Climate Change

CoP 26: World is on the line at Glasgow

Reclaiming leadership and voice to rebuild the trust of people — both rich and poor — should top the agenda at Glasgow

By Sunita Narain
Published: Wednesday 27 October 2021

 Illustration: Ritika Bohra / CSE

It’s a make-or-break time for the world. When leaders gather in Glasgow, Scotland, for the 26th Conference of the Parties (CoP26) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), they meet with the recognition that time has run out.

Science has already spoken about the dire emergency that stares us in the face; the UN chief has sounded “Code Red for humanity” based on the findings of climate scientists.

But we no longer need scientists to tell us this. We can see the devastation in our world — every day there is news about another region that has faced an extreme weather catastrophe. As I write this, my mind is numbed by images from the northern Indian Himalayan state of Uttarakhand and the southern state of Kerala, where mountains have crashed and lives and homes have been lost.

The sheer fury of nature must make us think about what the future will be like and about the crises we must avert at all costs.

CoP26 — meeting as it is, though delayed by a year due to the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic — has the task to rework its own agenda and functioning.

But the fact is negotiations on climate change are going nowhere. If you read the papers prepared by the secretariat of UNFCCC, you would understand that these are written by people from another planet.

Over the past few decades, climate negotiations have been ossified to such an extent that they have kind of lost their purpose. A myriad of committees, institutions and funds have been set up purportedly to manage climate change — but this maze is just full of papers and wordage.

You could say that the impacts of climate change have outgrown the global institutions, or that these institutions have become detached from reality. This is why the negotiations are lost in fights over commas, full-stops and other punctuations, and discussions and decision papers that make no sense to even most negotiators. They have literally become meaningless.

CoP26’s top agenda should be to reclaim its leadership and voice to rebuild the trust of people — both rich and poor. This means making the agenda for action clearer and much more focused on what needs to be done — now, not even tomorrow.

The first step is to lose the endless process, which turns everything into nothing. This is not about taking climate negotiations out of the UN. In fact, I believe such negotiations demand multilateralism, which requires global institutions to be in the lead.

But these negotiations, which are now behind the crisis, must shape up and take charge. They must build trust and be sharply focused on what needs to be achieved; by whom; and how. They must also hold the powerful polluters to account; not just bully the poor into submission.

Second, there is a desperate need to front-load action on mitigation — to plan for 2030, and to ensure that China, which will occupy 30 per cent of the already-shrunk carbon budget between 2020 and 2030, is in the spotlight. China is yesterday’s USA and it is important to speak truth to this power.

Then there is a need to discuss the remaining carbon budget, necessary to limit the temperature rise to 1.5 degree Celsius, and how it should allocated — not just appropriated. We cannot have an ambitious agreement unless it is equitable. So, COP26 must not repeat the mistakes of the past by trying to erase equity and climate justice.

The Paris Agreement may be lauded by rich countries because it managed to expunge any mention of historical emissions; it may be celebrated because it said that any discussion on loss and damage cannot be seen as a way to affix liability or to demand compensation; it may be the best treaty achieved because it allowed countries to set low and inadequate national targets and because it did nothing to finance adaptation or mitigation.

But it does not matter. In five years, events have overtaken the Paris Agreement.

The fact is that the carbon budget of the world has been appropriated by a few countries and only crumbs are available for the rest of the world. This part of the world will need to exercise its right to development and in the process will exceed the available budget. This means, all will be at risk in an interdependent world.

We know countries like India must not make the same mistakes that the already-rich have made. The world needs to secure pathways for low-carbon growth and to pay for this transformation in the still developing world. Finger-pointing and shaming the emerging world for future and inevitable emissions will cut no ice with them. At CoP26, we need to confront the reality of this inequity and ensure that it is addressed.

Third is the agenda for “how” this will happen. The availability of finance must be made transparent and measurable — it will help overcome the trust deficit. So, it is not just the scale of finance that has to be discussed and agreed upon, its rules must also be made so that this fund transfer can be counted and verified. It is not enough to preach the need for transparency; there is a need to act on it.

The “how” agenda is also connected to the discussions on markets — Article 6 of the Paris Agreement — which is on the table at CoP26. The current effort is to find smart and cheap ways to build a market instrument that will reduce the cost of carbon purchase from the developing world.

A repeat of the complicated, convoluted and cheap Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) must not be allowed again. The reality is this time, unlike when the Kyoto Protocol’s CDM was finalised, all countries have to take on emission reduction targets.

Therefore, there is no reason any country should agree to “trade” and “sell” their cheap options for carbon abatement. This must be done through climate finance for transition. The market should be used for transformational action so that projects that will bring “big bang” carbon reductions can be paid through this instrument. The market must be driven by public policy and intent, and not left to discover new scams in the name of carbon offsets.

This is also where discussions on nature-based solutions, or REDD+, must be firmly rooted. We must not miss the wood for the trees—literally in this case. There is an opportunity to use the ecological wealth of poor countries and communities for mitigation as trees and natural ecosystems sequester carbon dioxide. So, this should not be viewed as carbon sticks but as opportunities for livelihoods and economic well-being of the poor. The rules for carbon offsets for forests must be developed with this in mind—deliberately and with statecraft.

All this then brings the world to the discussions on adaptation and loss and damage—completely lost in the multiplicity of institutions, committees, funds, and all without any money or impact in the real world. This agenda needs to be rescued desperately—just try and make sense of the technical paper to measure the progress on Global Adaptation Goal and you will understand what I am saying. The elephant in the room (that we would like not to discuss) is finance—this is where the discussions must be on adaptation and on loss and damage. We do not need rocket science to calculate the crippling losses being suffered by countries and communities because of climate change-induced extreme weather events. This is why COP26 must not be lost to prevarication in negotiations and to pusillanimous leaders. Let’s hope that this COP stands out and is counted as different. It is the order of our times.

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