Please don’t fall for COP26’s empty rhetoric
COP26 is not the solution to climate change. It needs to be a catalyst for action.
As government delegations from across the globe gather in Glasgow for COP26, the entire world is awaiting and expecting serious, comprehensive, and urgent action to combat an existential crisis facing humanity. Instead, the UK, the host nation, has been engaging in what you could call Government by Press Conference.
Instead of working towards the necessary actions we need to address the climate crisis, we’ve been treated to a PR show. We’ve been offered one announcement after the next, each designed to capture headlines and reassure us that our leaders are doing what is needed. Yet a closer look reveals they all disguise a central hypocrisy or are riddled with loopholes.
Take the declaration that over 40 countries have come together and committed to phase out coal. This is a great thing, right? If we’re going to limit global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius, we will absolutely need to stop coal, as well as oil and gas. Yet the UK – the first country to benefit from fossil fuel powered industrialisation – is itself opening a new coal mine.
Or take the announcement that several countries will end overseas fossil fuel financing. What could be more urgent and important? The instinct on hearing such news is of course to celebrate. But delve into the detail, and you see that these same countries will continue to subsidise fossil fuel production in their own countries.
Or, finally, take the pledge by over 100 countries to cut methane, the most potent of the greenhouse gases, by 30% by 2030. Again, one desperately wants to see this as a victory, but one third of anthropogenic methane emissions are caused by fossil fuel production. How can you commit to cutting methane meaningfully without committing to cutting oil and gas? It doesn’t add up.
Scientists calculate that emissions need to fall by 45% by 2030 if we’re going to keep global heating to 1.5C. But even after all these announcements emissions are still set to increase 13.7% by 2030.
The highest polluting governments want to be able to tell the world that they get it, that they hear the message young people are sending and that they recognise we’re in a climate emergency that requires large-scale transformative change. But their actions prove that they don’t. For them, it’s PR and it’s crucial we don’t fall for it.
Those of us from regions of the world that contributed to the lowest greenhouse gas emissions yet are feeling the worst impacts of the climate crisis have learnt this lesson the hard way. Over many years, we’ve been promised funds for adaptation to survive extreme weather events.
We’ve greeted with excitement repeated high-level pledges to mobilise resources to support us in dealing with irreversible loss and damage caused by climate breakdown. And yet, we’ve seen hardly any progress. In 2009, world leaders in Copenhagen promised to channel $100 billion to less wealthy countries by 2020 to help them adapt to climate change. That is a tiny sum compared to what is actually needed, but even this is yet to be delivered. And now they’re talking of mobilising trillions. How can we swallow new promises when we’re faced with the emptiness of old ones?
In Africa today, about half a billion people don’t have reliable access to electricity. We need to build our energy capacity and can do so in a way that doesn’t add to the climate crisis. It just requires clean technology and finances, and yet rich countries are not providing them. And so, we have a situation in which a group of vulnerable countries are eager to do their part in solving a problem they did not cause. Meanwhile, the rich polluting countries that did cause the problem are denying them even this opportunity.
Sadly, the past year and a half has only deepened this sense of distrust and this divide. We are living through an unprecedented global pandemic against which our best weapon is the Covid-19 vaccine.
Yet even though it would ultimately be in rich countries’ own interests to allow poorer countries to manufacture and distribute the vaccine and so reduce the likelihood of new variants emerging and spreading, they refuse to release the patents. For all the rhetoric of following the science and global solidarity, still just a tiny fraction of Africa’s populations have been able to get the jab.
The people must act
The main objective at COP26 is to keep global heating to 1.5C. Let’s be clear: this is not a safe and stable level. We’re already at 1.1C and are facing an unprecedented frequency of extreme weather events and climate instability. Every increment higher, things get exponentially worse. After decades of inaction, though, we are at the stage that limiting the temperature rise to 1.5C would be a huge relief.
If you’re looking to COP26 to deliver this, however, you’d be dangerously mistaken. Powerful and wealthy governments are incapable or unwilling to do what is necessary. This puts the responsibility back on people across the world force their hand. We need to mobilise at all levels globally. We need to get to the streets, petition our representatives, and make our priorities known through what and where we buy. We need a global movement to discuss, debate and demand the people-centred change we need to survive, not more PR.
Mohamed Adow was speaking to James Wan.