Emeritus Professor John Sweeney's Bulletins from COP26

Friday, November 12, 2021 - 11:00

COP26: bulletin number 2
The End of Week 1

John Sweeney, MU Emeritus Professor, Geography

For those not privileged enough to be accredited with the ‘access all areas’ Party badge, the main attraction of the COP is the opportunity to visit the various national and climate organisation pavilions. A vast array of these exists, some, such as those from the oil producing countries, seem more designed to showcase the country rather than its efforts to tackle climate change. Others are heavily laden with vegetation and spectacular moving imagery on massive display screens, and staffed by helpful individuals sometimes in colourful national dress. Most offer a programme of talks and panel sessions, this year involving hybrid combinations of public, zoom and streaming presentations which can be heard over the background din of the hall using headphones. The EU, US, and Science Pavilions are particularly useful with senior politicians usually making an appearance. Scotland has a separate pavilion from the UK this year and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been a prominent panellist and speaker at this. A new element this year has been the addition of a methane pavilion reflecting the recent advice of the IPCC that “Strong, rapid and sustained reductions” in methane emissions are needed as well as slashing CO2 in the next two decades, to keep a 1.5oC warming limit within reach.

A notable absentee this year is the Chinese pavilion. There is a small corporate China facility which appears privately sponsored  (which seems a bit anomalous!) but no large scale presence along the lines of former years. Neither is there the large Chinese delegation so prominent of Madrid or Katowice. Russia is likewise not conspicuous at the COP and this gives cause for concern as to how much involvement these large emitters will have in any final agreement.

The week culminated in the massive protest marches conducted through the streets of a very rain-soaked Glasgow. 100,000 plus converged on the city centre in what was a well behaved and orderly affair. The larger than usual Irish contingent was prominent in an event that took a long time to pass from the assembly point in Kelvingrove park into the centre of the city. Public transport and road closures were consequences to be overcome for ordinary Glaswegians trying to go about their everyday activities, but good humour and forbearance were in evidence for all. A feature of the demonstration this year was the participation of faith groups, in particular Ireland’s Laudato Si group. Pope Francis’ publication of his encyclical Laudato Si just before the Paris COP was an influential factor in achieving the Paris Agreement and the Laudato Si group have continued to thrive in Ireland over the past 6 years. It was particularly welcome to see Bishop Martin Walsh of Kilmore marching with the Irish group for 6 hours yesterday.

The coming week will bring a shift from talking about where countries are positioning themselves to seeing what concessions will be agreed. It is most unlikely these will be enough to address the seriousness of the climate emergency or the demands of the young people and civil society activists present. But 4 issues will dominate. Firstly the finalisation of the rules of the Paris Agreement (yes 6 years afterwards!) as regards how carbon trading will be regulated and whether the unused credits from 10 years ago that some countries still possess can be activated to allow them to continue increasing their emissions in coming years. Secondly, what recompense can developing countries look to receive to offset the climate change-related losses and damages they are being inflicted with as a result of the pollution inputs mainly from developed countries? Thirdly, will we see the promised $100B a year that is supposed to help developing countries develop sustainably, especially by avoiding coal and other fossil fuel based energy systems? Signs are this will not happen before 2023, some 14 years after it was first promised. The figure is incidentally about half of what goes in the way of fossil fuel subsidies per year. Trust is the element in short supply, not least given the host’s recent record as regards international agreements, and the next few days will demonstrate whether the COP model will work, or whether we need to rethink a system that depends on unanimity among almost 200 countries.

COP26: bulletin number 3
“Moving Day”

John Sweeney, MU Emeritus Professor, Geography

During the latter stages of a golf tournament, some commentators have started referring to what they call the ‘moving day’ when the shape of the final leaderboard begins to crystallise out from the background pack. It’s a bit like that at COPs. The posturing of the World Leaders is long over, and the positioning of national negotiators has now been well established over the past week. Now that the political leaders in the form of Ministers have arrived, the end game has begun.

The UK Presidency has now issued a draft document incorporating a range of decisions they envisage as possible, and it is now up to the various parties to accept or reject various aspects. At first sight this is a very positive document that encompasses several progressive elements. Progress has clearly been made by the many negotiating teams. For the first time anyone can remember, the document makes an explicit reference to fossil fuels and ‘Calls upon Parties to accelerate the phasing out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels.” Usually, the inclusion of the word fossil fuels is blocked, and this may be a portent of the pressure which is being put on recalcitrant oil producing countries by the overwhelming majority of the 196 nations represented here. Elsewhere the document “Stresses the urgency of increased ambition and action in relation to mitigation, adaptation and finance in this critical decade to address gaps between current efforts and pathways in pursuit of the ultimate objective of the Convention and its long-term global goal.” 
Positive statements are also evident concerning the need to step up efforts to adapt to future climate stresses and to scale up the provision of finance from developed to developing countries. This is to enable them to handle the increased impacts being imposed on them through the historical greenhouse gas emissions of the developed countries. Allied to this is an acknowledgement that such impacts will increase significantly with further warming. Up until today no country has gone much further than acknowledging there is a problem. However, Scotland yesterday changed the status quo by announcing a nominal financial commitment to loss and damage reparations. Other countries will now be considering their position on this.

The Irish non-governmental contingent has met over the past day with Minister Ryan and his colleagues in DECC. Minister Coveney was also present today. In what was a useful exchange of information there are mutual benefits in that both sides can provide insight into what is going on at a macro level and what are likely to be key sticking points.

These certainly remain and include:

• How countries can be persuaded to retire their overhang of unused past allowances from the Kyoto era a decade ago and which, if used now, would facilitate large emitters such as Australia and Brazil to offset their future emissions. 
• To persuade the major emitters such as China and India to tighten their targets towards 2030 their net zero target towards 2050 in line with most countries
• To convince developing countries that the promise to mobilise $100B to aid their sustainable development based not on fossil fuel energy sources will materialize 

Of course, it is important to remember that these are only draft proposals and are subject to modification and removal in the final analysis. The next 24-48 hours will determine if COP26 will provide momentum for the more radical changes that are implied necessary in the IPCC reports or will be remembered as Copenhagen Mark 2. Truly this is crunch time, perhaps epitomized by an emotional Mary Robinson who stressed you can’t negotiate with science and conveyed the reality that some of the leaders who could do most are not in crisis mode. Calling out China, Russia, Brazil and Australia, and oil-rich producing country Saudi Arabia, she identified those countries most likely to water down the draft over the next couple of days. Listening to this veteran campaigner close to tears was a reminder that this was a ‘moving day’ in more ways than one.

COP26: bulletin number 4
John Sweeney, MU Emeritus Professor, Geography
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

No one expected COP26 to finish by the scheduled time of Friday afternoon, although the President kept signalling his intention to do so throughout the final 72 hours of intense negotiations. A draft agreement produced early on in this period contained very progressive sentiments and led to hopes that Glasgow would indeed represent a sea-change in tackling climate change. Informed by the serious ‘code red for humanity’ IPCC 6th Assessment Report, it seemed the international community had finally grasped the nettle of climate change. The IPCC report was welcomed, which seemed to signal countries were here to do business. The draft included a call to parties to accelerate the phase out of coal power and the removal of subsidies for fossil fuels. Good progress was also evident in scaling up adaptation finance for developing countries, and also on the running sore from Paris about how carbon trading would be regulated. Plenary discussion of this however extended to 3 hours in the largest hall of the cavernous Scottish Exhibition Centre and it was clear that resistance was being mobilized, especially by Saudi Arabia. This was after all the first time a reference to fossil fuels had been included in any draft agreement. A long night of negotiation followed leading to a second draft early on Friday morning. Significant dilution was apparent. The language had changed to ‘accelerating the phase-out of unabated coal power and of inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels.’ ‘Unabated’ coal power of course leaves the options wide open – 1% or 99% - and inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels raises the possibility of spurious justification. It seemed like a win for the many fossil fuel lobbyists which had descended on this COP, more so than in previous years. Some countries were very much in tune with the lobbyists. Australia had already the dubious privilege of being awarded the ‘Colossal Fossil Award’ by the Climate Action Network NGO in recognition of its laggard stance on coal.
When the delegates assembled to discuss this new draft on the Friday afternoon, it was clear that the COP would have to go into extra time to get a result. Another night’s negotiation was in prospect. 
Saturday was the day that the COP fragmented into country groupings. Waiting for the final stock take to sanction the draft agreement, it became clear for those of us waiting in the Hall that the scheduled meeting simply was not convening. Instead, clusters of delegates began negotiating among themselves on the conference floor. In the middle of these were the main powerbrokers of the US, the EU, China and India. When the meeting eventually was convened, a passionate plea to accept the draft agreement was made by the EU and US, and also by several states, especially those vulnerable nations in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. In fact, probably 190 of the 196 countries would have accepted an imperfect agreement in the interests of moving forward. But India, China and Iran were not among these. And so, another redraft was done.  The key phrase now read “…including escalating efforts to phase down unabated coal power, and phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.” “Escalating efforts”, “phase down” (as opposed to phase out)- such are the linguistic skills of international negotiators to achieve their objectives!

So as COP26 closes, maybe Greta’s comments about ‘Blah, Blah, Blah’ are nearer the mark that the spin which some will put on the outcome. Yes, the big polluting countries have to come back to COP27 with stronger pledges. Yes, the requirement for rich nations to double their financial contributions to poor countries to help them adapt to climate change is good, and Ireland can be numbered among the nations which have played their part in supporting this. More so than in previous Cops Ireland was involved in several strands of the negotiations and provided a progressive and professional influence. The formal inclusion of a separate facility to further progress loss and damage reparations for these countries is also a positive step, as is the agreement on how carbon markets will be organized. But the crucial objective of ‘keeping 1.5 alive’ is, in reality, not significantly advanced. There is not much confidence that the proposed measures to achieve the global 45% reduction in emissions, compared to 2010, that the IPCC deem necessary by 2030 to avoid this potential tipping point being exceeded, will work. 

Perhaps Glasgow will be remembered as the COP which took baby steps when giant steps were needed.