The Glasgow climate conference failed us, and the planet, big time

Without rich nations committing to phase out fossil fuels and without funding to help the developing world, humanity faces a grim future

Sue Surkes

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Climate activists march through the streets of Glasgow, Scotland, on November 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
Climate activists march through the streets of Glasgow, Scotland, on November 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Jon Super)

Let’s not beat about the bush. The Glasgow climate conference, COP26, which ended Saturday, was a resounding failure.

It underlined the lack of vision, leadership and backbone of so many politicians, whose narrow interests and small-mindedness look set to cost us all dear.

It was the biggest-emitting countries and the fossil fuel industry, the largest single delegation at the conference, according to the BBC, that ultimately triumphed.

It was shameful.

The so-called Glasgow Climate Pact, not even legally binding and squeezed out painfully at the end of the summit, does not commit signatories in any way to getting rid of fossil fuels — the one thing that will arrest global warming and climate change and possibly save us all.

It does not bring us within striking distance of the 2015 Paris agreement goal of keeping the average global temperature rise down to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), and preferably 1.5°C, by century’s end, compared with a baseline set before the world started industrializing.

Youth climate activists protest that representatives of the fossil fuel industry have been allowed inside the venue during the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland, November 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change has warned for years that stabilizing the climate at 1.5°C requires slashing emissions by 45 percent by the end of this decade.

But no such thing will happen, if national targets for emissions cuts submitted to COP26 are anything to go by.

Even if those targets are fully implemented – and there are big question marks over that – we are looking at a rise of 2.4°C.

Not only does the pact not even mention oil or “natural” gas — a fossil fuel — at all, but attempts to get the world to phase out coal — the single biggest driver of climate change — were also heavily watered down.

Following much political wrangling, the final version of the pact says that efforts need to be stepped up not to phase coal power out but to it phase it “down,” and even then without any quantification, after a last-minute change submitted by India and China.

In this photo taken October 3, 2018, smoke rises from the chimney of Serbia’s main coal-fired power station near Kostolac, Serbia. Chinese companies are the world’s largest investors in overseas coal plants. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

Furthermore, this “phasing down” is only to apply to “unabated” coal power and “inefficient” fossil fuel subsidies.

“Unabated” refers to coal that is burned without so-called CO₂ carbon scrubbing, which separates carbon dioxide from the mix of gases emitted by burning, before it can be released into the atmosphere.

Are we to understand that continued coal burning with carbon dioxide scrubbing is therefore OK? The process is not only expensive — it also requires huge amounts of energy. Only in the fossil fuel industry’s wildest dreams does this make coal burning acceptable.

And what are efficient fossil fuel subsidies, if we are only to worry about “inefficient” ones? According to the G20, inefficient subsidies “encourage wasteful consumption.”

But any subsidy of the fossil fuel industry channels taxpayers’ money into the continued emission of harmful global warming gases. That money could be so much better spent speeding up the rapid dissemination of renewable alternatives such as solar, and retraining workers in the fossil fuel industry for green jobs.

Narrow and misguided national self-interest triumphed

Despite the best efforts of UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres, COP26 chairman Alok Sharma, US climate envoy John Kerry and others to get a better deal, narrow and misguided national self-interest triumphed.

Just days before COP26 started, the BBC saw documents showing that Saudi Arabia, Japan and Australia were among nations pressing the UN to downplay the need for moving quickly away from fossil fuels.

After this reporter’s remarks in a Times of Israel podcast on Thursday, an angry listener from Australia wrote to ToI to complain that portraying the country as “not on board” at COP26 was grossly unfair.

Climate campaigners enact a “Squid Game” themed protest stunt wearing masks of world leaders they believe are obstacles to dealing with climate change, including, from left, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Russian President Vladimir Putin, on the fringes of the COP26 U.N. Climate Summit, in Glasgow, Scotland, November 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)

Prime Minister Scott Morrison went to Glasgow and signed up to net-zero emissions by 2050, she said. “This is a fact. He has done this at great personal, political cost. He and his party are up for re-election early in 2022 and they will likely lose many votes because of this from voters who rely on the fossil fuel industry for employment and income.” The listener added that Australia was “on target for its emissions reductions pledge made in Paris for 2030.”

Climate Action Tracker saw things very differently when it reported on the country in September, saying: “Australia’s 2030 domestic emissions reduction target is consistent with warming of 4°C if all other countries followed a similar level of ambition. Under Australia’s current policies, emissions will continue to rise and are consistent with more than 3°C warming.”

It went on to say that the Australian government’s policy was “rather to support carbon capture and storage (a technology at an early stage, seen by many as the wet dream of countries determined to continue emitting) and fossil fuel derived hydrogen, (as opposed to green hydrogen generated by renewable energy) which prolongs the life of aging fossil fuel fleets in the energy system.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (right) meets Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the COP26 UN climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, November 1, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Morrison himself hedged the net-zero announcement by stressing that getting there would not include ending Australia’s fossil fuel sectors. “We want our heavy industries, like mining, to stay open, remain competitive and adapt, so they remain viable for as long as global demand allows,” Morrison said, promising that his plan would not involve shutting down coal and gas production or exports. How this meshes with reaching net zero by 2050 he conveniently did not explain.

What the podcast listener and Scott Morrison and his supporters have apparently failed to grasp is that retraining for green technology should have started a long time ago precisely in order that jobs are not lost when polluting industries are phased out and cheaper, healthier green ones replace them. Again, it is about a failure of leadership.

Former US president Barack Obama and John Kerry, United States special presidential envoy for climate, pose with members of the US delegation at the US Center at the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland, November 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

But it is the US – the second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, after China, and ahead of India, Russia and Japan, in that order — which really takes the biscuit for hypocrisy and double standards.

While President Joe Biden has laid his reputation on the line to clean up the climate and persuade other countries to do likewise, US delegates at COP26 refused to sign an agreement that would see major economies phasing coal out in the 2030s, and developing ones doing so a decade later.

Instead, the US teamed up with 20 nations, including China, in a promise to end public financing for “unabated” fossil fuel projects overseas by the end of 2022.

The latest Global Carbon Budget report warnd that if the world continues to behave as it is doing today, there’s a good chance that it will hit that 1.5°C target in 11 years.

The US delegation was among those pressuring not to have this included in the climate pact text.

An Indian laborer loads coal into a truck in Dhanbad, an eastern Indian city in Jharkhand state, September 24, 2021. India asked for a crucial last minute-change to the final agreement at climate talks in Glasgow, calling for the “phase-down” not the “phase out” of coal power. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

India and other developing nations must be judged differently from the US, Australia, Europe and the other rich nations of the West.

It is sanctimonious to wag a finger at them now for wanting to climb the ladder of economic development that the developed nations scaled long ago.

It is these countries that are suffering much of the brunt of climate change, due to little or no fault of their own — catastrophes of sea level rise, flooding, drought, heatwaves and more.

And yet, predictably, the richer nations, by and large, have resisted putting their hands in their pockets to help their poorer brethren skip the fossil fuel stage and move directly to renewables to help mitigate climate change.

Nor, as we saw in Glasgow, will they stand by previous promises to help these nations adapt to the already devastating effects of climate change.

FILE – In this October 18, 2015 file photo, a young girl wades in the water outside of Fatou Faye’s home in Diamniadio Island, Saloum Delta in Senegal. The place where Faye’s kitchen once stood is now outlined with short branches of mangroves that she hopes will slow the nearby sea from destroying the rest of her house. The rising sea levels pushing into the waters of Senegal’s Saloum Delta already threaten to carve the rest of her gray cement home from its foundation, leaving her and 30 other relatives homeless on the low-lying island. (AP Photo/Jane Hahn, File)

Developing countries had hoped to create a “facility” through which wealthy nations would compensate them for loss and damage — unavoidable, irreversible harm caused by climate change.

That “facility” was watered down to a “dialogue” about compensation, as the wealthy nations resisted being held to account.

The Glasgow Climate pledge says that it “recognizes the importance of the best available science for effective climate action and policymaking.”

The science is clear.

But the world’s so-called leaders are still not listening.

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