And greetings from Glasgow – which may be home of the kindest and friendliest people on the planet – and COP26 which is certainly the weirdest COP ever. COP26 may also be the start of the big shift – or where we miss our last, best hope.
At this writing we are half-way through the conference, so it could still go either way. I am not out of sympathy with Greta Thunberg’s denunciation of the “greenwashing.” But it is not so easy to even understand what is happening here.
First, the physical weirdness. This is the first big global conferences in a pandemic. With over 35,000 registered delegates, COP26 is ten times larger than the 15th COP of the Biodiversity Convention (CBD) that took place last month in Kunming, China.
We are masked. We keep distancing – mostly. We take daily COVID tests before entering the massive conference site – over 3 hectares of meeting rooms, plenaries, temporary restaurants and coffee shops, and all the trappings of “home” for climate pressure groups, lobbyists, diplomats and bureaucracy for two weeks.
Most of the space is well ventilated (read: breezy and freezing). I type this while wearing fingerless gloves. Meeting rooms have strict occupancy limits which means that, for the first time in the twelve COPs I have attended, I am not able to access the actual negotiation rooms. I am able to attend daily briefings for members of the Canadian delegation, often attended by our new minister and my old friend, Steven Guilbeault (in which information is shared on a confidential basis.)
Another physical weirdness, for which there is no COVID-related explanation, is that it is almost impossible to find electrical outlets – although CBC’s Laura Lynch told me yesterday the media centre is warm and has lots of plugs… I am jealous, but cannot figure out how I get in there.
But at least, I am in. Colleagues from around the world have been denied visas. Rwandan Green Party leader and MP, Dr. Frank Habineza sent me this email, after confirming we could meet for dinner Monday:
I received the travel clearance and the Note Verbale yesterday then submitted the visa form, but the UK High Commission has informed me that practically it will be impossible to come, since visa handling is done in South Africa, that they would expect the passport back by Wednesday and then travel on Thursday, thus becoming meaningless to come.
The UK government had made a commitment to ensure an equitable COP and to ensure that COVID and other restrictions did not result in fewer participants from Indigenous communities, the Global South, and civil society. This has been a massive fail. The developing world is far less well represented than at other COPs.
Being on the inside of COP, but not in the negotiation rooms, I work the corridors and get information from friends from around the world – seeing super knowledgeable, highly networked colleagues from Brazil, Malaysia, Germany and on and on. And of course, I press our federal government through the ministers attending and their staff. I also attend some of a nearly endless variety of presentations in small, cubby-like spaces found in a labyrinth of “pavilions.”
Is it worth being here? Absolutely.
Now to the higher-level weirdness. Why does this COP feel so disconnected from normal COP process?
Clearly, Boris Johnson is a showman. It only dawned on me after all the leaders had left that this COP is deviating from normal COPs in ways that reflect Johnson’s personality.
As the host country, the UK is essentially using this COP as a backdrop for self-promotion. The splashy press events are rolled out at dizzying speed. And the days are thematic. Finance day was a big one with Mark Carney announcing he had identified $130 trillion investor dollars ready and willing to finance a decarbonized world. (But are they committed to stop funding fossil fuels? Not so much.)
Similarly, that same day, it was announced that over 100 countries had signed on to the Glasgow Leaders Declaration on Forests and Land Use. A total of over 13 million square miles of forest around the world were supposed to be committed to halting deforestation and reversing the process by 2030. But then Indonesia, one of the signatories, cast doubt on what that commitment could be. Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said on Twitter on Wednesday, “Forcing Indonesia to (reach) zero deforestation in 2030 is clearly inappropriate and unfair,”
Canada has also signed, as did Brazil. The declaration was backed with public and private financial commitments of $19 billion (US$) to invest in protecting and restoring forests. Of that $1.7 billion is specifically committed to the efforts of Indigenous peoples in forest protection. But details are scarce.
Add to those, other announcements – hugely encouraging commitments to slash methane emissions globally by 30% by 2030, with Canada committing to 75% reductions, to end the financing of foreign fossil fuel investments which Canada also adopted, and to increase the pressure for the Powering Past Coal Alliance, launched by Canada and the UK in Bonn at COP24 with 25 more countries signing on.
Still, all of these and many more, are not the product of negotiation within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the COP. These are voluntary commitments cobbled together as “alliances.” And, as ever, the headlines tend to over-sell what has been achieved.
For example, countries can still fund foreign fossil fuel investments as long as the facility has some form of carbon reduction technology attached. The commitment is to stop foreign funding for “unabated” fossil fuel developments… so add carbon capture and storage (expensive and largely discredited) and investments can proceed.
Do these announcements constitute progress? Most likely. They move the world in the right direction. In fact, Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency, told the Powering Past Coal plenary that his team’s preliminary calculations of the impact of all the Glasgow announcements, if they were fully honoured, would take the projected global average temperature increase from an estimated 2.7 degrees C, calculated before COP26, to 1.8 degrees. That would be huge – although far short of the Paris goal of 1.5.
Still, the totality of commitments made by governments paints a very different picture. The UNFCCC synthesis report released on Thursday estimated that if all the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC’s – another word for targets) are delivered in full, by 2030 GHG emissions will have increased by 13.7 % above 2010 levels. The previous synthesis report projected an increase of 16% above 2010. Progress? Yes. But overall, it is still disaster. The IPCC Special Report on 1.5 degrees had made it clear emissions have to drop by 45% below 2010 levels by 2030 to hold to 1.5 degrees.
Another way to measure and stay grounded in science is to look at the carbon budget. This is from a useful website called Climate Clock:
“According to the IPCC’s latest estimate, the remaining carbon budget is 500 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions from 2020 onward. We will have emitted close to 80 billion tonnes during 2020-21, leaving 420 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions in the budget after 2021.
“The year that we emit the last of this remaining carbon budget is expected to also be the year that global temperatures reach 1.5ºC.
“The current emissions trend suggests that this moment is now only 10 years away.”
I know this is confusing for you – it is for me and I have been immersed in this stuff since the 1980s. We could leave COP26 with Boris Johnson claiming victory, the International Energy Agency saying we are closing in on 1.5 degrees, while the UNFCCC calculations mean we will fail to hold to 1.5 with the window on 1.5 closed, and closed forever, by 2030.
In all of this, each one of those proclaiming the “news” will have some truth in what they say. As will, of course, Greta Thunberg.
The next week will help clarify results from negotiations – a step away from the public relations-fueled announcement machinery. Can we get countries to agree that NDC’s must be boosted on an annual basis – not just every five years? Can we hold faith with the developing world, the low-lying islands states, Indigenous peoples and youth? Those are the peoples who stay focused on paramount goal: One point five to stay alive.
While there is life, there is hope.
So, yours hopefully, from Glasgow,
I wrote this for Georgia Straight:
I have been posting more frequent reports in Policy magazine. Watch their on-line editions for updates:
Saanich-Gulf Islands Greens