COP26 achieves less than hoped

Mahmoud Mohieldin
Saturday 20 Nov 2021

Despite pledges made at last week’s COP26 Climate Change Conference, the world is no closer to keeping global warming below the 1.5 degree Celsius target.

The COP26 Climate Change Conference drew to an end last week in the Scottish city of Glasgow after two weeks of heated discussions between participants in the conference centre while outside the streets teemed with demonstrators calling for urgent action to save the planet. A UK Financial Times headline summed up the results of the conference when it said that “COP26 has achieved more than expected but less than hoped.”

One of the achievements of the conference was the agreement to limit the Earth’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels. The Paris Agreement in 2015 set the target at below 2 degrees Celsius. To meet this goal, all countries must adopt more effective plans to reduce their carbon emissions by 2030 during the coming year. Because of the difficulties this presents to some, the participants at COP26 were unable to reach an agreement over the future of coal. China and India would commit only to gradually reducing their use of coal but not to ending it.  

COP26 President Alok Sharma reportedly choked back tears as he apologised for the conference being unable to do more, though he still described the results as a whole as being “a fragile win.” Indeed, optimists say that the mere mention of phasing down the use of coal and inefficient fossil-fuel subsidies in the Glasgow documents was in itself an unprecedented achievement. The participants also pledged to carry out an annual review of procedures to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement and to adhere to more transparent and mandatory reporting rules.

However, despite such pledges, the world is still no closer to attaining the 1.5 degree Celsius target. The proposed measures are also not designed to attain the Paris Agreement targets. Even if we presume countries commit to their pledges to reach their emissions targets by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050, the best they will be able to attain is an average of 1.8 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. The more likely result will be 2.4 degrees combined with a significant increase in the number and severity of the storms, floods and other climate-related disasters the world has recently experienced.

The joint US-Chinese announcement on 10 November marked a possible breakthrough towards accelerating steps to comply with the Paris Agreement, given that these two countries are among the world’s largest emitters. At the time of writing, it appeared that the climate would be on the list of priorities to be discussed during the virtual summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden this week.

Despite the difficulties involved, I believe the two men are within a closer reach of an understanding in areas related to this subject than on other matters on their agenda, especially those related to geopolitics or the economic and technological rivalry between the two countries.


WHEN NUMBERS LOSE THEIR MEANING: The Chinese philosopher Confucius said that “when words lose their meaning, people lose their freedom.” If so, this thought may also apply to numbers, especially on data reporting.

If numbers lose their meaning, they do not comply with accuracy and transparency, and this may be no less dangerous than a failure to comply with agreed pledges and measures to protect the planet and its inhabitants. Without the application of internationally standardised indicators and methods for assessment reviewing and tracking progress, misleading information proliferates.

This situation led some among the crowds gathered outside the COP26 Conference in Glasgow to refer to the proceedings as simply so much idle chat.  

People have good reason to fear that the declarations from governments, companies and financial institutions about pledges and commitments are little more than “greenwashing.” For this reason, the UN secretary-general decided to establish a “group of experts to propose clear standards to measure and analyse the net zero commitments of non-state actors.” I do suggest that similar committees be created at national level to follow through on the application of these standards and the implementation of pledges at the country level.


FINANCING AND THE 80/20 DILEMMA: In a speech I delivered to one COP26 proceedings, I explained that the figures for funding were no better than the figures for bringing emissions under control in keeping with the pledges made.

Referring to the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 rule, I said in the paper that the G20 group of countries represented 80 per cent of the global economy and were responsible for 80 per cent of climate-damaging emissions, but that they were not collectively contributing the same amount to remedying the problems arising from the emissions.

Since the pledge made at the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009 to mobilise $100 billion a year to help the developing countries meet their climate goals, only three out of the 23 countries that committed to the pledge have proven true to their word. These countries are Germany, Norway and Sweden. While the international NGO Oxfam has announced an 80 per cent shortfall in the amount raised to meet the above-mentioned pledge, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) announced in 2019 (i.e., before the Covid-19 pandemic) that $79.6 billion had been collected for this purpose and that the shortfall was only around 20 per cent.

In fact, the figures show that in 2019 the developing nations received around $20 billion of the funds allocated for climate adaptation. To this we can add that the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development recently confirmed that in its attempts to monitor how much has actually been spent on climate mitigation in 46 low-income countries it could only trace $6 billion.

The preceding illustrates the need for rules and standards for monitoring climate financing, whether for the purposes of mitigation or to help developing nations remedy the damages and losses they have sustained from the consequences of crises they did nothing to cause. The countries that are the least responsible for harmful emissions are the ones that are harmed the most.

Meanwhile, as heartening as we might find the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ) announcement that over $130 trillion in private financial assets has been committed to transforming the global economy to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, this does not automatically translate into effective investment flows. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), an estimated $4 trillion a year needs to be invested in energy alone to meet the 2050 net zero target.

Moreover, while this is a vital component, it is not the only one needed to reach the climate goals, and the climate component is only one of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The world needs a reliable financial observatory to follow through on commitments to financial pledges, and it needs financial oversight institutions to monitor adherence to reporting rules, procedures and standards.


FROM GLASGOW TO SHARM EL-SHEIKH: Last week it was announced in Glasgow that Egypt would be chairing the next UN climate summit and hosting the COP27 Conference in 2022. With this announcement the countdown has begun on work at four levels:

- Global: Between now and next year, the clock will be ticking on the implementation of commitments to emissions reductions, climate adaptation and the management of the energy transition, as well as on funding which should take priority because every measure needs to consider costs and returns.

I believe the focus should be on investments rather than loans as a means of climate funding. The poorest developing nations should not be driven deeper into debt, and they should be helped to remedy damage caused in the past and present by the industrialised and developing nations. There should be investment, not debts, and there should be sufficient compensation for harm, not handouts. There should be suitable technological cooperation and transfer. These should be the mottos guiding the international work on the climate in the future.

 - Regional: COP27 will be also an African COP for a regional perspective. This means starting the search for projects that will pay off for the whole continent. Again, the focus should be on investment in areas vital to climate change that simultaneously contribute to achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

South Africa set a good example of this with the Just Energy Transition Partnership Agreement it launched at COP26 in Glasgow. The agreement, which gives South Africa access to $8.5 billion of funding over five years, sets three goals: ending the use of coal; providing clean alternative energy and supporting coal-dependent communities by creating new job opportunities. Such initiatives can be drawn on in formulating others, albeit to suit the particular priorities, needs and circumstances of each country.

- National: Preparations for the COP27 Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh should be used as a means to advance development policies, structural reforms and digital transformation, as well as to attract investments in areas that stimulate productivity, competitiveness, innovation and development.

- Local: In the framework of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the ways in which the climate and the environment fit in with them, we should encourage participation in Egypt’s Decent Life Initiative. This is one of the world’s largest and most ambitious development projects that seeks to domesticate sustainable ideas and technologies and to serve directly 60 per cent of the population of rural Egypt.

This initiative can serve as a practical model for other developing nations and show that a solid win for climate efforts, as opposed to a fragile one, entails incorporating and funding projects carried out in the holistic approach  of sustainable development and that benefit the larger public both now and for generations to come.

* An Arabic version of this article appeared on Wednesday in Asharq Al-Awsat.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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