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Most of the world leaders have now left the COP26 climate summit. US president Joe Biden flew home last night as did many others. From now on, the negotiations will focus on more detailed, nitty-gritty matters, and are being handled by lower-ranking diplomats.
Chaos and accessibility issues
One of the biggest challenges for anyone attending COP26 is simply getting into the building and the various meetings. It seems fair to say that this aspect of the summit isn’t working well so far. It seems like a trivial thing, but there are delegates from indigenous groups and vulnerable communities on the front lines of climate change, all of whom are trying to get their message across to the negotiators – and they can’t even get in.
New Scientist’s Graham Lawton is there and wrote this account:
“Queuing to get into the COP26 meeting in Glasgow, it is easy to see why negotiating a global deal on climate change has been so difficult. Pushy queue-jumping and the need for sharp elbows mean the self-entitled get ahead and the community minded get left behind… Once inside, the tide of humanity barely subsides. Getting into meetings is practically impossible. Social distancing is actually impossible, though masks are strictly enforced and everyone has to show a negative covid test to gain entry. Unoccupied chairs, tables, plug sockets or media desks are hard to find. Scarcity extends to the food outlets, though the bins are overflowing.”
Yesterday, Graham tried to attend the press conference at which Joe Biden announced the US plan to cut methane emissions. But he literally couldn’t get into the room. Later in the afternoon, the media centre started advising journalists to watch the sessions online because they were unlikely to be able to attend in person. Somehow COP26 has become like Formula 1: you get the best view watching it from home on the television.
But it isn’t just a matter of comical logistics and inconvenienced journalists. On Monday, Israel’s energy minister Karine Elharrar-Hartstein tried to get into the meeting, but she uses a wheelchair and no wheelchair-accessible entrance was available. After a few hours she gave up and went back to her hotel. A high-level apology followed.
Similarly, Deaf and disabled journalist Liam O’Dell noted a lack of sign language interpreters. Climate activist Alexandria Villaseñor was one of many pointing out that civil society groups have been entirely shut out of the negotiating rooms – so they can’t lobby governments. Attorney Sébastien Duyck called it the “most exclusive COP over the past decade”.
We will have to wait to see if the lack of organisation and accessibility will hinder the outcomes of COP26.
There is a long and dishonourable tradition in climate policy, and indeed in environmental policy generally, of making splashy promises that don’t really amount to much. The term “greenwash” is sometimes used to describe this. Climate journalists and campaigners have spent a lot of time over the years wearily sorting the wheat from the chaff. Some of the promises at COP26 definitely count as chaff.
Overnight, the UK chancellor Rishi Sunak announced that the UK would become the “first net-zero financial centre”. That’s quite a buzzword-y thing to say, but what it amounts to is that UK firms will be made to submit plans that show how they will bring their greenhouse gas emissions down to net zero. There will be an expert panel to assess the claims, and the policy will come into force by 2023.
In theory this is a tolerably good idea. But the execution has some glaring flaws, the most obvious being that the firms will not be compelled to achieve net-zero emissions. In other words, they will be compelled to produce plans for how they will hit net zero, but not to follow through.
The rules are “a first step towards turning off the tap on climate chaos”, but “they contain some deeply worrying loopholes”, according to Steve Trent, founder and CEO of the Environmental Justice Foundation in the UK. He says it is problematic that there is “no ban on investing in carbon-heavy activities”.
Sunak is shaping up to be one of the more unhelpful world leaders at COP26. Last week he delivered the UK’s budget, but didn’t mention climate change once. He also committed the UK to building a lot more roads and capped a tax on fuel for cars, while refusing to invest in home insulation that would both reduce emissions from heating and cut people’s energy bills. The budget was scathingly described as a “climate Cop-out”.
Another scheme in the firing line today involves carbon markets. The idea behind carbon markets is that companies are given a certain number of carbon “credits” – essentially licences to emit greenhouse gas – which they can trade. The aim is to drive down emissions by enabling companies that cut emissions to make a profit from it, and penalising those that don’t.
A private-sector initiative called the Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets (TSVCM) is attempting to make this happen on an international scale. Note the word “voluntary”. The hope is that companies will buy these carbon credits of their own free will in hopes of making a profit, rather than being forced into the scheme by governments.
But a new report from Trove Research, a UK company specialising in climate policy, concludes that the TSVCM has overestimated the potential for this. TSVCM has claimed that voluntary carbon markets could be worth up to $180 billion by 2030, but Trove estimates it is more likely to be $10 billion to 40 billion. “The market is currently oversupplied with cheap credits, which have very little to show in terms of driving projects that create additional emission reductions,” says Trove’s founder and CEO Guy Turner.
It isn’t the first time carbon trading has struggled to translate all the financial manoeuvring into real cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. The European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme has stumbled repeatedly over the years. These markets seem to require strong government intervention and strict limits on the number of credits available.
What to watch for
The ultimate aim of the whole COP26 exercise is to phase out use of fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Pledges to hit net zero by a given date are all very well, but they need to be backed up by policies to make it happen. For example, in many countries fossil fuels still get public funding, sometimes in the form of tax breaks for exploration. Will those subsidies finally be removed? Will more countries set timelines to stop using coal? To nudge countries in that direction, tomorrow also sees the launch of the latest global carbon budget, which looks at the quantity of greenhouse gases emitted in the past year and how much more we can afford to pump out. The figures won’t be comfortable reading, but maybe they will prod governments into action.
Early indications are that there may well be some real progress. Reuters and the Guardian are both reporting that a group of countries plans to stop giving public money to fossil fuel projects abroad by the end of next year. At least 19 nations are involved, including the US and UK. However, if the reports are correct, the countries aren’t promising to stop developing their own fossil fuels.
Quote of the day
“I am pleased to announce that I’ve decided to go net zero on swear words and bad language. In the event that I should say something inappropriate, I pledge to compensate that by saying something nice.” Greta Thunberg, sarcastically conveying her thoughts about wishy-washy promises.
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Read more at New Scientist