Promises Vague and Elusive*



Admittedly I was a wee bit surly when I made it, at last, to my Heathrow hotel.

It was late on Nov. 15. I’d been traveling first by train, and then, the last 10 hours, by foot, laden with a 60-pound pack, scurrying from one meeting to the next, over several London bridges. It all followed 15 days of meetings in and around Glasgow – in conjunction with COP 26, the U.N. Climate Conference. I’d planned to zip on over by early evening to the airport hotel – using London’s famed “underground” (AKA “the tubes”) and then a local bus, there to catch a few winks, before commencing, the next morning, the first of three flights. True, I’d failed to anticipate the cold, wet, dark, noisy, adjacent-to-the-airport, last-mile walk. Still, only a bit rattled, I happily squeezed with my pack through the revolving front door.

But then, the guards, in uniform, under authority of the Home Office: “Turn back,” they barked. I resisted (a reflex) and something of a standoff ensued. Happily, a manager appeared. She explained, and thus newly informed I backed down; one minor international kerfuffle resolved. Turns out that the UK government just that day had commandeered the place, to house recent refugees pending their asylum hearings.

I was attuned to the matter, having even spoken to it at the COP. Such misery endured by the dispossessed is but one of several such depredations inflicted by the fossil fuel industry upon the poor in servile states.

Of course, refugees finding their way to the UK (as elsewhere) are fleeing persecution or violence, but internal strife is exacerbated by the debasement of natural resources in refugee-source nations – here including Iraq, Iran, Albania, Eritrea, Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Chad.

Indeed, just a few days before, a record 1,185 refugees braved the English Channel and made it to shore – or were brought in by the UK Border Force. Another 99 were intercepted and turned back by French authorities, while others still, their kayaks found adrift, were presumed lost to sea. To date many of the refugees had been warehoused in scarcely humane conditions, including some at Dover Docks, some 100 miles to the east, where two toilets are shared by 499 humans.

It therefore seemed to me fitting, as I trudged back into the night, that my reserved room had been thus appropriated.

COP26, in Glasgow

Turning to COP26, “it is too late for [merely] incremental change,” as the piercing George Monbiot recently observed.

By that measure, the Conference was a failure. And yet, in fuller consideration, I think the failure was not entirely abject.

First, from the perspective of the climate system on which we and our children must depend, the major emitting nations really did fail to establish or deepen their commitment to timely decarbonization of the economy and atmosphere. And they have no excuse of ignorance, given the wide understanding, voiced in the lead up to Glasgow, that commitments submitted to date, filed pursuant to the Paris Agreement to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, are simply inadequate.

Thus, the UN Environment Program’s recent Global Emissions Gap observed that “new national climate pledges combined with other mitigation measures put the world on track for a global temperature rise of 2.7°C by the end of the century. That is well above the goals of the Paris climate agreement and would lead to catastrophic changes in the Earth’s climate. To keep global warming below 1.5°C this century, the aspirational goal of the Paris Agreement, the world needs to halve annual greenhouse gas emissions in the next eight years.”

Similarly, the World Energy Outlook 2021 report, released late last month by the International Energy Association, demonstrated that even if all nations achieved their pledges, the resulting “doubling of clean energy investment and financing over the next decade” would remain insufficient “to overcome the inertia of today’s energy system.” In particular, “over the crucial period to 2030, the actions . . . fall well short of the emissions reductions that would be required to keep the door open to a Net Zero Emissions by 2050 trajectory.”

Success in this regard – that is, positioning the world community to restrict global warming above pre-industrial temperature to less than 1.5°C – requires strong leadership by the major historical GHG emitters, the United States foremost among them.

That should have been possible, particularly by the electorate’s replacement of the Trump menace with the adult Joe Biden. On taking office, the new President immediately rejoined the Paris Agreement, and his talented climate team got to work on an updated Nationally Determined Contribution, the better to “exercise leadership to promote a significant increase in global climate ambition.” Towards that end, in April, the White House announced new economy-wide near-term GHG emissions reduction targets of 50-52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, and 100 percent carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035. And the US State Department packaged up these and other determinations in a new submission to the UNFCCC. 

But in terms of actual policy changes through law or regulation, as required to put the nation firmly on a path to meet the new targets, not much has been achieved – in part because select members of Congress revere their fossil fuel patrons over humanity and the natural world. And so, the President went to Glasgow virtually empty-handed. And it showed. We will have occasion to return to the question of US leadership.

Second, the Conference failed because, as before, wealthy nations committed no resources to help hard-hit least developed nations deal directly with climate-associated losses and damages.

True, it was a good thing that the Glasgow Conference once again directed world attention to the fundamental question of climate injustice – namely, that communities in least developed nations may be among the first hard hit by climate disaster, even as they have contributed little to the GHG overburden.

See, for example, a statement by Marshall Islands climate envoy and poet Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner, that her nation “is only 2m above sea level and . . .one of the most threatened countries in the world – due to the sea level rise caused by climate change. Unlike other island nations, we have no mountains and there’s no higher ground to go to.” Similarly, consider Maldives Special Envoy Sabra Nordeen’s point that “[n]o matter what we do in the Maldives, it’s not going to be enough to save us. If temperature rises continue above 1.5 degrees, that’s it.”

But aside from their puny funding of the Warsaw International Mechanism, the major emitters at COP26 simply would not agree to help poor states deal with climate-related losses and damages. For its part, the Warsaw fund pays only for expert “risk management” advice and efforts to “strengthen dialogue, coherence, and synergies among relevant stakeholders.” See Greta on “blah, blah, blah.” The whole thing stinks. At best, it gives new meaning to the aphorism “talk is cheap.” Why do the major emitting nations withhold what is required by climate-impacted poor nations – that is, cold hard cash? Because they wish to establish no precedent, in the face of climate damages that will only mount with time – absent a fundamental change in direction.

Still and all, COP26 secured some genuine progress, particularly as it, for the first time, expressly targeted fossil fuels, and clarified several important rules of the road going forward:

  • Coal: COP26 featured a veritable welter of pronouncements regarding coal, starting with the UK government’s claim that, because of its leadership, “the end of coal” was now “in sight” with “a 190-strong coalition of countries and organizations at COP26 [including] Indonesia, South Korea, Poland, Vietnam, and Chile announcing clear commitments to “phase out coal power” – including an end to “all investment in new coal power generation domestically and internationally.”

  • However, within hours of the UK announcement, as summarized in Carbon Brief’s review, at least two of the named nations (Poland and Indonesia) had backtracked, seeking to reserve the option to continue building out coal in their own countries. Similar hedging on coal later infected the final Glasgow Climate Pact in which the parties committed merely to “efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power.” The careful reader is left to wonder: If coal power is merely going to be “phased-down,” and not “phased-out,” how much will be retained? And by whom? Also, does partly abated coal power get a free pass? And what do the weasel words “efforts towards” even mean, anyway?
  • Time will tell, I suppose, though with respect to the climate crisis that is a scarce commodity. Still, the directional movement as to coal was good.

  • Fossil fuel subsidies: The final Glasgow Climate Pact “called upon” the parties to “accelerate” technologies and policies aimed at “transition towards low-emission energy systems,” including a “phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.” Again, the careful reader may be excused from wondering several things. For instance, if it is only “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies that should be phased out, just what, at this late stage, constitutes an “efficient” fossil fuel subsidy that should be retained?

  • The point was made by Andrea Meza, Costa Rica’s environment minister, who argued that “[w]e need clear language on the need to eliminate all fossil fuel subsidies, not only the inefficient ones.” We might have expected John Kerry, the U.S. special envoy for climate change, to agree, since he described fossil fuel subsidies as the “definition of insanity.” But he defended the vague final language as necessary because “commercial technology to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions could be developed in the future.” Implicit in Kerry’s distinction, I think, is the supposition that US policy with respect to CCS will continue to be pursued through tax code expenditures.

  • Methane: COP26 action on methane, a highly potent, short-lived, greenhouse gas, was preceded by a May 2021 Global Methane Assessment from by the UN Environment Programme and others. That report argued that as much as 30 percent of human-caused methane emissions could be reduced by 2030 through “readily available targeted measures” – and nearly half of those cuts could readily be secured by action in the fossil fuel sector. Building on the Assessment, the EU and the US announced during the COP their formal launch of the Global Methane Pledge, “an initiative to reduce global methane emissions to keep the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius within reach.” Impressively, 100 countries had signed on, though China, Russia, and India were conspicuously absent.
  • These developments on methane are hopeful but, in my view, still too limited. They should be complimented by a more serious effort to investigate and scale-up, to the degree feasible, methods of removing excess atmospheric CH4 as Stanford’s Rob Jackson and Methane Action’s Daphne Wysham urged during COP26. [And the carbon majors should pay for a healthy share of that removal, in my opinion, as with excess atmospheric CO2.]

  • Forests: During the Conference, some 141 nations (including, interestingly, The Holy See) signed onto a strong “Declaration On Forests And Land Use.” Among other things, the declaration commits signatories “to work[] collectively to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030 while delivering sustainable development and promoting an inclusive rural transformation,” including to “conserve forests and other terrestrial ecosystems and accelerate their restoration.”
  • The declaration would have been stronger, in my view, had it included a specific commitment to halt all further deforestation. Still, the declaration appears to me to sharply conflict with practices in a number of nations, including in the U.S., that continue to encourage the clear-cutting of mature and old growth forests that sequester prodigious quantities of carbon. This apparent conflict may be useful, as a matter of law.

  • Voluntary Cooperation – Article 6: The parties finally agreed on rules to implement  Article 6 of the 2015 Paris Agreement. Article 6 governs voluntary cooperation efforts between nations aimed at lowering emissions and developing funding for climate adaptation efforts. These involve the establishment of (a) a consistent international system of trading in emissions reductions to “ensure environmental integrity, transparency” and “the avoidance of double counting,” among other things, (b) the establishment of an international carbon market, and (c) an ongoing program for nonmarket approaches to climate mitigation and adaptation including finance, technology-sharing, and capacity building.

  • One of the specified agreed-upon rules settled the question of carry-over to the Paris mechanism of a portion of carbon credits developed since 2013 under the older Kyoto Protocol. Personally, I’d have zeroed-out any such carryover capacity, but it could have been worse as the agreed-upon compromise allowed “only” a maximum of 320 million tons of CO2-equivalent credits, out of a potential of “4bn credits [that] might have been carried over [had] the transition been unrestricted.” See Carbon Brief here for more on that point and other discussion of Art. 6 “rule-book” decisions.

Looking Back Towards a Different Future

A few housekeeping points are in order. First, the COP26 actions on moving past coal and fossil fuel subsidies were long, long overdue. Indeed, action is urgently required to retire not only coal, but also oil and gas. Thankfully, at the Conference, the nations of Denmark and Costa Rica announced formation of the Beyond Oil & Gas Alliance, “an international coalition of governments and stakeholders [aiming] to facilitate the managed phase-out of oil and gas production.” We have already reached out to see how CPR Initiative might support this critical effort. 

The author inspecting enteric methane emission sources in the United Kingdom. Photo Courtesy of Peter A. Coates, Professor of Environmental History, University of Bristol.

Second, the two major GHG emitting nations – the United States (most historical emissions) and China (most current emissions) – released a Joint Glasgow Declaration during COP26. As UCLA professor Alex Wang noted, the agreement mostly “embodies potential” but it is also “a positive sign that rising geopolitical tensions have not made cooperation in areas of mutual interest impossible.” It is worth noting that the declaration affirmed the parties’ determination to work together to tackle what the US-China communique properly called “the climate crisis,” and expressly signaled an intent to cooperate on “deployment and application of technology such as CCUS and direct air capture,” along with “policies to encourage decarbonization.” In theory, the latter phrase is broad enough to encompass a ramp up of joint research, development and, possibly, financing, in the areas of energy storage and advanced nuclear technology. Or so one might hope.

Third, on the question of US leadership, there are solid reasons why President Biden and his team pressed so hard for new Congressional action, including through the federal budget process in the run-up to COP26. But, in conjunction with many readers of this post, we have strongly urged the President and the EPA to avail themselves of existing authority to ramp down oil, gas and coal emissions. Their use of that authority, to forge a workable centerpiece US decarbonization policy, depends not on any new measure by Congress but rather on an exercise  of political will and determination. Leadership, that is. It is required with respect to the climate crisis even more now, in the wake of COP26. Because there remains an entire world to restore and protect.

*This blog entree includes material from the author’s article, “A View from Glasgow,” published in the December 2021 issue of Sustainability and Climate Change.

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