COP26 is dead! Long live the COP!

Twenty-six years since the first climate conference, we are yet to see any drastic climate action, and as Greta Thunberg put it, “This COP26 is so far just like the previous COPs – and that has led us nowhere”.
A protest in Dharamshala to highlight environmental issues in Tibet ahead of COP26
A protest in Dharamshala to highlight environmental issues in Tibet ahead of COP26

It was a weathery scene in Glasgow, Scotland, UK. The 26th version of the Conference of Parties (COP26), the meeting we know as the Climate Conference, which began on October 31 closed on Saturday, November 13, a day beyond its schedule. The last hours of the conference struggled through with many holding their breath. Will the draft agreement, what would later be called the Glasgow Climate Pact, survive or would it be yet another ugly piece of compromise, as good as dead? Will it close with some hope for the planet, or would it be one more of those usual spins?

This extended working is now typical of climate conferences, where the 197 nations, their leaders and officials tussled last-minute with yet another revised version of a draft statement that they want to agree with for keeping the Paris Agreement of 2015 alive. It usually ends up just that. The target of keeping rising temperatures at a low of 2 degree Celsius and, if possible, at 1.5 degree Celsius at pre-industrial levels could save the planet from a climate crisis. But no pact is usually anywhere close, contrary to conference claims.

In any case, there is more to the negotiations than just temperatures. About 800 climate activist NGOs had called out on the hypocritic “net-zero” targets that nations all over the world are happy committing to. They called for “real emission cuts” in carbon-dioxide and other Green House Gases (GHGs), culprits in heating up our planet. The balancing act of emitting carbon and then offsetting the same that “net-zero” promises would just not be enough to keep the increasing temperatures low. Emissions itself have to drop – down by 45% by 2030 and to net zero by at least 2050 – if we are to achieve the Paris Agreement targets. Not that participants in the conference are ignorant of this, but the agenda itself is always set as a compromise, and “net-zero” is one of them. The negotiators, in any case, were not lending their ears to public noise.

A hundred leaders must have spoken at COP26 before they even got to the negotiating table. Predictably, the pretentiously neoteric Indian Prime Minister also spoke, with his characteristic naivety, to spell out a one-word movement, LIFE – Lifestyle for Environment, he explained to what perhaps seemed to him a “clueless” audience. He then went on to talk about the ‘five nectar elements’, the Panchamrit, five commitments that India presents to address climate change.

All of this was lapped up back home, but actually falls flat when one reads the fine print. For instance, one of the panchamrits is a “net-zero” target to be achieved by 2070, a date 20 years too late for a nation that is the third largest contributor of carbon emissions in the world. And his other commitment that “India will reduce the total projected carbon emissions by one billion tonnes from now till 2030” is actually 2.5 to 3% of the total projected 30 to 40 billion tonnes of carbon emissions expected in 9 years! The target is way higher at 45%.

And shrouded under the other three seemingly positive commitments on energy transitions to non-renewable is India’s own declared ambitions on increasing coal production. In fact, India literally haggled for a last-second change in the draft agreement, to dilute the phrase “phase-out” to “phase-down” of unabated coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. This was the first explicit mentions of coal and fossil fuels in a UN climate agreement. Several nations, especially the island nations, that are on the verge of sinking due to rising oceans spoke out against this dilution. The Marshall Islands representative Tina Stege said that this swap removes “one of the bright spots” of the agreement. This wasn’t a dichotomy that just India represents. Other nations, with lesser rhetoric, were no different.

For the uninitiated, ‘Parties’ in COP stands for nations participating in the Climate Conference, and in this case those nations that have signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Most international conferences under the auspices of the UN have COPs, but this one is specific to climate change, and given its critical importance can easily be the King of COPs. The COP is attended by world leaders, ministers, officials who form negotiating teams, and also by representatives from civil society, business associations, international organisations, faith groups and media, who have observer status.

The first of the “Climate COPs” was held in 1995 in Berlin, Germany after the UNFCCC was established in 1992 and took effect in 1994. Since then, it has been an annual affair on a global scale to recognise and together address climate change. The landmark Paris Agreement was signed during COP21 in 2015.

The COP team is led by a president, who is designated by the organising nation. This time the conference was organised in Glasgow by the UK along with Italy. Alok Sharma, a UK Minister of Indian origin, was president of COP26, an unenviable role indeed.

Twenty-six years since COPs started, we are yet to see any “drastic climate action”, and as Fridays For Future activist Greta Thunberg put it, “This COP26 is so far just like the previous COPs – and that has led us nowhere”.

So as I write this, most of Chennai is flooded, and so are many parts of Tamil Nadu. Across the Bay of Bengal, there is a new depression forming up. Someone sent me a video of the Marina beach, the widest of them all. There is no beach, the sea is right into the city. Kerala is reeling under heavy rains, landslides, floods and has literally lost its coast to the lashing waves. In the Arabian Sea, there is another depression intensifying. The cyclonic activity in the Arabian Sea is a new phenomenon. The rains, unexpected in November, have been lashing all sides of this tiny Indian peninsula. We are faced with a double whammy. We are almost like an island now.

Meanwhile, COP26 closed with the reluctant adoption of a deal, the Glasgow Climate Pact. The conference officials believe this is a breakthrough. Alok Sharma said, “We can now say with credibility that we have kept 1.5 degrees alive. But, its pulse is weak and it will only survive if we keep our promises and translate commitments into rapid action.” So, what were the two main takeaways? “Adaptation, mitigation and finance are all strengthened in a complex and delicate balance supported by all Parties” and “After six years of strenuous negotiations, pending items that prevented the full implementation of the Paris Agreement on carbon markets and transparency have finally been approved” says the PR from the UNFCCC.

The official PR itself acknowledges the compromise, saying: “The package adopted today is a global compromise that reflects a delicate balance between the interests and aspirations of nearly the 200 Parties to the core instruments on the international regime that governs global efforts against climate change.” Even the call to at least double finances for climate adaptation to developing countries from developed nations was only “welcomed” by the Parties. Nothing concrete. Ironically, even the six-year-old Paris Agreement pledge of providing $ 100 billion annually from developed to developing countries is nowhere near realisation, but was dutifully “reaffirmed”.

Greta Thunberg responded: “The COP26 is over. Here’s a brief summary: Blah, Blah, Blah”.

Climate writers and thinkers agree. George Monbiot of the Guardian tweeted, “For the most ephemeral of political aims, powerful governments might have just signed our death warrant” and calls the final pact, “this pathetic limp rag of a document”.

But we have more COPs to come. One in 2022, then in 2023 and so on… as long as we still have a limping, living earth to run conferences on. As the old saying goes: The King is dead! Long live the King!

Sridhar Radhakrishnan is an environmental activist, and follows UN environmental conventions. He was an Observer at three of the COPs of the Rotterdam Convention.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

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