant, Alden Meyer, a veteran of all the COP meetings to date, gave this brutal assessment:
"[The agreement] is clearly not going to be anything like what we need. We need to phase out not only coal, but oil and natural gas in the next decades, if we’re going to have any chance of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. The text [of the agreement] is … weaker, but I should point out this is the first time there has been text of any kind to phase down fossil fuels in this process.
The problem is we’re on track to increase emissions by 13-15% by 2030, not reduce them.
A lot of people have been saying this is an existential threat, but we’re not behaving like it. If it was truly an existential threat, we’d go on a wartime footing and try to decarbonise as quickly as we can. We don’t see that. We see finger pointing, blame casting, watering down of language and they’re not treating this like the emergency it is. That’s my fear that we’re going to come out of here with a totally inadequate response that doesn’t lead to the transformational change we need in the next eight years.
It's a bit like the movie ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, everyone has some claim [in why COP26 has not succeeded], except the vulnerable countries, the small ones that had no role in creating this problem but are on the front lines of climate change. But all the big powers. China is accusing the US of not implementing its commitments, the US is accusing China of not having strong enough commitments to phase down coal, the developed countries are accusing the developing countries of asking for too much money and the developing countries are saying ‘you’re not providing the money you promised in Copenhagen 12 years ago’. They’re all right – we need stronger targets, we need better implementation, we need trillions of dollars not billions of dollars both to reduce carbon emissions and to help vulnerable countries deal with the impact. But instead of looking together for creative solutions, they’re trying to avoid responsibility and not shoulder the blame."
The futility of focusing on "net zero by 2050" (or later)
So much of the talk around reducing greenhouse gas emissions centres on distant targets, 30 years away (40, if you live in China or Saudi Arabia, 50 if you live in India). This may give citizens a comfortable feeling that positive steps are being taken, but Alden Meyer makes clear that action must be taken now and drastic cuts in emissions are needed immediately, before 2030.
Here Glasgow has simply kicked the can down the road again. Apologists for the deal will defend it by pointing to the wide span of national commitments to net zero, just as the British Government did in its press release ("90% of the global economy is now covered by net zero commitments"), but the need for urgency is not addressed, other than in broad statements stressing the need to act. The COP26 deal merely asks signatories to come back to COP27 in Egypt next year with renewed national goals. Another year gone up in the flames of annual ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ wildfires or sunk without trace in the waters of ever more common ‘totally-unprecedented’ floods.
Once upon a time we did have time for this sort of measured approach, with the luxury of a longer period for consultation and debate over whether to ‘phase down’ or ‘phase out’. Right back in 1997, COP3 drew up the Kyoto Protocol committing countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in order to minimise global warming which was already being noticed and which was attributable to human-made CO2 emissions.
That luxury has now gone. Alden Meyer said it and three months earlier the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published stark and unequivocal warnings in its 2021 report, calling for urgent deep cuts in emissions in order to stabilise global temperatures. (Note, the scientists are talking about stabilising temperatures, not reducing them.) The planet has already warmed up by 1.1 °C compared to pre-industrial times and, no matter what we do, the IPCC models all show that we will hit 1.5 °C by the middle of the century at the latest. The challenge is to hold it at that level and not to let it go any higher.
The report also makes clear that because of the warming that has already happened, many significant changes have occurred within our ecosystem, changes that will take centuries or even millennia to reverse. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are higher now than at any point in the last three million years and nitrous oxide and methane levels at their highest for 800,000 years.
That figure of CO2 concentration is absolutely key. Once it hits 450 parts per million (450ppm in climate-speak), we will be destined for +2°C and an unstoppable chain reaction in climate change that will make huge areas of the planet uninhabitable in the second half of the century.
Right now, we are uncomfortably close to that tipping point and getting closer every year. Despite the reduction in emissions last year due to Covid, the CO2 concentration grew unabated and, with a return to almost 2019 levels of emissions this year, the concentration hit a seasonal high of 420ppm in April and is likely to average out around 417 across the whole of 2021. At this rate, we will trigger 1.5°C temperature rise in 2027 and breach the catastrophic 2°C threshold in 2031 or 2032.
Coming out of COP26, the best case, if all the pledges made are strictly and fully complied with (and that it is one huge "if" given all the broken promises from past COPs), is that temperature rise can be held to 1.8°C. If governments merely stick to their current commitments made before Glasgow (and that, too, is a big "if"), the world is on track for a long-term rise of 2.4°C, which will be disastrous. Rather than asking countries to come back with new proposals in a year’s time – which they may or may not be able or willing to stick to – COP26 needed to come out with firm plans for the world to reduce carbon emissions by 7% a year, effective immediately. Under current pledges, emissions will rise by nearly 14% by 2030.
Many of the leading figures in the conference tried their best to put a positive spin on the outcome, although constantly conceding that "much more needs to be done."
Alok Sharma, who chaired the conference: "We can now say with credibility that we have kept 1.5°C alive. But its pulse is weak, and it will only survive if we keep our promises and translate commitments into rapid action."
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission: "We have made progress on the three objectives we set at the start of COP26 ... This gives us confidence that we can provide a safe and prosperous space for humanity on this planet. But there will be no time to relax; there is still hard work ahead."
John Kerry, US climate envoy: "We are in fact closer than we have ever been before to avoiding climate chaos and securing cleaning air, safer water and healthier planet.''
Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General: "The COP26 outcome is a compromise, reflecting the interests, contradictions and state of political will in the world today. It's an important step, but it's not enough. It's time to go into emergency mode. The climate battle is the fight of our lives, and that fight must be won."
Others were much more critical.
Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and former UN commissioner for human rights: "COP26 has made some progress, but nowhere near enough to avoid climate disaster. While millions around the world are already in crisis, not enough leaders came to Glasgow with a crisis mindset. People will see this as a historically shameful dereliction of duty."
Mohamed Adow, director of the thinktank Power Shift Africa: "The needs of the world’s vulnerable people have been sacrificed on the altar of the rich world’s selfishness. The outcome here reflects a COP held in the rich world and the outcome contains the priorities of the rich world."
Peter Kalmus, climate scientist, writing in the LA Times: "Unless COP26’s failure is recognized as failure, there is no way to learn from it. Allowing global leaders to feel that what happened in Glasgow was acceptable – and spinning it as some sort of success – would be a disastrous mistake. It would give them further license to pander to the fossil fuel industry and fail again next year. At this late stage, until society transitions to emergency mode we will face ever greater consequences."
It's difficult to view COP26 as anything other than a failure, given the well-documented bickering inside the conference and the divisions so obvious in these quotations, coupled with the total absence of any firm moves on immediate reductions in emissions. Coming away from Glasgow, public impatience with the ineffectiveness of the process will surely grow and we can only hope that the clamour for action will lead to decisive action, but it had better happen soon and I for one am not optimistic, despite the resolute campaigning of Greta Thunberg and her peers.
And what of Taiwan?
Despite the inevitable exclusion from the COP "plenary" decision making sessions, Taiwan nevertheless has sought to play a role in the conference, sending a 30-strong delegation led by Deputy Environment Minister Shen Chih-hsiu (沈志修), to engage with other participants on the sidelines. The focus of the effort was ‘Taiwan Day’ on 7 November, featuring a video address by President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文). She repeated the call for Taiwan to be included in such conferences and reiterated that Taiwan is willing and able to work side-by-side with international partners to achieve the collective goal of net zero emissions by 2050.
Taiwan’s absurd exclusion from COP26 and all similar international gatherings does not hide the fact that, just as with the Covid pandemic, Taiwan faces exactly the same problems as everywhere else. A report on climate change in Taiwan, prepared by Taiwan Climate Change Projection Information and Adaptation Knowledge Platform (TCCIP), Academia Sinica and the Central Weather Bureau concurrently with the IPCC global study, concluded that Taiwan warmed by 1.6°C between 1911–2020, with summers lengthening to 120-150 days, and winters shortening to about 70 days. If global emissions continue unchecked, the length of summer could stretch out to 210 days by the end of the century, with the number of days with 36+°C temperatures increasing by 48 days and a strong possibility that winter might disappear altogether as soon as 2060.
According to Greenpeace Taiwan, we will also face rising sea levels and more damaging storm surges, without immediate action on climate change. Greenpeace warned that sea levels around Taiwan are rising at double the global average. Their simulations suggest that Taiwan’s six special municipalities, which are home to 70% of the population, will be particularly badly affected, with sites such as Songshan Airport, Taipei Main Station, parts of Taichung Port, Kaohsiung’s Pier-2 Art Center, and 85 Sky Tower and even the Presidential Office especially at risk.
Although frozen out of all COPs (a metaphor, which might become meaningless if the Earth continues to get hotter), Taiwan has nevertheless been developing its energy policies in parallel with the trends established by the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for about 30 years. Progress, though, was slow and, by 2015, renewable energy was a miserable 4% of total consumption, lower than any of the OECD countries.
2016 was something of a watershed. Firstly, in the wake of the Fukushima meltdown, the new administration committed to a nuclear-free homeland by 2025. Then the ‘New Energy Policy’ set a goal of a 20% share of renewable energy by the same year. The government even wrote its long-term reduction goals into law, one of the first countries to do so and embarked on a programme of partnership with the global wind energy industry, to the point where Taiwan is now one of the world’s largest offshore wind markets and a pioneer for the sector in Asia.
Impressive progress in terms of policy, but it was only on Earth Day this year, that President Tsai finally announced that the planet’s 21st largest greenhouse gas emitter would follow the lead of much of the rest of the world by becoming carbon-neutral by 2050.
As with all the COP26 participants, how we get there remains a mystery. The government has launched lots of initiatives, but even the possibility of reaching the goal of 20% renewables by 2025 has been widely called into question. On top of that, there is the lingering issue of atomic power. The decision to hold a referendum next month on whether to reactivate the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant is puzzling, given the government’s stated nuclear-free stance and the policy could come under close scrutiny, if voters come down in favour of taking the plant out of mothballs.
A major stumbling block is the court of public opinion. Writing in Taiwan Insight, Professor Ho Ming-sho suggested that no administration would have the courage to face up to the inevitable public backlash that would result from any increase in energy prices or other cost of living rises that might accompany the determined actions needed to cut emissions.
"While it is laudable that Taiwan’s leaders finally came on board with the worldwide commitment to a carbon-neutral trajectory, it remains a significant challenge whether Taiwan’s citizens are ready for a substantial readjustment of their lifestyle for the sake of the Earth’s future."
Much the safer route is to adopt the same approach as most others – divert attention away from the immediate crisis and put the focus on a distant utopian goal of total decarbonisation that creates the appearance of bold and decisive action but ensures the current leadership will be safely out of the way when the call to account comes.