Looking back at COP26

As the weeks since the end of COP26 go by, there’s been more time to reflect on the Glasgow climate conference. And realise that all hope is not yet lost.

This article was based on an instalment of the Il Climatariano newsletter from Tuesday, 16th November.

Where can we start to understand how COP26 really went? Analysing what happened, having lived for days within the walls of the Glasgow conference, as we did with all cities for past COPs, is far from easy. The first step is probably to start to understand what the end goal was.

The first goal was to “find a goal”. The scientific community has told us time after time that keeping the increase in global average temperatures “well below 2 degrees centigrade”, as established by the 2015 Paris Agreement, is not enough to avoid a dark and unpredictable scenario. Therefore, the main goal was to put into writing that the only way to survive on this planet is to remain as close as possible to a 1.5-degree temperature increase.

cop26 hall glasgow
COP26 conference hall © Alessia Rauseo

Was this goal achieved at COP26?

Yes, all the countries that are part of the United Nations Framework Conventions on Climate Change (UNFCCC), or almost the entirety of the world’s nations, recognised in the Glasgow Climate Pact that an increase in temperatures of 1.5 instead of 2 degrees “would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change” and thus decided to commit to “limit this increase to 1.5 degrees”.

These countries also agreed that “limiting global warming to 1.5 °C requires rapid, deep and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions,” such as CO2 and methane. This goal can be reached by “reducing global carbon dioxide emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 relative to the 2010 level and to net-zero around mid-century”.

The increase in temperatures is already now almost 1.2 degrees compared to pre-industrial levels. This means we need to be quicker than quick; we only have this decade to drastically cut emissions. It’s maths, it’s the carbon budget: the emissions we can still afford before it’s too late.

cop26 climate crisis
Immediate and radical measures are needed to fight the climate crisis © Alessia Rauseo

How should this be interpreted?

On the one hand, it’s good news because the countries have finally agreed on a precise, quantitative framework for the steps that need taking. On the other hand, meanwhile, there’s still a lot of work to do because agreeing that “reaching net-zero emissions by mid-century” is not the same as actually doing it.

Why did they write “mid-century” instead of 2050?

Because China and India have told the world they will be able to reach carbon neutrality by 2060 and 2070 respectively.

Why have China and India decided to delay their actions if the rest of the world already has very low emissions (as in developing countries) or has set 2050 as a goal (as with the EU)?

This is due to the concept of “common but differentiated responsibilities” (as defined during the negotiations). In simple terms, it means that the countries we might call “Western” or industrialised bear almost complete responsibility for the temperature increase we are living through today (almost 1.2 degrees). They have caused approximately half of all emissions between 1850 and today, despite representing only 12 per cent of the world’s population. They must therefore be the first to act, and they have to set a good example even if there are countries, like China and India, which – in absolute terms – currently cause the highest proportion of global emissions. This is primarily because of their combined populations totalling some 3 billion people and their attempt to bring their people out of poverty.

cop26 protest
No country is in line with scientifically recommended emission reduction goals © Alessia Rauseo

An example can help us better understand this idea: in 2020, the average US citizen emitted 14.2 tonnes of CO2, compared to 7.4 tonnes – almost half – for a Chinese citizen. And what about India: widely criticised, maligned, and recently defined as “unsporting”? In 2020, the average Indian citizen was responsible for less than 1.8 tonnes of CO2 emissions. Yes, you read that right: one-point-eight. India’s population is 1.4 billion. That’s one billion, four hundred million people. A third of this population, i.e. a number of people comparable to the entire population of Europe, lives in poverty. India, therefore, has a rate of per-capita emissions lower than countries such as Botswana and Gabon, and comparable to Fiji, an island nation at risk of ending up underwater due to rising sea levels. Italy, meanwhile, is at 5 tonnes per capita.

As we were saying, the goal to avoid ending up getting burned is to say below a 1.5-degree increase in temperatures. To do this, we have two deadlines, one in 2030, one in 2050 (or thereabouts). However, we’re already running really late, because current predictions say the emission targets we’re working with now put us well beyond (not well below) 2 degrees. Not a single country is in line with what science is telling us to do, not even in Europe.

Who’s paying for the ecological transition?

To ensure a “rapid and lasting” ecological transition we need something that can neither be quantified nor invented: solidarity. The countries that got rich off fossil fuels, by exploiting the rest of the world, have to act more and sooner than the rest. But they also must give back part of their profits to those countries whose natural resources they ravaged and which now – not in some imagined future, now! – are suffering the worst consequences of the climate crisis. This transfer of funds and technology has to ensure a just transition that leaves no one behind, as specified in the Glasgow Pact. This can be counted as another diplomatic success.

How will this money change hands?

There are two ways. The first had already been announced by former US President Barack Obama at COP15 in 2009: a green climate fund worth 100 billion dollars a year, between 2020 and 2025, to support the ecological transition where the funds and technology are missing. So far, the first-year 100-billion-dollar target hasn’t even been reached, so the 600 billion total feels very far away.

The second way is what’s being demanded by the governments of developing countries, something that has never truly been approached. Reparations for the damage that global warming, caused by wealthy countries, is already bringing to many regions on our planet. The concept is summed up by the expression “loss and damage”. This term was used by negotiators to express the concept of “climate justice”, loudly demanded by activists across the world. Who is going to pay for the damage caused by unprecedented flooding in sub-Saharan Africa? What about the agricultural losses faced by Madagascar as a result of the first famine caused by global warming? Who will pay for an entire people to relocate because their lands are submerged below the rising ocean? Many countries believe that those who are truly responsible should pay. But nothing concrete was agreed on this issue.

Cop26 Glasgow
The pact specifies that the ecological transition must be just © Alessia Rauseo

Why do we still want to use coal if it’s so harmful?

This is the knot that needs untangling. Without economic and financial support, and without a suitable technological transition, the easiest way for developing countries to rise out of poverty, true poverty, where you go to bed hungry – if you even have a bed or a roof over your head – is to use fossil fuels, like coal. Even though coal is greatly responsible for all the environmental and climate catastrophes that we are learning more about. It’s as if India, to cite the example du jour, were faced with the ignominious choice of the lesser evil. Better to die of hunger today or cause an unprecedented monsoon tomorrow?

To untangle this knot, allowing countries to develop without the risk of leading us all into an extreme climatic scenario, requires convincing industrialised nations to embrace solidarity and help developing countries. This will also help foster a sense of openness and a desire to take part and share resources. With all this, the basic idea of the need to abandon coal forever and fight the climate crisis will remain an unquestionable keystone.

After reading all this, what are your thoughts on COP26? Do you think it’s right to attack the Indian government? How much pressure should we put on our governments so they understand that solidarity and the transfer of resources to the “rest of the world” (whence our wealth comes) is the only way to win this fight? And, as we all know, this is a fight that sees us all winners if it’s won, and all losers if it’s lost.

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