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The Real Lesson From COP26


I’ve been thinking about the achievements of COP26 (and there were a few).  Intermittently, I have been reading, or hearing, about the major flooding in British Columbia – yet another major weather disaster for a part of Canada that has seen far more than a fair share of trouble this year. 

Damage to the Jessica Bridge, one of five severely damaged or destroyed on the Coquihalla Highway, British Columbia, due to the flooding and mudslides, November 2021.  Image © BC Dept of Transportation.

This time the culprit was an atmospheric river that funneled in a stream of warm humid air from the central Pacific.  I’ve also been responding emotionally, as I always do, to the dark, cold days of November (definitely a crueler month than April, no matter T.S. Elliot).  In my usual November funk, I tend to think pessimistically about where my life has gone and where humanity seems to be headed.  Good news, for me, is that our days will start to lengthen in less than a month, and, once there is snow on the ground, the place will look a lot brighter, especially when the sun shines.  Anyhow, bear with me.

So What Happened at COP26?

Delayed a year by covid, COP26 was the usual mix of earnest intergovernmental negotiation, nationalistic grandstanding, street theatre and environmental love-in the world has come to expect.  I saw one Tweet along the lines of “Wow, I just saw Leo DiCaprio walk by”, telling me that at least one tweeter was at COP26 simply for the chance to mingle with the A-list for a few days. 

The host managed to welcome all and sundry to Glasgow with all the gravitas of a circus clown who has just emerged from an over-filled VW Beetle.  He managed to claim he was in Edinburgh rather than Glasgow and took the opportunity to return briefly to London via private plane in the middle of the conference.  Looks like Boris was deadly serious about the need to make real progress on climate change.

Boris Johnson at COP26.  A slightly smaller, yet more impressive, Greta Thunberg said we are tired of the blah, blah, blah, but it did not stop Boris.  Cartoon © Independent.

As has now become routine, the conference was extended for a full day when negotiations failed to complete on time.  I wonder how many of the delegates had booked their homeward flights for late Friday?  Scarcely any, I suspect, but the ‘down to the wire, and then a few hours more’ atmosphere is one now more tiresome part of the theatre that COPs have become.  So too are the over-the-top announcements about achievements and the studious minimizing of failures to achieve.  As Boris said, with reference to coal, “There’s no real difference between ‘phase out’ and ‘phase down’, indicating he understands neither the English language nor the significance of what was happening around him.  Others, reporting on the failure to gain agreement on the phasing out of use of coal, used many kilos of sugar coating as they applauded the fact that the text mentioned the need to reduce use of coal for the first time.  After 26 years of COPs, we applaud the mention of the need to reduce!

Probably noticed only by Canadians, Justin Trudeau, at the start of the conference, was heard proudly announcing that Canada would be leading the effort to fulfill the pledge by developed countries to build financing of $100 billion per year to assist developing countries in coping with the effects of climate change.  In fact, he said this more than once.  Then his team fell silent because that pledge was once more not delivered.  So much for Canadian leadership on the world stage. 

In fact, Canada and Germany had been asked back in June to lead an effort to fulfill this pledge (made originally at Copenhagen in 2009 and scheduled for delivery in 2020).  Together they released a “plan” at the start of COP26.  Titled “Climate Finance Delivery Plan.  Meeting the US$100 Billion Goal” with a lovely picture of Earth, wreathed in clouds, presumably clean, green clouds, on the front cover, this 12-page document provides a history of this effort since the first decision in 2009, a report on progress to date, projections to 2025 and a final section titled “Looking Ahead”.  There are a few numbers in the text and a single bar graph.  Nowhere is there a simple table showing dollars per country.  I wonder why not?

Now, the objective in 2009 was to build collective capacity to provide this finance so that by 2020 there would be US$100 billion available per year.  The developed world has failed to do that.  The mixture of grants, loans and repurposed foreign aid cobbled together to become this fund had reached $79.6 billion in 2019.  The graph shows modest growth year by year from a bit over $80 billion in 2021 to around $112 billion in 2025 (which just happens to average out at $100 billion per year for those five years – such a surprise).  Frankly, if the best Canada and Germany could do in leading an effort to secure this pledge, was to produce these 12 pages of waffle, filled with vague references to promises, commitments, encouragement and efforts, Justin Trudeau would have been better served by never mentioning it at all.  The developed world has failed to deliver as promised and has only vague plans to manage to get there eventually.

Still, there were some modest achievements reported at COP26 beyond the plan to phase down use of coal (just writing that gives me great confidence).  The World Resources Institute has summarized these achievements and Climate Brief has provided a more detailed, blow-by-blow account. Mostly they were promises to achieve specific goals down the road, and only rarely did they get into details on actions that would be taken.  For example, and perhaps most importantly, countries agreed to come to COP27 next year with strengthened emissions reduction targets rather than wait five years following the schedule agreed to in Paris.  This does not guarantee that there will be lots of strengthened commitments revealed in Egypt.  After all, only 151 of the 197 countries had provided updated commitments as required in 2020 and several of those only dribbled in by the close of COP26.  But it does represent an increased willingness to admit action is needed sooner rather than later. 

There were apparently important advances made in agreeing to the mechanisms to be used by all countries for measuring and reporting their net emissions, including complicated procedures for assessing the offsetting of emissions by things like reforestation.  Until now countries have been relatively free to decide how they will report, and lots of ways of tilting the table, jiggling the books, or plain cheating and lying have been used to good effect – claims of emission reductions expected or achieved are not always accurate.  There were also several agreements that marked the growing awareness of the importance of nature, wild and resilient, in both mitigating emissions and adapting to or minimizing effects of climate change.

Beyond agreements, there were signs in the wording of negotiated texts that the COP community is now more willing to acknowledge the necessity of keeping to 1.5oC rather than 2.0oC or greater if we are to keep climate disaster at bay.  Of course, all these bright little points of light that commentators were quick to latch onto are surrounded by a morass of wiggle words that stand like barn doors ready to be flung wide open by countries interested in minimizing their costs or inconvenience by pretending to do more than they are really doing. 

For example, the text concerning coal and fossil fuel subsidies began on November 10th with a clear and simple statement: “…Calls upon Parties to accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels.”  Several drafts later, late on Saturday Nov 13th, it became

“…Calls upon Parties to accelerate the development, deployment and dissemination of technologies, and the adoption of policies, to transition towards low-emission energy systems, including by rapidly scaling up the deployment of clean power generation and energy efficiency measures, including accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, while providing targeted support to the poorest and most vulnerable in line with national circumstances and recognizing the need for support towards a just transition.” 

Wow!  Buried in the middle of that monstrous sentence is “accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”.  Far more words; far less impact.  Phasedown (is that a word, even in India?) of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient subsidies.  Ah, yes.  Real progress.

Here may be an appropriate point to comment on the fact that Australia, once again, excelled itself in being abysmally tone-deaf on climate.  Having racked up five Fossil of the Day awards over the 10 days such awards were granted, Australia won the Colossal Fossil award at the end of COP26 by a landslide.  More significantly, Australia did not revise its NDC, was among the missing on such issues as phasing down coal, curtailing methane, and so on, and managed to have a fossil fuel company prominently sharing its COP26 pavilion.  Nothing like being an exceptional country, I guess.

Calculations made towards the end of COP26 based on the updated NDCs – national commitments on emissions – indicate that the world is now headed towards a 2.4oC mean temperature at the end of the century if all commitments are met.  True, if one adds in all those pledges to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, that mean temperature at 2100 falls to about 2.1oC, but there is an enormous credibility gap between the actions many countries have promised to take and their 2050 net zero promises.  No countries have policies in place that could achieve their own net zero promises, and some, like Australia, have so little action promised that their net zero pledges must be seen as the fossil-fueled pipedreams they are.

This graph shows where the world is headed in average global temperature through to 2100, based on current policies (2.5 to 2.9oC), on new policies pledged for 2030 in revised NDCs (2.4oC), on those new policies plus ‘net zero by 2050’ pledges (2.1oC), and on an ‘optimistic’, ‘everything works perfectly’ basis (1.8oC).  Image by Globe & Mail, from Carbon Action Tracker.

There has been progress.  The gap between where the world is headed, and where it needs to go if we are to limit warming to 1.5oC has got a little smaller.  But the gap remains and there is little evidence that the pace at which the world is adjusting its responses has increased.  Its as if we are all running down the platform trying to get on the departing train.  The train is pulling away from the station and we are not getting very much closer to that last departing door.  The end of the platform is approaching fast.  In such circumstances, the fact that we have been able to slightly increase our pace to keep up with the train does not matter a damn in the end.  We run out of platform.

Perhaps This is a Task Beyond Human Capacity

If you don’t like the run-away train analogy, perhaps it’s time for the lifeboat.  In 2021, the world finds itself adrift in a lifeboat.  At one end, the USA mans the controls while at the other end China mans duplicate controls, because this lifeboat was never designed to actually go anywhere.  Its job is to stay afloat, and each individual country has carved out a little place to sit, somewhere between the USA and China.  The lifeboat leaks a bit, is in danger of sinking, and may also suddenly turn turtle (we’ve learned to call that a tipping point).  Its our collective behavior in casually emitting greenhouse gases that has weakened the boat and caused it to leak.  Some of us have been more flatulent than others, but all of us have done some of the emitting and all of us need to stop this foul behavior.

Using the principles of multilateral diplomacy, countries have been discussing ways to reduce their emissions and keep the boat afloat.  Nobody is being strong-armed yet.  Apart from some name-calling (Fossil of the Day) all is politeness, while every little gesture towards a more abstemious lifestyle is welcomed with high praise.  But the fact is, we like to continue our bad behavior, flagrantly emitting greenhouse gases, because that is what we are used to doing, because it might cost a bit more to behave differently, because why should we change if nobody else is changing.  So, we make promises, often promises to do something by 2050, and sit back content we have done what we needed to do.  But the lifeboat gets ever closer to sinking.

One problem we all seem to be ignoring, as we sit around praising each other for minor adjustments to lifestyles, is that reducing our flatulent behavior will take time to have an effect on the atmosphere within that closed lifeboat.  And only after the atmosphere improves will the boat begin to repair itself so it ceases to leak.  In other words, we have to act now to achieve a result some months, years, or decades from now.  We get no immediate reward for good behavior, other than faint praise, and no punishment for continued bad behavior.  Another problem is that there is only one lifeboat.  If our country behaves really well, we won’t benefit at all, minus that faint praise, if the rest of the countries continue to behave poorly.  Conversely, if we drag our heels, maybe we will benefit anyway, because of the good behavior of others.  This is a lifeboat with only a minimal chance of avoiding disaster.  And we’ve been in it for 26 long years, ever since COPs began.

While I am convinced that remedies to our situation are within our capacity to comprehend, I increasingly doubt they are within our capacity to achieve, given our need to act voluntarily for the common good.  We will always overpromise and underperform until our situation becomes so threatening that we are scared into acting more positively.  The enormous scale and long time lags inherent in the global climate system mean we are unlikely to become sufficiently scared until long after it becomes impossible to save the lifeboat.

So, What Do We Do as Individuals Living on This Planet in This Time?

It’s pretty obvious that the mechanisms we have for building global cooperation are not up to the task in front of us.  Those who have a personal interest in delaying action on climate know this and are present in force at every COP conference recommending and persuading politicians to do the minimum they can get away with.  The negotiations over the text that will ultimately be voted on and form the formal agreements that emerge (the real products of these meetings) reveal the extent to which delegates work to minimize impacts of the agreements on their own countries.  At their elbows, as much of the time as possible are numerous lobbyists seeking to encourage minimalist outcomes.  Sure there are often noisy protesters outside the venue trying to encourage aggressive action, but a smooth lobbyist in a suit who can maybe suggest a possible promise of help with a coming election, or who can talk in language a politician understands about protecting the growth in the economy, somehow seems more sensible than unruly youth calling out the failures to act with less smooth, less reasonable, more emotional, and maybe more honest words.

Perhaps we need COPs without lobbyists, or lobbyists required to take their arguments to the streets instead of to the hospitality suites, the pavilions, the cocktail receptions in the meeting venue.  Maybe we need COPs that are scaled back, with far fewer hangers on, and a venue for demonstrations pro and con a significant distance away.  Maybe we need a greater willingness among delegates to call a spade a spade, politely, diplomatically, but honestly.  Phase down means the same as phase out?  Nonsense.  That edit cut the guts out of what could have been a clear statement of the need to stop using coal.

As I argued in my recent book, I think we also need far more attention to expanding awareness of the intricate connections between humanity and the rest of the biosphere.  And not just at COPs meetings.  Until a significant number of movers and shakers come to believe (not just pay lip-service) that each of us depends on other people, and that all of us depend on myriad non-human actors and processes in the natural world, for our own well-being, we are unlikely to build the collective will needed.  Success will be greater if, along with this awareness of the interconnections that hold this planet’s life together, we can humbly admit the limited depth of our knowledge of how our world functions, yet still believe that we will do best if we strive to act in accordance with the best information available.

Right now, in the aftermath of COP26, I’m not optimistic about our ability to master the existential threat we have created.  Homo sapiens… clever enough to understand the problem; nowhere near wise enough to solve it.

We are one part of a rich web of interrelationships on this planet.  We cannot survive without it.  Knowing this could help us as we tackle climate change.  Photo © Luiz Rocha.