COP26: The answer is blowing in the wind

Written by: Mohammad Sifat

After an exceedingly global response in the previous COP at Paris, the long-anticipated Glasgow edition is underway. So many speculations and remarks have already been stated regarding the staging of COP 26. It is already a widely anticipated event, with many politicians, activists, and scientists looking forward to this year’s gathering. While the two-week-long conference is running in the UK, let’s review what stakes are crucial and game-changing for the world’s political environment. 

COPs (Conferences of the Parties) have been held annually since 1995 as part of the UN Climate Change Conference. The two-week summits provide stakeholders with an opportunity to discuss the global climate change challenge. There are 197 signatory countries in total, including representation from virtually every country and entity in existence today.

According to the landmark Paris Agreement, which was signed in 2015, nations pledged to keep global temperature rise “well below” 2 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels while “pursuing measures” to keep warming up to 1.5 degree Celsius. As a result of the treaty, their objectives are legally binding.

In order to achieve those objectives, governments also agreed to non-binding national targets for cutting – or, in the case of emerging countries, for curbing the growth of – greenhouse gas emissions in the short term, with the majority of targets being achieved by 2030.

Those national targets – known as NDCs, or nationally determined contributions – were insufficient to keep the world within the Paris temperature targets. Everyone in Paris knew that the NDCs were insufficient, so the French incorporated a “ratchet mechanism” into the agreement, requiring countries to return to the table every five years with new commitments. Those five years expired on December 31, 2020, but the pandemic prevented many countries from participating in that time.

Because stricter measurement is needed, all countries have been pushed to update their NDCs before COP26 in order to meet the 1.5C objective, which is the lesser of the two Paris goals. As a result, scientists believe that emissions must be lowered by 45% by 2030 compared to 2010 levels, and from there to net zero emissions by 2050 if the globe is to have a chance of staying inside the 1.5 degree Celsius barrier.

The UN recently concluded that current NDCs, including those from the US, EU, UK, and over 100 other countries, are still insufficient. They would cause a 16% increase in emissions, far from the required 45% reduction. There’s still so much to do. Industrial giant China is the world’s largest emitter. As of last year, President Xi Jinping said that China would achieve net zero emissions by 2060 and a peak by 2030. As a result, the world might surpass 1.5C. However, a few more years of effort from China might bring the world’s emissions to a halt by 2025, analysts claim.

More countries are raising alarm bells. Refusing to strengthen their promises are major fossil fuel producers Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Australia. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro continues to devastate the Amazon. The new Japanese government’s commitment is dubious. India, whose economy is dependent on coal and which was close to committing to net zero last spring, will be closely observed, as will Indonesia, Malaysia, South Africa, and Mexico.

The focus of COP 26 is set on the significant number concerning how many degrees hotter Earth’s climate will get. And how we can keep that number as small as possible. 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s foremost climate science authority, was tasked as part of the Paris accord with evaluating closely what a rise in global temperature of 1.5C would entail for the planet. They discovered a significant difference in damage caused by heating to 1.5C versus 2C and concluded that the lower temperature was far safer. Even with a 1.5C rise in temperature, sea levels would rise, coral reefs would bleach, and heatwaves, droughts, floods, and severe storms would become more common, but these effects would be significantly less severe than those associated with a 2C rise.

In the midst of hope and despair, there is also resentment. The West has criticised developing countries, particularly large ones such as China, India, and Indonesia, for failing to do more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, those large polluters and poorer developing countries accuse rich countries of failing to do enough to reduce their own emissions or not providing enough financial assistance to poorer countries to help them green their economies and adapt to climate change.

The question of financial support is expected to be a major source of contention during the negotiations. According to the International Energy Agency, rich countries had agreed to provide $100b a year in climate finance by 2020, but they now claim they will not fulfil that goal until 2023. Some developing countries are adamant in their refusal to reduce emissions in the absence of financial incentives. “The impact this has on trust cannot be overstated,” said Aubrey Webson, an ambassador from Antigua and Barbuda who serves as the chair of the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) group of 39 countries.

From the time this article is written to the time it’s published, many oaths will have been taken for the sake of the environment. Leaders and policymakers will pledge for more statistical based changes and adaptations. Journalists and analysts will have upheld arguments, successes and failures of the last six years.

In the meantime, amidst all the complex dynamics and cross-cutting political realities related to climate change, we forget to reimburse the very basic answer to all the questions. Maybe, it’s high time we took our breaths and realised “the answer is blowing in the wind (Bob Dylan).” 


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