The COP 26 Cops Out

Susan Pashkoff writes on what feels like a missed opportunity to limit global warming at COP26.


As small island nations literally are sinking under rising seas due to global warming and climate change, the COP26 held in Glasgow reached an Agreement. If “keeping 1.5 alive” was the aim of the COP26, then the COP has failed – (honestly, commentators cannot agree whether the pledge on limiting global warming to 1.5C is dead, on life support, or very weak) no one seems to be honestly saying that what was agreed at the COP26 has clearly guaranteed that the pledge for 1.5C will be met.

Even expecting little from COP26, unfortunately, disappointment still exists. Watching the news about the state of what has been agreed or what could have been agreed and statements signed by various countries has been extremely difficult to follow. In fact, it was downright confusing as statements by various countries and what has been signed by whom and the reality of what has been finally agreed varied substantially. Moreover, there was, of course, a feeling of deep unreality being portrayed on the news; really Boris Johnson as climate warrior (as spouted by almost every news channel here) was beyond bizarre, (really his government cut foreign aid to developing economies, the only one to do so of the G7). Listening to the statements by various politicians (especially of the advanced capitalist world) about how this was a new beginning rather than continued progress was distressing. Surely, since this is COP26 we should not be talking about beginnings at this point. We are in a climate catastrophe that is man-made and this is way beyond a crisis… 

The Agreement

According to Sky News, the 5 goals which are being called “the Glasgow Breakthroughs” are (covering 50% of emissions):

More than 40 world leaders – including from the US, India, Australia, Turkey, the EU and China – have agreed on a UK-led plan to speed up affordable and clean technology worldwide by 2030.

They are:

• Power: Clean power becomes the most affordable and reliable option worldwide

• Road transport: Zero-emission vehicles become the new normal and are accessible, affordable and sustainable in all regions

• Steel: Near-zero emission steel is the preferred choice in global markets, with efficient use and near-zero emission steel production established and growing in all regions

• Hydrogen: The aim is for affordable renewable and low carbon hydrogen to be globally available

• Agriculture: Climate-resilient, sustainable agriculture becomes the most attractive and widely adopted option for farmers everywhere

During the conference, a projection by Climate Action Tracker that global warming would actually soar to a 2.4 centigrade increase based on the current negotiations rather than the 1.8-degree increase that was earlier predicted provoked “shock and dismay.”

According to The Guardian:

Tina Stege, climate envoy for the Marshall Islands, a tiny archipelago in the Pacific that will face inundation at temperatures above 1.5C, said the findings underlined how vital it was for countries to review their NDCs to take much stronger action this decade.

“The world is heading for at least 2.4C based on 2030 NDCs,” said Stege. “2030 is a cliff edge, certainly for my county, and really for the world.”

Scientists have made clear that unless emissions can be reduced by about 45% by 2030, the target of holding global heating to 1.5C will be out of reach.

So while pledges of 30% cuts to man-made methane emissions by 2030, and cuts to carbon dioxide emissions were made, they fell well below what was needed to keep the 1.5C target in reach. As such, the agreement reached at the Glasgow COP did not ensure that the 1.5C warming threshold agreement of the Paris COP was going to be met.  

Moreover, while coal energy production and mining was discussed at the COP and 40 countries (not Australia, India, the US and China who are the greatest users and producers of coal) have pledged to shift away from coal, another 20 countries (this does include the US) have pledged to end public financing by 2022 for unabated fossil fuel projects “overseas coal” (that is burning fossil fuels without carbon capture) and shift public financing towards sustainable energy production. However, this relates to new coal energy plants, it is necessary to take those plants already existing out of commission, and this needs to be done throughout the world. Proposed shifts in funding to create new sustainable energy production in developing economies is part of the overall agreement.

“Investing in unabated fossil-related energy projects increasingly entails both social and economic risks… and has ensuing negative impacts on government revenue, local employment, taxpayers, utility ratepayers and public health,” the signatories of the UK-led initiative said in a joint statement.”

An important thing to note is that this does not affect domestic financing for fossil fuel plants (coal, oil and natural) in the countries that have pledged to this cut in publicly financed overseas coal production and it also does not stop the banks and financial institutions that have not signed onto this pledge from doing this (does it even stop those banks and financial institutions that have signed from doing this?).  Moreover, these are pledges, they are not mandated or enforceable which has always been a problem with the pledges at the various COPs.  

The other issue here is carbon capture and storage (CCS) which is part of the fossil fuel public and private financing agreements as well as the way that many governments are trying to address CO2 emissions targets as fossil fuel emissions account for the overwhelming majority of CO2 emissions.  Questions about the cost of CCS, the fact that most of these CCS plants are not in operation at the moment and won’t be until the next decade and there are concerns about some of the processes employed that may exacerbate climate change. One obvious issue is that the investment in CCS would be better spent in sustainable energy production. Finally, the overall agreement did not ban the use of coal (forget even “phase-out,” it was instead “phase-down” due to a last-minute text change by China and India).  

The issue of deforestation was also addressed in the talks and the agreement. More than “100 world leaders” had pledged to end and reverse deforestation by 2030. But this agreement/pledge has met with scepticism from climate campaigners and activists as lacking substance as there was nothing about monitoring and enforcement against countries for breaking the agreement; the absence of concrete methods to ensure this most probably means that much of this agreement on deforestation is unenforceable.

Finally, the rules for the creation of a global carbon trading market have been agreed upon. After 6 years of wrangling, the rules have been clarified which will allow the trading of carbon by governments and private companies. Earlier attempts had broken down over the danger of “double counting” and concern this would lead to an increase in emissions rather than the hoped-for decrease.  It is hoped that this will “enable countries to meet their emissions targets.”  According to the Financial Times:

“The so-called Article 6 rules emerged from days of wrangling over the details to establish a framework for the trading of credits that represent a tonne of carbon that has been reduced or removed from the atmosphere.

That is expected to channel a surge of funds into the schemes that generate credits — such as tree planting projects and mechanical carbon capture systems — which are bought by those looking to compensate for their emissions. The new framework will be comprised of two parts: a centralised system open to the public and private sectors, and a separate bilateral system that will allow countries to trade credits that they can use to help meet their decarbonisation targets.

[…]  Dirk Forrister, chief executive of the International Emissions Trading Association, said the outcome was “solid and ambitious.” It would “now be up to the private sector to channel green investment using these new market structures and accelerate the race to net zero,” he said. Carbon offsets, which organisations use to compensate for their emissions, have soared in popularity this year, and it is estimated by potential participants that trading in the units could top $1bn by December. The market is presently fragmented, unregulated and pricing is opaque — problems that experts hope the new UN framework will help solve.”

We need to acknowledge that these carbon trading markets are essentially a license to pollute by offsetting your carbon use and output against paying for a carbon-reducing project in another country. It can be done on a market between firms that produce too much and firms that are under the target. We can think of this (as that is what it is) as a license to pollute by the rich countries (or heavy polluters) on a global market as long as they lower carbon emissions in developing economies (or purchase some of the amount allowed to another producer that doesn’t need it). Carbon cap and trade is a type of this scheme.  Essentially, it is a “market-based “solution” (read it as a carrot for capitalist polluters) to allow them to pollute while earning or trading carbon in the market. So rather than tax companies for polluting, they are allowed to trade the “commodified carbon” in the market … turning the right to pollute into an asset, of course, is loved by capitalist producers. It is supposed to incentivise polluters to make decisions that are environmentally less devastating .. along the lines, it is ok that they are polluting because they are buying from those that pollute less the right to pollute. So, now they have new rules on how to do this which will be useful in meeting targets they agreed to while continuing to pollute.

Rules governing the carbon market are something they managed to negotiate at the COP26 …  alas fines for non-compliance with the cap do not stop the pollution which would only stop if companies that do this are closed down. In a global capitalist system with its current economic and political configuration, one cannot help wondering whether this would happen … pledges of countries are not mandates or guaranteed and it is up to governments how to deal with non-compliance.

Reparations and Adaptation

While mitigation of climate change traditionally has been the dominant discussion, the issue of adaptation and reparations are extremely important for developing economies who are bearing the brunt of having to adapt to climate change that they have not created and the damage inflicted on these countries by developed capitalist economies.

Despite promises of financing for developing countries to shift towards greener technologies (adaptation) since 2009, this has not been delivered. This 100 billion that has been promised has not materialised and that was only to be the beginning of the support to enable adaption. Moreover, the issue of compensating countries that have already been impacted by climate change has always been a problem due to the unwillingness of advanced capitalist countries to pay reparations for the “loss and damage” – weirdly the term “reparations” seems to be a no-no in global climate agreements as that implies liability and accountability. (I am certain that I am not the only person wondering how the value of a person’s life and nation is valued)  

Even more, while this promise of funds was initially promised as grants, this has since been converted to loans (which these countries will not be able to pay back, why should they have to pay for the actions of others?). Surely the fossil fuel industry should be held accountable for historical actions, but so should the governments of those countries who are historically responsible for the damage to the planet. If governments pick up these reparations of the fossil fuel industry, should this be considered yet another subsidy of the fossil fuel industry?

So while a statement from the High Ambition Coalition (signed by the US and other countries) mentions calls for continuing Adaptation finance, ensuring finance is made available for adaptation to climate change and even mentions loss and damage, neither funds for mitigation (as grants) or damage and loss were completely guaranteed. The statement addressing these points is below – there are lots of calls, commitments, and even some recognition of culpability but not much in the way of how this will be accomplished.

“12.  Welcome the efforts of those countries that have stepped up their adaptation finance to a balance with mitigation financing, and call on those that have not yet done so to address the adaptation finance gap by scaling up adaptation finance to at least double current levels.

13.  Reiterate our commitment to make finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development, and commit to initiating deliberations for a post-2025 finance goal based on the best available science, an assessment of the needs and priorities of developing countries, and lessons from the $100 billion goal with the objective to have maximum impact. We also encourage the development of new financial instruments, taking into account the need for more consistent and reliable financing streams, and call for the scaling up of private sector finance.

14. Acknowledge that loss and damage, including slow onset events, is already being experienced in all countries and regions, but especially in vulnerable places. Call for enhanced interventions in relevant fields, and recognise the need to increase resources for averting, minimizing and addressing loss and damage.”

Most importantly, since some of these small island nations will literally disappear into the rising seas, obvious things like their populations becoming climate refugees, the literal loss of their homes and national identification, their very existence, is what is at stake – this is an existential crisis for these small island nations. What was agreed at the COP26 simply does not do enough to save them and essentially, they are already are victims of climate change. Those primarily responsible act like this is an inconvenience and the more they push things into the long grass (from 2030 to 2050) than the probability is that these nation-states will simply cease to exist.

In an interview with ITV News, John Kerry was asked about the pledge by rich nations to send financing to developing countries. His response is disheartening, to say the least:

ITV Interviewer:

“In 2009, rich nations agreed to send $100 billion to developing countries to help them adapt to climate change and mitigate further rises in temperature by 2020.

The US diplomat replied:

“We certainly hope it’s going to be the end of 2022… We have 98 billion.”

Pressed on whether “hope” was enough, he added: “It’s not just hope, we’re working even right now to have hopefully pulled together something that closes the loop. It’s at 95 to 98 billion right now. And I don’t call 98 billion of failure”.

Except that it is a failure, it is not enough; this financing was promised in 2009, the global south is still waiting … supposedly this is a “turning point” and a “game-changer” according to Boris Johnson. That is not obvious at all; the fact that plans need to be changed and updated due to insufficient targets and pledges, as we are headed towards a 1.8C rise by the end of the century. As the climate becomes more and more unstable, we will see more intensified weather patterns, droughts and floods, fires, famines, wars over resources, the elimination of biodiversity … and it is evident that the world leaders (politicians, bankers and financiers) are simply not up to the task.

The needs of the capitalist system take precedence over the needs of the majority and the planet. A major problem is that much of what needs to be done on a global level needs to be done by governments, yet far too much is being left in the hands of the private sector and that means that the needs of the system rather than the planet and species living on it are prioritised. Rather than eliminating private transport as much as possible and shifting towards public transport, there is talk of low or no emission vehicles, instead of ensuring green and sustainable energy production, there is carbon-capture of fossil energy production. Instead of ensuring a just transition so that workers whose jobs are endangered by eliminating fossil fuels are covered, ensuring housing that is sustainable and accessible for all, ensuring access to clean drinking water, and food sovereignty for all nations or making sufficient food available for all needs to be done without the constraints of profitability and that does not seem to be on the cards for the vast majority. Instead, this is the privatisation of essential resources such as clean drinking water, monoculture and the elimination of diverse outputs in agriculture, food dumping and destruction (as we don’t want to impact agricultural profitability), a lack of access to health care, social care and education. Rather than feeding starving Afghanis, the US holds onto money rather than give it to the Taliban. Let’s not forget the trade wars and trade embargos …

When politicians (and political commentators) are cheering the fact that the terms methane emissions and the usage of coal (it seems that this was the first time that coal was mentioned in the final agreement which is kind of frightening and, if true, an indication that things up to now have been problematic as an understatement) and that the relationship between fossil fuels and climate change were discussed, you should know that this agreement is not going to be enough if what is needed is to protect the planet and the species inhabiting it.  

As we know, talk is cheap, it is action that is needed; otherwise, it is just blah, blah, blah…

Susan Pashkoff is a revolutionary Marxist, Economist, political activist and blogger. She writes on issues around US and British politics and economics, gender and women's oppression, and disability.

Join the discussion