COP26: We can’t fix the crisis with the tools that created it

Green Peer Natalie Bennett reflects on the progress made during the first three days of the summit. Although major steps have been taken, she says, the world still needs to see a system-wide change.

The opening banner of COP26

UNFCCC_COP26_31Oct21_OpeningPlenary_KiaraWorth-37 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Natalie Bennett

People interested in the COP26 process, concerned about climate change, but with only the time to catch the occasional news bulletin are – I know from talking to a range of them – very confused about where we are now, at the end of Day Three on the process.

First, they heard it was going to be a disaster. The G20 meeting had failed to make essential progress on phasing out the use of coal. Then the UK rail system collapsed, dumping delegates and journalists at random locations – sometimes back where they started – as they tried to get to Glasgow on Day Minus One. Then registration was a hopeless administrative tangle of stationary queues, before Boris Johnson managed to disguise the serious content of his opening speech in a series of ill-judged gags, more Bullingdon after-dinner than statesman in the last-chance saloon.

After that, with despair threatening to rise like the Northern floodwaters that accompanied COP’s start, came a solid shower of positive news. 

More than 100 world leaders – including from China and Brazil – signed up to a plan to end and even reverse deforestation by 2030, with £14 billion lined up to fund it. A plan was announced to cut methane pollution (a gas 84 times more potent in global warming than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period) by 30 per cent by 2030 from 2020 levels. A deal was done to provide $8.5 billion to South Africa, coming from the US and Europe, to help it shift away from coal to renewables, and Indonesia is now hinting at its interest in a similar deal. Pressure was stepped up on the International Maritime Organisation – a notable climate laggard – for a carbon tax on shipping. 

And then came the biggie – and a real surprise. India set out not just a target of being carbon neutral by 2070, but a series of intermediate goals along the way marking a big step up in renewables ambition. The experts have had their calculators out and say that, with the other announcements, this has taken the sum of national offerings on carbon emissions to the level of 1.9 degrees of warming (above pre-industrial levels.) That’s after we started COP26 at 2.7. It is still not the ‘1.5 to stay alive’ that Boris Johnson has said he’s committed to, but measurable, visible progress.

Why the apparent see-saw in tone?

A key to understanding COP is the fact that the first two days are dedicated to meetings of global political leaders, and the prime ministers and presidents want pictures of smiles, handshakes and deals done to have landed back home before they do. That’s why every day of COP is not going to be like the first two. 

At a briefing in the Nordic Pavilion, the Finnish delegation lead noted there were more than 100 outstanding negotiating lines in the talks that will now grind on over the coming two weeks. And not all of them will be settled in this COP, but handed on to Egypt for COP27.

Each day has a theme – today’s is finance – and an announcement or two on each theme can be expected, but most won’t be on the scale of what we’ve heard so far.

Is the news really as good as it seems? 

I suspect there’s no one on this planet who’ll be surprised that the answer to that is a firm ‘no’. Examination of the detail of two of the deals – on forests and methane – illustrates many of the issues. 

Recent history provides multiple reasons for not breaking out the bubbly on the forests deal. The now infamous and much-misused REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) scheme emerged from the 2009 COP. A further agreement was reached in New York in 2014 to stop deforestation, yet 2016 witnessed a record 30 million hectares of forest disappearing – an area the size of Italy. Last year in Brazil alone, one million hectares fell before the chainsaws.

There’s also a lack of detail of how progress will be tracked, and backsliding dealt with. The  UK’s Environmental Audit Committee has called for regular internationally measured accountability against the COP26 pledges, and it isn’t too late for the government to amend the Environment Bill – as it has refused to do despite the efforts of the House of Lords – to make it illegal for UK businesses to use, or the finance sector to support, deforestation. 

Turning to methane, the first big issue is that China, Russia and India are not part of the deal, while the same issues about tracking progress and dealing with failure apply as with forests. But the underlying problem is clear in the large, snazzy #CutMethane pavilion in the Blue Zone at COP. A big banner there notes that the oil and gas sector accounts for 25 per cent of methane pollution, but adds ‘proven fixes like stopping leaks and flaring can cut pollution by 75 per cent’. 

No talk of ending new oil and gas exploration. No acknowledgement of the need to end the use of these fossil fuels as with coal. And an airy refusal to acknowledge the scale of the challenge – highlighted ironically just before COP26 started with a leak near the Glasgow venue, and at a far greater scale by a massive Gazprom-sourced plume putting out the equivalent of 20,000 US fossil-fuel cars running for a year.  

Business-as-usual with different technology

Where COP26 is not going to make real progress is on shifting away from the idea that changing the technologies can allow us to plough on through the earth’s resources as before. ‘System change not climate change’ is the campaigners’ chant, and there’s no grasp here of the fact that you don’t fix a crisis with the tools that created it in the first place, our current extractivist, poverty-creating, destructive economic model of growth. 

But the good news is that COP26 is not an endpoint. However, it is judged on its progress towards the goal of keeping warming below 1.5 degrees, the work to transform our world, to begin a genuine transition to a sustainable future, begins the moment COP26 ends. And on that the peoples of the world are leading, businesses are chasing after them, and governments trailing far back in the bronze medal position.