COP 26’s collective action problem
Summit conferences can take decisive decisions. But there are occasions where their outcomes are little more than rhetoric and posturing. The 26th Conference of Parties (COP 26) to be held in Glasgow in November, is in danger of falling a long way short of the ambitious goals of host country, the United Kingdom (UK).
Climate summit conferences have been held most years since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit agreed that human-generated global warming was an existential threat to the planet and set the goal of reducing ‘greenhouse gas’ (mostly carbon) emissions.
Collective action between the states is usually complex and cooperation in the climate cause has not been helped by the broadening of the agenda since Rio. At COP 26, the UK Government wants to ‘accelerate the phase-out of coal, curtail deforestation, speed up the switch to electric vehicles, encourage investment in renewables, protect and restore ecosystems, build defences, warning systems and resilient infrastructure, and make good the COP 15 promise (Copenhagen, 2009) to raise US$100 billion per year to fund low carbon development in poorer countries.’
COP 26 is intended to be a particularly important landmark as it is the occasion where the 196 signatory countries (to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), are required deliver on the commitment made at the historic 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. In 2015 all signatories agreed to present their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) – which outline their carbon emissions reduction goals – and to update these by 2020. They have been allowed an extra year to do so thanks to the disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic. But only 93, fewer than half, had done so by the 20th September 2021.
Carbon reduction is the headline goal. Paris 2015 set the goal of keeping global temperature increases to below 2° Centigrade (and preferably below 1.5°C) through reduced greenhouse gas emissions. The August 2021 report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests that actions so far are falling well short of these goals and the current trajectory is towards a 2.7°C increase by the end of the century.
China, which is responsible for about a quarter of the world’s carbon emissions, held off depositing updated NDCs until the last minute. The country has not demonstrated much enthusiasm for the current process, announcing goals which lag those of the Western powers and show little improvement on its 2015 proposals. It has indicated that emissions would peak by 2030, with reductions to net zero three decades later.
The world’s third largest carbon producer, India, has not (as at 28 October) announced its goals, although reports from that country suggest that it may announce its goals at the summit.
The United States (US), the world’s second biggest emitter, which withdrew from multilateral climate processes under the presidency of Donald Trump, is back. It has deposited a strong NDC which promises to reduce carbon emissions by 50-52 percent (against a 2005 benchmark) by 2030. The US has never been entirely out of the carbon reduction game and its carbon emissions continued to fall under Trump, albeit at a slower rate than they had under President Obama (2008-16). A greater use of shale gas, at the expense of coal, has been a major factor in this drop.
But the big shadow hanging over COP 26 is geopolitical. China’s President Xi Jinping, has informed UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson that he will not be attending COP 26. Nor will Russia’s Vladimir Putin. There have been signals from both countries that they see processes around COP 26 as part of a broader ‘Western agenda’ and neither is willing to be seen to play along. The sight of US and British carrier task forces enforcing freedom of navigation through what China regards as its back yard (the South China Sea) has hardly helped in creating a common agenda. Nor have tensions over the Russia-Germany Nordstrom 2 gas pipeline
China has certainly been taking parts of the climate change mitigation agenda very seriously. It has the world’s largest renewable energy fleet by some distance with three times the solar and wind generation capacity of the second placed US. It also makes and buys more electric cars than any other country. But China continues to build coal-fired power stations with over 60 currently under construction and expects to hit ‘peak carbon’ in only 2030 and net zero by 2060.
The Chinese argument is that as a developing country, it cannot decarbonise according to the same schedule as post-industrial countries. The UK, in preparation for its hosting COP 26, has set itself the target of a 78 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2035 (against a 1990 baseline). China’s ecology and environment minister, Zhao Yingmin, has said: ‘(we face) an arduous task … because we need the biggest cut in carbon intensity, compared to other countries, in the shortest time ever. This is the best possible effort we can make, given the current development stage and capacity of China’.
India, which depends on coal for nearly 80 percent of electricity generation is in a similar position. Like China, India believes it is not fair that it should be compared to the decarbonisation rate of a country like the UK, where there are only three coal-burning power stations left (all scheduled for decommissioning by 2024). Coal accounted for two-thirds of UK power generation as recently as 1990.
Further complications can be picked up from comments submitted, mostly but not exclusively, from national governments to the IPCC and leaked to Greenpeace earlier this year. Saudi Arabia and The Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) have contested the need to reduce fossil fuel use as rapidly as mandated. Some input from Australia and India as well as the Japanese and Norwegian governments takes a similar line.
None of these countries deny the problem but all want to see a greater emphasis on carbon capture and storage technologies (including re-forestation) which they argue can play a bigger role in mitigating the problem than the IPCC report recognises. Argentina and Brazil object to taxes on red meat proposed by the IPCC (on account of its carbon intensive production). The Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia want to see a more positive attitude towards nuclear power. Opec argues that ‘there are many paths (to lower carbon emissions) and we have to explore them all’.
Add to this, the voices of a developing world disappointed by the fundraising efforts of the 23 developed countries who have fallen short of the pledge to provide US$100 billion per year to aid mitigation and adaptation. The most they have managed yet was US$80 billion in 2019. A group of African negotiators believes this is a drop in the ocean and will need to be scaled up to US$1.3 trillion per year by 2030.
Collective action only works where actors pursue and defend their interests in negotiations, compromising where necessary to avoid derailing the process. But COP 26 does not look like the most robust possible process and the agenda, as spelled out by the host country and its allies, is not universally accepted. This is going to make achieving substantial consensus very difficult indeed.
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