The Glasgow Climate Conference Part II: Dirty COP, COP-out.
Countries and lobbyists attempted to sway the outcome of the Glasgow Climate Conference (COP26), leading some to question the continued relevance of the COP process.
Last November’s COP26—a conference dedicated to reducing carbon emissions—actually spewed out 102,500 tonnes of greenhouse gasses, 60 per cent of them from air travel. The UK has a plan to offset those emissions, largely through the somewhat dubious medium of carbon offsets.
But aviation fuel isn’t the dirtiest aspect of COP26. There were 503 lobbyists and consultants representing over 100 fossil-fuel companies and fossil-fuel-connected trade associations. If lobbyists were a national delegation to COP26, they would have been the biggest delegation there, outnumbering Indigenous delegates by a factor of two.
What were all these lobbyists doing at COP26? A charitable interpretation of their presence would be that they want to have skin in the renewable energy game, framing themselves as “part of the solution” to climate change by pitching their role in generating renewable energy. A less charitable interpretation is that they are thinking about all the fossil fuel reserves that will become stranded assets should the world decide to take its Paris commitments seriously. This calculus was on display at a Russian-hosted energy transition forum, where representatives of both BP and the Russian oil and gas company Gazprom Neft pitched themselves as pivoting towards renewables, but not abandoning fossil fuels altogether. Sergey Vakulenko, head of strategy and innovations at Gazprom Neft, reinforced the point that his company would remain primarily devoted to oil and gas for at least a decade. He also warned forum participants about how much the clean energy transition would end up costing consumers
The technocratic self-interest of fossil-fuel lobbyists isn’t even the dirtiest aspect of COP26. That prize goes to a leaked trove of emails which showed oil, coal and beef-dependent countries striving to weaken recommendations from IPCC Working Group III’s climate mitigation report in advance of COP26. The 30,000 communications screened by Greenpeace’s “Unearthed” investigative journalism unit included injunctions to water down calls for immediate emissions cuts (Saudi Arabia and the Organization of Petroleum Producing Countries, OPEC), denial of the need to close coal-fired power stations (Australia and India), and the attempted deletion of language about the importance of plant-based diets (Argentina and Brazil).
By seeking to interfere with the IPCC’s science-based recommendations, these countries have demonstrated just how far they are willing to go to delay meaningful climate action. Their overall strategy is “talk and drill,” as exemplified in Saudi Arabia’s and OPEC’s request to delete language on transforming energy systems: “The use of ‘transformation’ should be avoided as it has policy implications by requiring immediate policy actions.”
Of course, it was precisely the immediacy of policy actions that was at stake in COP26. It’s therefore hardly surprising that countries trying to dilute the IPPC’s mitigation language were also among those who successfully watered down the text of the Glasgow Climate Pact. The Glasgow Climate Pact is a compendium of COP 26 commitments, including promised actions to keep the Paris 1.5 target within reach, a commitment to reduce dependence on coal, and promises around climate financing for developing nations.
Which brings us to the issue of the continued relevance of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) itself.
Negotiators at COP26 were supposed to produce a revolutionary agreement to “keep one-point five alive.” Instead, they delivered incrementalism, and while the goal of restricting global warming to 1.5 degrees or less is theoretically alive, any reasonable diagnosis would conclude that it’s in a vegetative state.
If the last year of extreme fire, heat, and flood taught us anything, it is that the time for incrementalism is long past. Since the 1.5-degree target was first broached at COP21 in Paris, the carbon budget available to meet that target has continued to shrink in tandem with growing greenhouse-gas emissions and atmospheric CO2 concentrations.
Given that realpolitik, not science, is the ultimate determinant of COP negotiations, some have asked whether the whole process needed to be abandoned or seriously reformed. Since their inception, COPs have been fuelled by drama and acrimony, and all too often, the quest to find common ground masked an unseemly scrabble for comparative advantage. In this respect, for all that it delivered some real progress, COP26 turned out to be little different from the 25 other COP meetings that preceded it..
Green member of parliament Elizabeth May believes that the COPs can deliver real climate progress: “There is no other process,” she said in a recent webinar, “and a UN process is preferable to any other process I can imagine.”
To figure out the flaws in the COP process, May says she believes we need to look to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which succeeded in banning ozone-damaging chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). Unlike the Glasgow Climate Pact or the Paris Agreement, however, the Montreal Protocol had legal teeth. Trade sanctions could be invoked against countries who continued using or making CFCs. Since the expiry of the Kyoto Protocol, carbon reductions agreed to at COPs have been seen as voluntary and are therefore open to being ignored.
Getting those legal teeth into a climate agreement could be an uphill battle. Recent research led by Isak Stoddard and Kevin Anderson points to realpolitik, muscle-flexing by countries and fossil-fuel interests, voluntarism, academic enablers, and leadership failures as chronic impediments to climate progress over the 29 years of the UNFCCC. These factors constitute external pressures pushing against the adoption of strong climate targets at the COPs, but they are also embedded in the UNFCCC process itself.
At the end of COP26, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres acknowledged these contrary pressures: “They [the approved texts] take some important steps, but unfortunately the collective political will was not enough to overcome some deep contradictions… We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe. It is time to go into emergency mode, or our chance of reaching net zero will itself be zero.”
As COP26 recedes in the rearview mirror, the international community is kicking the carbon mitigation can down the road towards COP27 in Egypt. As a matter of urgency, negotiators and diplomats will have to find ways to close the Paris Agreement emissions gap during the intervening year. COP26 was supposed to deliver on this promise. Only time will tell if countries will “go into emergency mode” to deliver on those promises at COP27.
Andrew Park is professor of Forest Ecology at University of Winnipeg with wide-ranging research and teaching interests. Although much of his recent research has focused on adaptation of forests to climate change, he also has interests in environmental economics and sustainability, environmental philosophy, and more recently, the psychology of environmental and climate anxiety.Social media: @Andrew_D_Park