COP26 and the credibility gap

Submitted by AWL on 16 November, 2021 - 8:33 Author: Zack Muddle
Protest in Glasgow

Every shop, cafe, and business; every billboard and bus stop; numerous new, temporary, adverts and building-high canvases — all screaming the same, discordant, message.

Glasgow during COP26: divergent corporations, some flashy NGOs, and the UK government; all competing to reassure us that they’re taking serious action on climate change. The environmental protestors across the city generally recognised that for the greenwashing it is. Yet our actions were in orbit around the opaque and exclusive negotiations themselves, in which delegates lived inside such a polite, reassuring fiction — that capitalist societies, our corporate overlords, are solving the crises.

The conference recognised “that the impacts of climate change will be much lower at the temperature increase of 1.5°C compared with 2°C, and resolves to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C [requiring] rapid, deep and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, including reducing global carbon dioxide emissions by 45% by 2030 relative to the 2010 level and to net zero around mid-century, as well as deep reductions in other greenhouse gases”.

This (slightly stronger) restatement of a 1.5°C goal by 2100 is welcome. It could have gone further: 1.3°C would be an immeasurably better outcome. Today’s extreme weather comes as early impacts of just over 1°C. Yet what actually counts isn’t net global aims, it is the concrete actions to realise such aims. Here, we find a series of “emissions gaps”, built one upon another.

Ifevery country met all their promises to the COP process, “Nationally Determined Contributions” (NDCs) for 2030, plus all promises of “net zero”, the planet would, on some calculations peak at 1.9°C mid-century and level out at 1.8°C by the end of the century: with an upper estimate of 2.3°C. This is dangerously above 1.5°C. Yet most commitments for 2030 would not even put governments on a path for their net zero targets. Assuming the former alone are all completed, we would find ourselves on a path to 2.4°C (up to 3.0°C).

New net zero, NDC, and other climate commitments announced around COP26 shaved around 0.2°C off earlier projections: the picture was even bleaker mere months ago.

Yet actual policies promised by governments, if fully realised, would not even reach the net 2030 NDC’s reduction. Instead, they would take us to 2.7°C by the end of the century, with an upper bound of 3.6°C, over three times the warming to date. Climate impacts are not linear. Three times as much heating, and with more time for environmental destruction to build, likely places us in a planet more than three times as dangerous, with more than three times as much devastation, and with much greater risks of dangerous feedback loops.

This nonetheless sounds unimaginably better than predictions we may make based only on policies before the 2015 Paris Agreement, which put us on track for 4°C. Are we finally seeing “flattening of the emissions curve”?

The next gap, a “very big credibility gap” for promised specific policies is probably impossible to quantify internationally. Yet it is likely even bigger than the above.

Less than a year after election, Biden’s “climate and environmental justice” promises have been shattered by a series of pro-fossil fuel policies.

Two years after their election, the Tories’ meagre promise of planting 300km2 of trees per year by 2024 has translated into 22km2 last year and falling. Their “Green Homes Grant” to retrofit 600,000 homes with insulation and “low-carbon heating” was outsourced and mismanaged, and shelved after only 31,900 homes were upgraded. The 2017 government directive for 61 councils to cut air pollution levels as quickly as possible has led to fewer “clean air zones” than I can count on one hand. The UK government’s official independent Climate Change Committee found earlier this year a similar picture across the board — once again. Considering the gap between government targets and policy, they found that of 21 key decarbonisation areas only four have “sufficient ambition” and only two have “adequate policies”. None of the 34 adaptation priority areas had seen “strong progress”.

Internationally, one symptom of similar trends is a failure by richer nations to raise the promised $100bn annual climate funding for poorer nations to transition. For comparison, the — hardly radical — IMF found, two years ago, that $700-800bn is lost per year to tax havens alone . This is before we even consider shrinking other tax loopholes, let alone a real — and necessary — attack on the rich. The ten richest people in the worldeach has more than $100bn to their name.

Bolder promises are welcome, but bigger talk doesn’t necessarily translate into more action. The failures are not primarily due to individual politicians, such as Boris Johnson, who not long ago dabbled in climate change denialism. They are systemic in origin.

Climate action, such as the inadequate promises above, generally costs money, and must be paid for. The bulk of wealth in our society is controlled by our bosses, the ruling class. To fund environmental initiatives, some wealth must be taken or withheld from them. Regulations threaten to place limits upon their insatiable drive for endlessly greater profit. And some particularly powerful sections of the ruling class have great invested interests in continuing to burn fossil fuels and belch out carbon dioxide.

Formal negotiations were to centre on detailed finalising of the Paris agreement “rulebook”: including new emissions reporting rules from 2024, and “Article 6” carbon markets. Carbon markets theoretically allow countries and companies to sell reductions in carbon emissions, or carbon removal, to more polluting ones, allowing the latter to “offset them”. Previous markets, even their proponents acknowledge, comprehensively failed — often being worse than useless. This new carbon market still financially awards low national targets and historically highly polluting industries: “overachievement” and pollution reductions can be sold. It fails to completely guard against “double counting” and such creative accounting, whereby “emissions savings” could sometimes be counted twice: allowing twice that which was “saved” to be emitted.

Fundamentally, carbon markets rely on non-existent transparency and slow market forces to try to move toward net reductions. We need open, democratic and as fast as possible reduction everywhere possible; and as fast as workable an expansion of carbon dioxide removal to tackle historic emissions.

COP26 also agreed processes for working towards new goals on adaptation, and on finance for climate mitigations and for “loss and damage”.

Beyond these agreements in the formal processes, around COP26 many new pledges and deals were announced and agreed to. New NDCs, plus sectoral deals covering coal, deforestation and methane, and a “Glasgow Climate Pact”.

These wider pacts have received far more publicity than the formal negotiations. Intensified environmental campaigning, globally, in recent years, has forced at least more concrete-sounding greenwashing.

In 26 COPs, dating back to 1995, there has never been an agreement on the need to end the burning of fossil fuels, nor even any specific type of fossil fuels. This gobsmacking emission of an almost axiomatic goal, in any form, was almost partially remedied this year.

Early drafts would have called for governments “to accelerate the phasing-out of coal”. The commitment was vague, and had no specific date. Coal accounts for just under a third of fossil fuels burned by energy, and is the most polluting form. There has been an explosion of construction of new coal-fired power stations in recent decades, centred on China and India.

Yet — largely symbolic — commitment to ever phasing it out seemed too much. This was diluted to a “phasedown” of only those coal power stations which aren’t “abated” through Carbon Capture, (Usage,) and Storage. Yet CCS would only ever capture a proportion of carbon emitted. Worse, really existing schemes are overwhelmingly for CCUS whereby the carbon is used for “Enhanced Oil Recovery”: an energy-intensive process to pump CO2 underground and squeeze even more oil out, to then burn. That is worse than useless.

At least 23 countries made new commitments to phase out coal power. Yet these do not include China, India, or the USA; nor Australia which is by far the largest exporter. They only include five of the top 20 burners of fossil fuel.

Oil and gas combined make up over two thirds of fossil fuels: yet they were not mentioned. Further substitution of coal power with gas — a comparatively cheap replacement — would not be a cause for environmental celebration. The agreement did call for a “phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”, but again, it is not fleshed out with dates or specifics.

I don’t have space here to cover the COP26 outcomes on transport, deforestation, or finance for the global South, but will report on those next week — plus more on the protests around COP26.

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