COP26: Yet another carbon copy?

COP26: Yet another carbon copy?

Although the Glasgow Summit on Climate Change held much promise, in the end it looks like hot air. And the climate suffers 

The much-debated 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference – commonly referred to as COP26 – that had started with high hopes, was recently concluded without much to celebrate.  Held at Glasgow, Scotland, it was the 26th UN conference on Climate Change. 

Climate change is one of the world’s most pressing problems. The society now expects all governments to pledge radical cuts in emissions to deal with global warming. However, fuel-burning – the prime source of polluting emissions – is inherently linked to the question of industrial development. While the countries that were the first to get industrialised can now afford to cut down, developing nations find it difficult to continue progress and control emissions at the same time. And it would be grossly unfair to tell them not to industrialise. Moreover, first-world nations so long used to the conveniences derived from the burning of fossil fuel are mostly reluctant to give up their privileges. This is the crux of the problem.

But going by the drastic rise in greenhouse gases, the world needs an immediate solution.  And the Glasgow summit was thought to be the place where change could happen. There was much anticipation about what steps the world’s biggest polluters, like the US and China, would announce. More pressing was the need for providing the requisite relaxations and support for the economically challenged nations. However, as commented in an article released on the UN Environment Programme website, “It was, in the end, an agreement of compromise.”

The Glasgow Climate Pact, agreed by all 197 countries participating at the COP26, reiterated the global commitment to take quick steps within this decade, but that might not be enough. In his concluding speech, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said as much:

“It is an important step but is not enough. Our fragile planet is hanging by a thread. We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe. It is time to go into emergency mode — or our chance of reaching net-zero will itself be zero.”

The Carbon Story

This leads us to the intricacies of the International carbon market. Under the COP26 agreement, countries should soon be able to buy and sell UN-certified carbon credits from one another, and use them as a way to hit their greenhouse gas reduction pledges. These credits are produced from projects that claim to prevent a ton of carbon dioxide emissions, or to pull the same amount out of the atmosphere. But what exactly is a Carbon Credit?

Originating as a market-oriented mechanism to reduce greenhouse emissions, carbon credit is a permit that allows the holder to emit a specified amount of greenhouse gases. Holding 1 credit allows an organisation to emit 1 ton of carbon dioxide. A predetermined number of credits is granted to an organisation, which are used up over time. Any excess credit can be sold to another company. Companies that pollute are awarded credits that allow them to continue to pollute up to a certain limit. This “cap-and-trade” policy serves as an incentive to reduce emissions overall. Organisations face a two-pronged measure through this. First, they will be fined if they exceed the cap. Second, they can make money by saving and reselling some of their emissions allowances. The objective is to diminish the number of credits over time, and reduce release of greenhouse gases.

Caution needed

Negotiators at the Glasgow COP26 climate change summit agreed to a global carbon credit offset trading market. However, major loopholes could make it appear as if nations are making more progress on emissions than they really are. Countries may be able to select the most beneficial method every time they report progress, likely distorting the overall carbon math. Although the agreement requires all participating countries to report their progress towards more climate-oriented steps next year at COP27 in Egypt, climate experts fear that it is too little and too late.

Right from the outset, this high-profile conference faced major challenges and obstacles in the way of viable resolutions. Let us consider the most pressing of them:

  1. Lack of trust due to a shifting geopolitical equilibrium. The two most powerful nations are now deeply suspicious of each other – especially after the pandemic situation. Donald Trump’s aggressive dealings and COVID-related accusations have harmed relationships with China long-term.  
  2. Credibility of advanced nations and leaders are now at an all-time low, as the world witnesses a constant upswing in manipulated news, hate speech and hardliner politics.
  3. A rapidly growing sense among participant nations that the current negotiating process is too dated and might not be the most efficient method in an evolved world. UN never really had any clout and business lobbies are now more powerful than ever. Climate is now mostly an issue left to the civil society and to the goodwill of individual governments. Those who are earnest towards the cause now demand accountability and penalty should be introduced to fight the climate emergency. 
  4. The tasks to be completed to make any noticeable progress with climate issues have now assumed such proportions that action-points are difficult to chalk out. The backlog is now a deterrent. 

The key takeaways

The hope is that the new supervisory body will take a hard, honest look at the problems in earlier programs and strive to fix them. But the fear is that political incentives will work against that, threatening overall emissions progress, and slowing global efforts to address climate change.

So what are the key takeaways that the final Glasgow Climate Pact achieved, however little? Let us take a quick look:

  • Incremental progress on cutting emissions has been stressed. But that is nowhere near enough and is certainly not the breakthrough needed to put the brakes on a rapidly worsening climate scenario.
  • Option has been left open for revised curbs by next year. The final text of the Glasgow Pact acknowledges that the current national climate plans are way insufficient. Hence, countries have been requested to submit updated plans in 2022.
  • While the first-world nations continued to look elsewhere while historical responsibilities were discussed, developing countries once again bore the brunt of the curbs. Another serious issue is climate-vulnerable countries pointing out that past pollutions by advanced nations are responsible for their current vulnerability – and hence corrective funding is an ethical as well as practical demand.
  • Loopholes in carbon market rules could undermine progress. Although the rules theoretically prevent double counting of climate progress, experts fear there are ways it could still occur. And carbon markets could allow fossil fuel industry to claim carbon offsets and continue as before.

Repainting the big picture – yet again!

The hope is that the new supervisory body will take a hard, honest look at the problems in earlier programs and strive to fix them. But the fear is that political incentives will work against that, threatening overall emissions progress, and slowing global efforts to address climate change.

Climate activists are both disappointed and sceptical. The icon-activist of the next generation, Greta Thunberg told BBC Scotland News: “I have to say unfortunately it turned out just the way I and many others had expected. They even succeeded at watering down the blah, blah, blah which is quite an achievement. … … You can still interpret it in many different ways – we can still expand fossil fuel infrastructure; we can increase the global emissions. It’s very, very vague.”

Leaders often choose to ignore activists. But what is deeply disturbing is the fact that COP26 President Alok Sharma himself remarked to the media after 15 days of talks that he was “deeply sorry” for how the events had unfolded.

The world can only keep its fingers crossed and hope COP27 next year takes a more positive turn. Else, every new edition of such conferences would start looking like a carbon copy of the last! 

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