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Covid delay, string of extreme weather events add to burden of expectations in Glasgow

A similar galaxy — Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to fly in from the G20 in Italy tomorrow — is scheduled in the Scottish city of Glasgow this week, for yet another climate conference, or COP 26, short for Conference of Parties (to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change).

Written by Amitabh Sinha | Edinburgh (scotland) |
Updated: October 31, 2021 7:21:22 am
World leaders pose for a group photo at the La Nuvola conference center for the G20 summit in Rome. (Photo: AP)

On two previous occasions, in 2009 and 2015, over 120 world leaders — Presidents, Prime Ministers, monarchs, heads of states — have gathered under one roof in a climate conference. Those have remained the largest single gatherings of world leaders anywhere.

A similar galaxy — Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to fly in from the G20 in Italy tomorrow — is scheduled in the Scottish city of Glasgow this week, for yet another climate conference, or COP 26, short for Conference of Parties (to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change).

That probably makes Glasgow appear in the same league as Copenhagen (2009) or Paris (2015). But the difference couldn’t be more stark.

In both Copenhagen and Paris, leaders had assembled to provide political heft to efforts to find a new international climate treaty, to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol which developed countries had become extremely uncomfortable with because it placed the entire burden of the fight against climate change on them. Copenhagen failed spectacularly, but Paris succeeded in delivering a new agreement, called Paris Agreement. Under this, countries agreed to cut targets, commit to action plans.

Glasgow was supposed to be a “procedural” COP, its main job being to finalise the rules and procedures that would govern the implementation of the Paris Agreement.

These rules and procedures have mostly been finalized, but one crucial piece has been hanging fire because of strong disagreements: provisions relating to creation of a new emissions trading mechanism. Glasgow should be considered successful if it is able to deliver this much.

However, circumstances have put the additional burden of expectations on Glasgow, being held one year late because of the pandemic.

In the six years that the world has spent quibbling over the Paris Agreement, the climate crisis has worsened. There has been a spate of extreme weather events — floods, forest fires, heat waves, many of these in the developed world.

Also, the Glasgow COP comes months after the latest IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report warning that the world may be barely two decades away from becoming more than 1.5 degree Celsius hotter than pre-industrial times. This is a key milestone that, science says, the world needs to ideally avoid reaching, or at least delay as much as possible.

Then there is politics. US President Joe Biden, in desperate need to resurrect his image after the Afghanistan fiasco, has long eyed climate change as an area he can leave a permanent mark on.

But just getting the United States to re-enter the Paris Agreement, after his predecessor Donald Trump had walked out of it, is not a strong enough legacy. He is hoping to leave a much stronger imprint.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in a similar situation. In the last couple of years, the United Kingdom has made the most ambitious announcements on climate change, clearly challenging Germany’s traditional leadership on climate change within Europe.

Two most talked-about potential deliverables from Glasgow are an agreement by every country to accept a net-zero target year sometime around the middle of the century, and a commitment to make their respective climate action plans stronger and more ambitious. But both these look highly unrealistic right now.

Net-zero is a state wherein a country’s emissions are completely offset by absorptions of carbon dioxide, like through forest sinks, and physical removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere using futuristic technologies. Though over 70 countries have signed on to a net-zero target, around 2050, several prominent developing countries, including India, have all but ruled it out, arguing that this was akin to postponing or delaying climate action to a future date, when urgent and immediate action was required.

Similarly, several countries have also made upward revisions in their climate action plans, called nationally-determined contributions, or NDCs, in official language, many major ones haven’t, and don’t intend to. China updated its NDCs but reiterated its previous targets.

In the current state of play, an agreement on either of these issues looks extremely improbable.

Some countries like India have said they would like Glasgow to press for greater flow of climate finance from developed countries. The possibility of this happening is even more dim.

Developed countries committed themselves, way back in 2009 in Copenhagen, to “mobilise” US$ 100 billion in “new and additional” climate finance every year from 2020. More than a decade later, that promise is yet to be fulfilled. In fact, just last week, this 2020 time-frame has been shifted to 2023. In the meanwhile, most estimates suggest that the yearly finance required to deal with climate change is in the order of trillions of dollars.

Amidst all the noise, the least talked about issue at Glasgow is carbon markets and emissions trading. This has eluded an agreement for three years now has a realistic chance of getting resolved. Quite a few compromise proposals are already on the table, and negotiations on these are likely to begin as soon as the conference starts Monday.

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