Climate and health activists fear that the bold action needed at the crucial United Nations climate conference, COP26, which began on Sunday, is unlikely to materialise because rich countries are delaying commitments to cut carbon emissions quickly.
Although the world is already witnessing rising extreme weather events, if high-income countries such as the United States fail to make bold moves on key issues like shifting from fossil fuels to cleaner energy, middle-and low-income countries cannot be expected to take dramatic actions themselves, observers in Asia and elsewhere fear.
For this year’s COP26 to be successful, activists point to several issues that have to be addressed – and these are inextricably intertwined with commitments that low- and middle-income countries need to receive:
- All countries will have to increase their voluntary nationally determined contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement to rein in global temperature rise to no more than 1.5℃.
- Developed countries also have to commit to finances to fund adaptation in developing countries reeling under the impacts of climate change, and the Paris rulebook on implementation of the Paris Agreement will have to be finalised.
- There is also a growing call from developing countries for developed countries to acknowledge and compensate for the loss and damage that they are enduring due to the historically high carbon emissions of a handful of countries.
In the run-up to COP26, the delivery of the highly anticipated $100 billion climate finance has once again been delayed. The COP26 presidency said on Monday that “it will not be known until 2022 whether the $100 billion goal has been met in 2020,” adding that the pledges expected from the developed countries were not yet ready to be included.
Many poor countries for long have described climate talks by the rich ones as bullying or a con as the finance that eventually materialises is given as loans and debts. This is particularly worrisome for LMICs that will depend on such finance to meet their NDC commitments – and it will inevitably curb their ambition to set stakes even higher.
“This finance is not charity. This finance is to make sure that the polluters pay the cost, so that it may ensure that the emerging countries can actually do things differently,” said Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and Environment.
World on the path to 2.7℃ temperature rise
The current updated NDCs too fall short and will mean global temperatures will rise by 2.7℃ by the turn of this century, as HPW reported on October 25.
In light of the lack of progress, COP26 President Alok Sharma has already begun to talk about future COPs, saying at a press conference that if the commitments this year aren’t enough to keep temperature well below 2℃, then in the next few years, “we may need to come back and reappraise the commitments that have been made”.
Around 148 countries have submitted new or updated NDCs according to Climate Tracker. Of these, 85 countries have promised to reduce their carbon emissions, including developing countries like South Africa, Kenya, Pakistan and Argentina.
Pakistan has promised to reduce its carbon emissions by 50% by 2030 if it received financing fron developed countries to help it do so. The move was welcomed by COP26. Countries in the Middle East like Jordan and Kuwait, Uganda in Africa, and Japan in Asia have also improved their NDCs. China also updated its NDC on 28 October but its targets are being seen by developed countries as falling short of what is needed at this point.
At last count, there were still 28 countries, including major annual carbon emitter India and other smaller countries like Ecuador, as well as conflict-ridden Afghanistan and Congo, that are yet to submit their updated NDCs, though India's Prime Minister made a number of pledges that may be translated into an official update of its NDC. The hope is that ambitious targets would help keep the global temperature rise around 2℃ and keep the 1.5℃ in sight in the coming years.
Many countries’ longer-term commitments are more robust. Major global oil producer Saudi Arabia has announced the plan to turn net-zero by 2060 as has China, while Australia aims to become carbon neutral by 2050. India will be net zero by 2070, Prime Minister Modi promised.
But the problem is that the timeline of many countries postpone emission reductions until a time that is too late to avoid the world lurching well above 2.7℃ by 2100 and is being seen as mere shifting of goalposts to avoid drastic action now.
India, currently the world’s fourth-highest annual carbon emitter after China, US and the European Union, has made it clear that it wants compensation for the damage caused by rich nations since pre-industrial times, focussing on the need for equity and historical context.
Rich countries are struggling to end coal dependence
With the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out leaving out many poor nations, the trust between developed and developing countries is at an all-time low. A major bone of contention in the talks is that rich countries like the US that are asking poor ones to reduce their dependence on coal are themselves not sure how they will move away from fossil fuels.
US President Joe Biden has been struggling to get domestic support for his ambitious climate agenda, with a senator from West Virginia committed to striking out a key clause of energy legislation that would penalize those that do not switch to renewable energy. The senator is from the same Democratic party as Biden.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres told a recent COP26 media briefing that he was “extremely worried but still hopeful”.
Guterres addressed leaders of the G20 countries – a group of the world’s largest economies – during their meeting on Saturday and asked them to be more ambitious in their targets. He stressed the need for developed countries to phase out coal by 2030 and developing countries by 2040.
This does not seem practical to experts who point out that even a rich country like Germany with resources at its disposal is looking at a coal phase-out by 2035.
Meanwhile Sharma counted commitments from countries to end financing of new coal plants as a step forward.
Danger of moving to renewables too quickly
While climate talks paint renewables as a magic cure, countries that rely on renewables are beginning to see the social fallouts of moving too quickly. Electricity from renewable sources like wind and solar fluctuate seasonally and are thus perceived as unreliable as well as expensive by policymakers.
There is also pushback from leaders from Africa on the social costs of renewables. Developing countries transitioning to renewables quickly have little or no understanding of the social impacts of big new hydroelectric, wind power or solar farms on land rights, waterways and fisheries, upon which indigenous communities often depend the most.
Climate change is already causing an energy crisis in key BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) countries, disrupting supply chains, hitting both renewable and non-renewable sources.
India was recently staring at a coal shortage caused in part due to excess rainfall hindering coal movement. Worsening drought in Brazil has hit water levels in hydropower generating dams and in turn the electricity supply.
Experts say this indicates that future energy needs need to be met from diverse sources as no one source can provide energy security – a nuance that COP26 negotiations pushing for renewables have to be mindful of.
Poorer regions disproportionately affected
While poor nations are now being asked to act proportionately just as much as the rich to reach carbon neutrality, they also stand to lose the most from the world’s failure to clamp down on emissions so far.
The global temperature is already 1.2℃ higher than in pre-industrial times and in 2020 this translated to around 51.6 million people being directly impacted by climate change-related extreme weather events, according to the latest report of Lancet Countdown on health and climate change.
A warmer climate would mean more infectious diseases and 79% losses in labour capacity due to heat waves for those involved in the agricultural sector in low-income countries. The COVID recovery has led to a surge in fossil fuel use instead of decline, making this an additional challenge, as HPW reported on October 21.
Climate finance and a push for loss and damage
This impact on public health and communities that is being felt disproportionately more in the developing world has led to a rise in calls for compensation for loss and damage due to climate change.
Ahead of COP26 a lot of the conversation has been around the need for rich countries to deliver $100 billion a year in climate finance. It has been over a decade since the commitment was first made in Copenhagen in 2009 and then reiterated in Paris in 2015. The original promise was to reach this annual figure by 2020. Now that has been pushed back to 2023.
“Twelve years ago, in Copenhagen, developed nations made a promise to channel $100B per year to countries that are developing and vulnerable to climate change impacts,” said Chirag Gajjar who heads subnational climate action in climate programme at WRI India. “In Glasgow, rich nations must provide an implementation plan to deliver on this promise, translating to $500B between 2020 to 2024,” he said.
In an open letter to COP26, Climate Action Network International, a network of over 1,500 civil society organizations wrote, “The projected economic cost of loss and damage by 2030 is estimated to be between $290-580 billion in developing countries alone.”
China, currently the world’s largest annual carbon emitter, is aiming for net-zero by 2060 and the US, which is the world’s largest historical carbon emitter, is aiming to turn net-zero by 2050.
But if the worst-case scenario of climate change is to be avoided then countries will have to commit to near-term changes instead of long-term ones on a timeline of decades.
Narain said that, according to the IPCC reports, all countries of the world have to turn net-zero by 2050 to limit global temperature rise to 1.5℃. This requires developed countries to turn net-zero earlier so the developing countries have time to transition.
“If the US is 2050 and China is 2060 then India has to be 2070,” said Narain, who called net-zero “a scam”.
“Let’s get a perspective on this that we all understand the reality and don’t let some new fancy words divert us from the mission of saying: cut now, transform now!”
This story was originally published in Health Policy Watch on October 29, 2021. It was produced as part of the 2021 Climate Change Media Partnership, a journalism fellowship organized by Internews' Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Center for Peace and Security.