Will COP26 achieve its goals or end up with leaders making usual platitudes and homilies before going home?

Most of the previous summit goals have not been met and they have ended up as glitzy and glamourous events, with strong pledges but little action on the ground

Will COP26 achieve its goals or end up with leaders making usual platitudes and homilies before going home?

Sanjukta Basu

The United Nations Climate Summit, commonly being referred to as the COP26, kicked off on October 31 at Glasgow, Scotland. The two-week long conference is being considered one of the most significant and a make or break moment for climate in human history. It comes on the heels of the devastating COVID pandemic, the hottest recorded month on Earth –July 2021 – and global warming at a speed that is unprecedented in the past 2,000 years according to UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.

The conference would be attended by over 25,000 people from over 200 countries which would include heads of States, journalists, negotiators, and activists. Around 100,000 people are also headed to Glasgow to register protests and hold parallel events.

COP stands for the Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and this is the 26th COP annual meet.

The main aim of the COP26 is to keep alive a target of capping global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius which was agreed in Paris in 2015 but not yet met. The participating countries would be asked to submit their plans to further cut down greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. The conference is expected to conclude with some form of joint declaration, andeach country would be required to make specific commitments.

The climate change summit has its origin in the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), also known as the 'Earth Summit', held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992. It was at Rio that global leaders for the first time agreed upon international cooperation on global warming, environment protection and climate change. It was agreed for the first time that rich developed countries burn more fossil fuel and make a greater contribution to global warming but it is poor developing nations which bear the larger brunt of climate change in terms of extreme weather events like heatwaves, flash floods, forest fires, intermittent rains and so on.

In 2015 Paris Agreement, the parties had agreed to make changes in their policies to keep global warming "well below" 2 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels – and to try aim for 1.5 degree Celsius. The Paris Agreement was based on the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 which is considered one of the breakthrough events in the fight against global warming.

For the first time, greenhouse gas emission reduction targets were given to 38 developed countries at the Kyoto Summit. The deadline to meet the target was decided to be 2012.

However, most of the previous summit goals have not been met and they have ended up as glitzy and glamourous events, with strong pledges but little action.

In 2009, wealthy countries pledged 100 billion dollar a year as climate financing to poorer nations by 2020. This goal has still not been met and could slip to 2023. The question whether the 38 industrial countries achieved their target as per the Kyoto Protocol is also not answered fully.

Opinions are divided depending upon interpretation of the data. “The 38 countries collectively reduced their output by 2 GtCO2 per year from 2008 to 2012 compared with 1990 levels. But the emissions of former Soviet states had plummeted before the deal was even signed, meaning a reduction of 2.2 GtCO2 per year cannot be attributed to the protocol. Discount that, and the 38 failed to meet their target.The US and Canada signed the deal but did not stick with it,” Micheal La Page wrote for the New Scientist.

To fulfil the climate goals, countries will have to fully phase out the use of coal power and ensure zero greenhouse gas emission. We would have to switch to electric cars and solar energy, and cutting down of trees for development projects has to be stopped. More funding is required to protect people from extreme climate conditions for which the developed countries would have to fulfil their commitment of climate financing to poor countries and help them in adopting green technologies.

This is easier said than done since environmental issues, particularly in fast-developing nations, invariably clash with development agenda.

In India, the Modi government has been aggressively pushing coal production to meet India’s growing energy requirements. In 2019, the Ministry of Coal had set a target of producing one billion tonnes of coal by the financial year 2023-24. Several amendments have been made in Environmental laws to pave way for ease of business at the cost of environment.

The recent announcements by the Modi government to aggressively push palm oil production have also raised environmental concerns.

Speaking at COP26 on Monday, PM Modi, of course, made the usual noises expected from him, using typical flowery language. "Adaptation has not received the kind of importance in global climate debate that mitigation has. This is an injustice to those developing nations that are more impacted by climate change. We will need to make adaptation the key component of our development policies and projects," he said in a 2-minute speech.

"Just like in India, climate is a big challenge for agriculture sector for most developing countries. There are changes in the cropping patterns, untimely rains and floods, or crops are destroyed by regular typhoons," Modi said.

He claimed that the Indian government's projects like Tapwater for All, Clean India Mission and Clean Cooking Fuel for all "have not only provided adaptation benefits to our citizens in need, but also improved their quality of life".

It remains to be seen whether COP26 would provide a middle ground for the inherent contradictions in what developing nation need for growth and what the environment demands.

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