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Success at COP26? A Shimmering Mirage

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The chances for significant breakthroughs at the global climate change meeting now scarcely two weeks away have grown dimmer as the start of the conference approaches.  Perhaps it’s just another effect of covid, the pandemic that won’t go away, and the pandemic that makes much of life seem simply unreal.  Perhaps humans are simply incapable of generating the needed will to tackle climate change effectively – it’s always been too big of an ask and we should have realized this ages ago.  Perhaps it’s a sign of something bigger, a growing malaise that has crept across the world as we move beyond the second decade of this century and our past bad behavior catches up with us.  After all, in a crisis, it’s not uncommon to freeze, to shut down, to huddle in a corner unable to make any decisions at all.

In stating that chances are growing dimmer, I realize I am committing the cardinal sin – not being up-beat, emphasizing the small bits of good news, avoiding the doom and gloom.  Bear with me while I trot out the bad news.  I’ll follow with a little good news and you can decide if we are rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, or are changing course sufficiently quickly to miss that looming iceberg.

The latest IPCC Report

Let’s only go back to August 2021 and the release of the report from IPCC Working Group 1 for the Sixth Assessment, due to be completed by September of 2022.  Working Group 1 is the group that looks at the underlying science of climate change.  Like all four previous assessment reports from Working Group 1 after their first in 1990 (Climate Change, The IPCC Scientific Assessment), this sixth report shows that, in several ways, climate change is now known to be worse than what we anticipated in the previous report.  Yes!  As the science becomes more refined, more precise, more certain, the IPCC has consistently discovered that the perfect storm now close to cresting about our heads is worse than it had appeared to be before.  (One exception to this trend – global temperatures!  As the science has improved, scientists’ ability to project likely future temperatures has become a lot more precise, but the temperatures projected under given assumptions about our economy have not changed much.) 

That the messages keep getting worse does not mean that the scientists don’t know what they are talking about.  On the contrary, it means that as the science has developed the capacity to forecast the likely future more accurately, it has revealed what everyone knew to be true: that the IPCC process, depending upon consensus across large numbers of experts, has inevitably tended to be conservative and to underestimate the extent of change that was likely.  As well, the least well understood aspects of the climate system, such as the effects on temperature of cloudiness, have turned out to be important, ratcheting up estimates of extent of climate change.  For example, scientists always knew that warming would lead to melting of glaciers and sea ice; they now know that the melting proceeds far more rapidly than originally expected and that it will continue long after we stop warming the planet.  Goodbye Miami.

In 1990 the extent of apparent warming since preindustrial times was not outside the range of possibilities due to natural variability of climate.  So, despite the logic of the science re the link between warming and increasing atmospheric greenhouse gases, IPCC could only say human activities were likely warming the planet.  In 2021, the report from Working Group 1 begins, “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.”  This report also confirms that sea level will continue to rise for thousands of years no matter how effective we are at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  In other words, our actions in emitting greenhouse gases to the atmosphere have already committed us to very long-term changes in environment that we cannot undo.  Even the aspirational goal from Paris of reducing mean global warming to 1.5oC is rapidly moving beyond our reach unless we can develop effective ways of removing CO2 from the atmosphere and sequestering it somewhere.  Such so-called CCS (carbon capture and storage) has long been the proposed way forward for fossil fuel corporations interesting in extracting every last bit of fuel reserves – a proposed way forward that they have yet to demonstrate can be achieved.

Inadequate NDCs

At Paris in December 2015, a time in a world before Trump and covid, 1.5oC was agreed to as an aspirational goal.  A goal the world would try to achieve.  At that time, I was optimistic that the world was finally starting to move.  The task for individual countries was to make a voluntary, nationally determined commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an amount that would be appropriate for that country in contributing to reaching that global aspirational goal.  Each country was required to announce steps it would take and the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that those steps would achieve.  That formal announcement, the NDC or Nationally Determined Contribution, was expected to be reviewed and, if possible, strengthened, every five years.  Performance in achieving the goals set in NDCs was to be monitored but there are no penalties for failure other than shaming.  COP26, delayed by covid from 2020 is to be the first meeting at which NDCs are expected to be strengthened. 

The world already knows that the NDCs declared by the countries of the world are woefully inadequate to achieve the 2oC goal, let alone 1.5oC.  While many countries have made sincere efforts to reduce emissions, those efforts have not been enough and some of the countries emitting the greatest quantities of greenhouse gases are among the real laggards.  Climate Action Tracker is an independent scientific analysis of nations’ performance, maintained by two NGOs – Climate Analytics and New Climate Institute.  In September, it provided an update in preparation for COP26.  Only one country, The Gambia, is credited with having an NDC compatible with the 1.5oC goal and most countries (especially larger, advanced countries) have NDCs classified as Insufficient (USA among others) or worse (Australia, Canada, China, Russia among many others).

This Climate Action Tracker table shows that countries of the world have been nearly universally unwilling to commit to emissions reductions that would represent an appropriate share of the effort needed to reach the 1.5oC goal.

In Canada’s case there has been very little change in the NDC since the progressive Trudeau government replaced the climate-adverse Harper government just weeks before Paris, although the Trudeau government deserves credit for implementing policies that come close to meeting the emissions reduction its NDC promises.  (For Canada, a nation with plenty of climate promises and few climate achievements, putting real policies in place represents significant progress!  And yet, the policies themselves are insufficient to achieve the NDC reductions and the NDC, itself, offers reductions that are insufficient to reach 1.5oC.)

And then there is Australia, the country that has competed with Canada for Fossil Awards at every past COP.  The Australian government is pedaling backwards so hard on climate, in response to the demands from its fossil fuel sector, that it is difficult to believe there is any governmental intention to participate meaningfully in reducing warming!

We can hope that lots of countries will be strengthening their NDCs at COP26, but I fear this will not be the case because the covid pandemic has shone a nasty bright light on our selfishness (see below).

No signs yet of a CO2 plateau

The whole point of having NDCs is to lower global greenhouse gas emissions, thereby lowering the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  Countries gathered at COP meetings over the years have been talking earnestly about doing this.  You’d think that by now, thirty years in, we might see some encouraging signs in the CO2 concentrations being measured in the air above Mauna Kea.

The shutdown in economic activity due to the pandemic might also have been expected to have an effect on atmospheric CO2; it did result in a marked reduction in emissions – 2.4 billion tonnes CO2 according to Nature, although rate of emissions had bounced back before year’s end. 

But atmospheric concentrations did not fall despite our climate efforts and effects of covid; the Keeling Curve, named after the late Charles Keeling, who first put the instruments on top of Mauna Kea in 1958, continues its exponentially increasing rise.  The Mauna Kea record peaked during the week of April 25, 2021 at 420ppm and sat at 413ppm in the first week in October (equivalents for same weeks in 2020 were 417 and 411).  The slight upward inflection clearly evident in the curve – its exponential rather than linear quality – means that the rate at which CO2 is being added is itself increasing.  This is the exact opposite of what we need to be seeing.  We clearly have a very long way to go.

The smoothed annual record (black line) of CO2 in the atmosphere above Mauna Loa, from 1958 to October 2021 continues to have a slight upward inflection despite all our efforts to reduce emissions.  The zigzag monthly record (red line) reflects the pumping action of the forests of the world as they suck CO2 out of the atmosphere while growing during the northern summer but have a smaller effect – suck less – during the northern winter when many of them are not growing.  Image courtesy NOAA.

Squinting at the upper right end of the curve, it might be possible to convince yourself that the curve is beginning to turn downwards, but there is a lot of earnest wishing required – has the ship begun to turn away from the iceberg?  Would you really bet on that?  Not yet.

Of course, the lack of responsiveness of the CO2 curve begs the question – what about all our efforts to install wind and solar power around the world?  The simple answer is that, so far, all those excellent efforts have simply enabled us to add millions of people and increase economic activity by millions of dollars without contributing an even stronger exponential inflection to the curve.  We are using way more energy but emitting only a little more CO2.  I guess that is progress.  But it’s not nearly enough progress to get us to 1.5oC!

Worse fires, floods and storms

In recent months, when the media have been able to stray from reporting on the covid pandemic, they have reported an endless string of worst ever weather events.  In late June 2021 we had the heat dome with its associated record high temperatures and wildfires in British Columbia and the U.S. west coast.  In BC alone, a billion or so coastal barnacles, mussels, and other creatures were killed by the heat, and the number of sudden deaths of Canadians during the event was 300% higher than usual for that time of year in BC.  Two of those ~800 people died in the fires, but most of them were elderly people living alone and unable to cool themselves adequately.

Extreme heat that kills people is unexpected in normally temperate British Columbia, but it is becoming distressingly common in parts of South Asia and the Middle East.  I anticipate a major kill of people in one of those regions within the next couple of years; national leaders around the world will express sympathy and solidarity while referencing the ‘unexpected’ nature of the disaster.  The heat we are starting to see in many places around the world is unprecedented over the course of human history, and we are the cause.

2021’s hurricane season in the Caribbean has been less severe than that in 2020 but has already recorded 20 named storms and ranks as the third most active year.  That’s about double the usual number and the season does not end until November 30th so there could be more to come.  Hurricane Ida, which hit New Orleans at Category 4 was the most destructive storm in Louisiana since Katrina.  Damage due to Atlantic hurricanes this season already amounts to $69 billion, the fourth highest year on record.

In July, record-breaking rainfall in Europe led to major flooding in Germany and Belgium that killed over 200 people directly.  Climate scientists reported the extreme rainfall was made about 9 times more likely than it would otherwise have been because of our heating of the planet.  There was also major flooding in China and major fires in Russia, Greece and Turkey.  Oh, and evidence that the Gulf Stream is slowing down and may halt the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) which shifts vast quantities of heat from the tropics toward the poles while also taking oxygenated surface waters to the depths of the ocean.  The Gulf Stream is now at its weakest in the past 1600 years, and ocean scientists were expressing concern that a total shutdown could be imminent.  Such an event would radically alter Europe’s climate while making Florida a hell of a lot hotter.  And the cause again is us – our warming has increased melt water in the Arctic region, reducing salinity in the north Atlantic and putting on the brakes to this major planetary circulation system.  It’s not a trivial matter, any more than the floods, heat waves, storms or forest fires.  Climate change is not something that is going to happen; it is all around us and we are beginning to experience first-hand what it is that has had scientists concerned for the past 30 years or so.

The varied impacts of Covid-19

The pandemic has been with us for about 20 months now and it is not over yet.  Its impacts have been varied.  Some are obvious, like the spike in human mortality, or the collapse of air travel that is only now starting to come back.  The impact on the global economy was substantial and was accompanied by a sharp reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases – a reduction that was rapidly reversed during 2020 once economic activity sputtered back to life as I’ve just said.

Other impacts have been less direct, and perhaps less expected.  One of these was the clear demonstration of just how difficult it is for the global community to come together to deal with a critical emergency.  Unlike climate change, covid was a quick, global crisis.  It should be obvious that the risk of new mutations will continue so long as there are large reservoirs of virus, meaning large, under-vaccinated populations holding plenty of sick people.  In such situations the chance of novel mutations that result in a more contagious, more easily dispersed, or more lethal variant is high.  The logical way to tackle such a pandemic is to minimize transport of people among locations, and to work to ensure all locations are getting access to vaccines.

But we all know what really happened.  There were efforts to coordinate action among nations and to facilitate the work to develop successful vaccines.  There were efforts to close borders.  There were efforts to ensure poorer nations were able to get supplies of the vaccines.  These efforts were erratic, inconsistent, ineffective, and sometimes hardly visible.  Instead, there was a clear tendency among wealthier nations to look out for themselves first rather than focus on the greater good.  There were also lots of governmental missteps as advice and regulations were put in place for their own populations.  Politics frequently trumped science, to everybody’s detriment.  Donald Trump was a huge factor in the relatively poor response by the US, but he was not alone.  Even now, in the US and several other nations, decisions are being made to give citizens boosters that are not clearly needed before ensuring vaccines for first doses get to developing countries.  If Canada decides to provide boosters to older Canadians, I know I will line up for my shot because I’m as selfish as the next person, but I also know that, on present evidence, I need a booster far less than millions in Africa need a first shot.

Me-first selfishness on the world stage

The selfish decisions on vaccines are part of a trend that covid has simply revealed – a growing tide of nationalism that is counter to the international cooperation needed to combat major global problems such as climate change.  Some of us thought (hoped) that Donald Trump was a one-off, but xenophobic, inward-looking, me-first tendencies are alive and well in the political classes of many countries.  The multinationalism that built the UN, the World Bank, and other agencies after the end of WWII now seems thoroughly old-fashioned at a time when it is needed more than ever.  In larger nations the parochialism can also pit one region against another and in the process slow or halt needed national actions.  Here in Canada, the fact that the fossil fuel industry is restricted to only a handful of Provinces and has the overwhelming majority of its activity in just one Province has made it difficult to move aggressively on climate change.  This week, Albertans are voting on a referendum which exists only to keep Albertan’s riled up about those unfair eastern Canadians.  As one of those dreaded eastern Canadians I confess to being sick and tired of Alberta’s continual moaning about how its needs are being ignored – what I see is Alberta’s wants being used to hobble national action to restrict and then to phase out the extraction and export of fossil fuels.  Canada cannot reduce its emissions without cutting into the production of fossil fuels unless the industry magically produces effective, appropriately scaled carbon capture and storage.  The industry keeps promising; I don’t think they can do it.  And so we’ve had the absurdity of Justin Trudeau promising to curtail emissions while also buying pipelines for which the economic rationale had already ceased to make sense.

As I write, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia is threatening to scuttle the major plank in Biden’s plan for lowering US emissions.  There are coal mines in West Virginia, and Joe gets lots of his financial support from the coal industry.  He also gets a significant quantity of annual income from his investments in West Virginia coal.  Manchin is not doing anything that many other US politicians have done – act for his region’s perceived short-term interests and for his own personal interests.  But this is not pork barrel building of an odd bridge to nowhere; it is preventing the leadership on climate that the US must demonstrate after the disastrous performance on the world stage over the last four years.

The fact that virtually all nations submitted NDCs that were inadequate, mostly grossly so, confirms that selfish politics trump rational decisions on what needs to be done on climate.  No country seems to want to do more to combat climate change than any other country, and elaborate accounting techniques are being developed to make commitments seem better than they really are.  Just as wealthy individuals hire talented lawyers and move money around in sophisticated shell games to help avoid income taxes, countries with higher emissions seek ways to look better than they are as they st6and on the world stage.  How often have Canadians heard the plea, “why should Canada cut emissions, we only account for 1.5% of CO2 emissions worldwide”?  Australians claim little need to act because they only contribute 1.1%.  But both Canada and Australia are wealthy countries whose emissions rank 11th and 15th respectively among nations, and only six nations emit more than 2% of the total – Canada and Australia should act aggressively on emissions because they have the capacity to act, and they are among the top emitters.  If not Canada and Australia, why should any nation act?

These attitudes, still quite strong in Canada and still setting national policy in Australia, are particularly galling given that both nations are fossil fuel exporters and could easily cut emissions by sending less fuel overseas – they produce way more fuel than they need.  Of course, the jockeying among the USA, China, India and Russia (the top four emitters) are of more consequence for the world, and with the possible exception of the US, their actions so far are no less selfish than those of Canada or Australia.

A shortage of fossil fuels?

The world currently faces a shortage of fossil fuels and prices are rising rapidly.  This appears to be another consequence of covid.  The downturn in economic activity followed by a resurgence in recent months has demonstrated how fragile complex, international supply chains can be.  As well, self-interest seems to be leading major energy producers (OPEC+) to hold production down raising immediate profits at the expense of shipping more product.

One consequence has been a downturn in China’s manufacturing economy, and decisions there to ensure energy supplies by increasing reliance on China’s own considerable reserves of coal in favor of renewables.  This backward step (from a climate perspective) is particularly unfortunate, given its proximity to the start of COP26.  Short-term pressures are leading China to rethink past promises on climate and at present Xi Jinping seems likely to avoid attending COP26.  (It is difficult to move very far on climate when the leader of the nation with the highest emissions by far decides to stay away from the party.)

One more piece of bad news… despite the many investors that have been divesting themselves from fossil fuel producers, the New York Times has just reported how massive amounts of private equity capital have been going into fossil producers seeking quick profits in a market in turmoil.  This activity along with the continued support of the industry by governments in the form of subsidies that remain in effect, are slowing the transition that all thinking people realize has to happen.  The subsidies, estimated by IMF at $5.9 trillion in 2020 (that’s $11 million per minute), could be used to ease the transition to alternative fuels, including supporting the retraining of people employed in the fossil fuel sector.

A little bit of good news

After all that bad news, I have to include mention of the good news on climate.  The Biden administration has made real efforts to undo some of the damage done by Trump and to move the US towards carbon neutrality.  Actions include efforts to greatly expand the role of offshore wind and to double the amount the US is pledging to assist developing countries with the costs of climate mitigation.  Spurred, perhaps, by the US lead, other developed nations are also stepping up and it looks as if the $100 billion per year target set at Paris may actually be met at COP26.  A number of other advances on climate are embedded in the bills that the Democrats are attempting to get through congress.  There will be some more good news there, but how much depends on congressional representatives most of whom, most of the time, act on short-term self-interest rather than the common good.  Biden is attempting to cut fossil fuel emissions by 50% by 2030 and to reach so-called carbon neutrality by 2050.  The latter goal is also being announced by other developed countries.

Biden has announced plans to make leases available for wind farms along much of the west and east coasts of the nation as a significant part of the energy transition.  Photo © Jess Costa/WBUR

Alternative fuels are now the cheapest form of electricity available on the planet, and car makers worldwide are racing to develop new, improved electric vehicles of various types from cars to light trucks, buses, and heavy vehicles.  IEA reports in its EV Outlook report that the wider availability of electric vehicles is happening in tandem with regulation by many governments on minimum emissions standards and incentives for electric vehicle purchases.  Countries recognize that the transition to electric vehicles needs the push of incentives as well as the pull of new, amazing driving experiences. 

And one more piece of good news, perhaps, is that the covid pandemic has taught many people to question their former, high-consumption ways.  Yes, there will be spikes in expenditure on travel, theatre, restaurants and sporting events as the pandemic eases but for many people going back to the way things were does not make much sense.  If those of us in developed countries really reduce our per capita consumption of stuff, the task of reducing global emissions is eased.


October 31st marks the opening of COP26.  Two weeks later, we will have a good idea of whether the world has risen to the challenge of climate change and put policies in place that will keep us somewhere in the 1.5 – 2.0oC zone of warming.  I’m pessimistic but would love to be proved wrong.  Ultimately, a lot rides on what these two gentlemen do.

Xi Jinping and Joe Biden – how their countries act will do much to shape COP26.  Images from ABC News, Australia.