Cop26: ‘Everyone looks seven years older than they did at the beginning’

What has happened in Glasgow is nothing less than a reorientation of global capitalism towards a carbon neutral future

In the penultimate day of Cop26 nerves are rising among activists and delegates at what will be left in or out of the final document. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

At the Cop26 climate talks in Glasgow, blah blah blah is everywhere. It’s on protesters’ banners and placards outside the conference centre and on the lips of everyone inside, from Mary Robinson to Boris Johnson.

But could Greta Thunberg be wrong? Could these five-yearly festivals of disappointment, where agreements fall short both in ambition and execution, still be the world’s best hope of avoiding climate catastrophe?

“Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah,” Thunberg told a youth climate summit in Milan in September.

“This is all we hear from our so-called leaders: words. Words that sound great but so far have not led to action. Our hopes and ambitions drown in their empty promises. Of course we need constructive dialogue, but they have now had 30 years of blah, blah blah. And where has this led us?”

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg delivers a speech at the Youth4Climate event in Milan: ‘This is all we hear from our so-called leaders: words.’ Photograph: Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg delivers a speech at the Youth4Climate event in Milan: ‘This is all we hear from our so-called leaders: words.’ Photograph: Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images

At a demonstration in Glasgow last week, she said that change would not come from inside the conference centre and that it was on the streets that real leadership was to be found.

“We say no more blah blah blah, no more exploitation of people and nature and the planet. No more exploitation. No more blah blah blah. No more whatever the f*** they are doing inside there,” she said.

It’s not easy, even from inside the conference centre, to work out “whatever the f*** they are doing” and the most important meetings happen behind closed doors and beyond deepening layers of security. The venue itself is a study in alienation, so vast that one German journalist noted that his daily step count was higher than during a walking holiday in the summer.

Social distancing and hygiene measures that are a throwback to the early months of the coronavirus pandemic add to the atmosphere of discomfort and awkwardness. A shortage of chairs and desks sees delegates, activists and reporters sitting on the floor of cold, hangar-like spaces, or perched on the sides of tables as they peer into their laptops.

By the end of the second week, everyone looks seven years older than they did at the beginning, nobody has tasted a fresh vegetable since October and the mood has curdled. Billboards around the conference centre show images of pristine snow or solar panels with the single word “now”, which is precisely when most of the people who pass them would like to go home.

Those billboards capture something of the curious spirit of climate negotiations, which are dominated by abstract language even as they focus on concrete actions to prevent real catastrophe. Ask one of the participants what they hope the conference will produce and they will say something like “solidarity, credibility and ambition”.

Key concepts such as mitigation (reducing greenhouse gases), adaptation (making infrastructure more resilient to the impact of climate change) and loss and damage (compensation for damage caused by climate-related events such as storms and flooding) remain obscure to most outsiders. Even the central goal of “keeping 1.5 alive” is little understood (it means ensuring that the global temperature does not rise by more than 1.5 degrees compared with the middle of the 19th century).

There is no established rule for how decisions are made at climate conferences but the practice is that they are taken by consensus, which means that the pace can be set by the least willing. The British presidency of Cop26 sought to circumvent this by starting the conference with a series of multinational announcements on forests, methane emissions and finance.

But after the leaders left Glasgow early last week and the negotiations moved into a more technical phase, the initial mood of confidence gave way first to frustration and later to pessimism. It was clear by the middle of this week that the summit’s participants would not be able to agree on commitments that would bring them anywhere close to 1.5 degrees and attention turned to securing an agreement to meet again in a year or two with improved offers of action at a national level.

Like all its predecessors, Cop26 will be a disappointment ... but if today’s situation is compared with that in Paris six years ago rather than with an ideal scenario, there are grounds for modest optimism

Meanwhile, scientific experts and climate activists have pointed out that there is less to some of the summit’s most high-profile announcements than meets the eye. A commitment to end deforestation by 2030 restates a goal first identified at a summit in 2014, a methane emissions pledge was already announced two months ago and state-controlled companies such as Coal India and Saudi Aramco could evade curbs on coal and oil.

But this year’s deforestation pledge is different because big players such as Brazil and Indonesia have signed up to it, and the initiative on methane backed by the US and the European Union has the support of more than 100 countries. Separately, the US and China – the world’s two biggest carbon emitters – have agreed to co-operate on “concrete and pragmatic” regulations to decarbonise, cut methane emissions and fight deforestation.

The issue of carbon trading, which allows companies or states to buy and sell credits to emit carbon dioxide remains controversial, with developing countries especially sceptical about its impact and concerned that it could see a land grab by rich countries seeking to plant forests in poor countries to offset their emissions. As it entered its final hours, Cop26 looked unlikely to resolve disagreements over how a carbon trading system should work but the summit saw other initiatives to direct financial markets away from fossil fuels and towards clean technology.

The issue of finance has been the most difficult and perhaps the most important, as poor countries struggle to fund the changes they need to manage the impact of climate change and reduce emissions. Rich countries have struggled to reach a target of pledging $100 billion a year in climate finance, which is itself universally recognised as inadequate.

Like all its predecessors, Cop26 will be a disappointment, delivering too little too slowly and with inadequate mechanisms to guarantee that promises are kept. But if today’s situation is compared with that in Paris six years ago rather than with an ideal scenario, there are grounds for modest optimism.

It was pressure from small island states in Paris that pushed the industrialised countries to consider shifting their goal from 2 degrees to 1.5 degrees. In Glasgow, the more ambitious goal has been at the centre of the negotiations and it is accepted by most participants as essential.

Emissions have been falling in some developed countries, even if they continue to rise elsewhere and China’s will continue to increase for a number of years before peaking by 2030. National plans to cut emissions may not go far enough but they are more ambitious than before and many, such as Ireland’s, are enshrined in law.

Among the most important changes has been in the attitude of the financial sector, which will not only make financing harmful industries more difficult and expensive but demonstrates that the world of finance recognises the political imperative of dealing with climate change.

What has happened since Paris and been accelerated in Glasgow is nothing less than a reorientation of global capitalism towards a carbon neutral future. Economic actors led by the US, China and the EU will make the shift in different ways and at a different pace but the change of direction and increase of urgency are unmistakable. And that amounts to more than blah blah blah.

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