COP26

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Heads of Government and State from over 130 nations flanked by thousands of diplomats negotiated, bargained and pledged over two weeks to chart the path that the world will follow in the fight against climate change. World leaders seem to have finally lent an ear to the clarion calls by scientists to revisit efforts to limit global warming under 1.5C, a target which is far from sight but, if missed, will cause significant damage to the way we experience life on this planet.

First concerted effort on building a consensus on climate action happened via the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change (UNFCCC), a treaty signed by over 150 nations in 1992. Conference of Parties (COP) is the chief decision making body of the UNFCCC.

Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997, remained in force from 2005 to 2020 and was the first implementation of the measures under the UNFCCC. The protocol called for a reduction in emission of six greenhouse gases by 5.2% from the 1990 levels. The treaty had been criticized as China and the USA, the two largest emitters were not bound by it.

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The Kyoto Protocol was superseded by the Paris Climate Accord which was adopted in 2015. Paris Agreement or COP21 put an all-inclusive numerical target on the efforts being made to mitigate climate change. Signatories agreed to limit the rise in the world’s average temperature to not more than 2C above pre-industrial levels and strive to limit this increase to 1.5C. A noteworthy feature of the Paris Agreement was a review of the goals set by nations every five years. COP26 received such widespread attention as it was the first review of the promises made by countries in Paris (COP26 got delayed by a year due to the Covid-19).

Highlights of the summit

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Methane: Although short-lived, methane is 25 times more potent than Carbon Dioxide at trapping heat. So a pledge by over 90 nations led by the USA and the European Union to cut methane emissions by 30% of the 2020 levels by 2030 is a welcome prospect expected to do much good in the battle against climate change.

Deforestation: Over 130 nations representing about 90% of the world’s forests have pledged to end deforestation by 2030. This agreement follows the failed New York declaration of 2014, which promised to reduce emissions from deforestation by 15–20% by 2020 and to end it by 2030. Although this time money backs words, a $19 billion fund has been committed for the cause, but the modalities of the cash flows remain nebulous.

Coal: One of the most significant contributors to CO2 emissions, discussed widely but without a concrete plan, coal found a notable mention in the Glasgow summit. Signatories have pledged to make no fresh investments in coal power plants and eventually entirely phase-out coal. The developed nations promised for the 2030s while the developing proceeded with a more cautious yet ambitious deadline of 2040s. Notably, the largest coal consumers, namely the USA, China and India, have refrained from signing up, preferring the term phasing-“down” over phasing-“out”. Several of the developing nations part of the pact will need financial support from the developed world, the modalities of which again remain hazy.

Fossil fuels: Several leaders across the board have vowed to do away with any form of subsidies existing on oil and other fossil fuels. Twenty nations, including the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand, have agreed to stop investments in overseas fossil fuel projects.

Money: COP26 witnessed participation from several of the world’s leading financial institutions. Organizations controlling $130 trillion of the world’s wealth have agreed to back green technologies and move funding away from fossil fuels burning industries. Although without legal obligations, the implementation of such promises remains in doubt.

US-China Deal

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US Special Climate Envoy and former Secretary of State John Kerry and China’s top negotiator at COP26 Xie Zhenhua both underlined their nations’ stance of cooperation in the fight against climate change, an unexpected yet much-welcomed announcement on the sidelines of the Glasgow summit. The joint statement by the two nations covered cooperation on all key issues taken up in the conference. The joint statement recognizes the gap between ambitions and reality, and although primarily symbolic, is a move in the right direction coming from the two largest emitters of the world.

India at Glasgow

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Led by PM Modi, India has pledged to achieve net-zero emissions by 2070, 20 years later than the developed world and ten years past China’s 2060 target. A target significantly liberal than its contemporaries but very well justified for a developing nation that fares way better than its contemporaries in terms of emissions per capita. By 2030, it has pledged to source 50% of its energy supplies from renewable sources, an aspirational goal that balances out to a large extent the 2070 dampener. However, India has refused to join the deals on methane emissions and deforestation. Still, it has promised to make significant investments in biogas generation and increase forest cover to 33% of the nation’s land area to tackle both matters.

A switch to renewable energy comes with a steep cost which impedes developing nations from setting ambitious goals. Given this fact, the variance in national circumstances ought to be respected and factored in when such ambitions are cast upon the developing world. The developed world, having been chief contributors to climate change, have the responsibility to lead the world’s fight in this battle, and at the same time to carry the developing world along with them. India has echoed calls from several scientists and economists for the rich, developed world to set up a $1 trillion a year fund to help the developing nations achieve their targets. India pointed out the lack of mention of climate adaptation which becomes imperative especially for the developing world, which often bears the brunt of climate change to an extent much larger than their contribution to it. India also called for the people of the world to bring about a change in their lifestyle and adapt to a more ecologically conscious way of life, portraying it as the most effective way to bring the world’s climate ambitions to reality.

Implications

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The summit was attended by leading figures from the business world and financial organizations controlling a significant chunk of the world’s money supply. Given that nations’ goals in the summit cannot be met by government efforts alone, such participation is a welcome sign. We see a growing trend among major corporate houses to set themselves on the path to net-zero emissions. From the Indian corporate community some notable examples are Tata Consultancy Services which aims to become net-zero by 2030, Reliance Industries by 2035, Aditya Birla Group and Vedanta Limited by 2050.

A worldwide shift of businesses to net-zero can be seen as a revolution in itself, which will present opportunities for companies to seize and thrive. With finances and, more importantly, larger public opinion shifting towards climate sustainability, a shift to net zero may not remain an option for long.

It is important to note that most pledges made in COP 26 are legally non-binding, with only a handful of nations imposing legal obligations upon themselves. And accordingly, the summit has been criticized as having no stick to force pledge-makers to stand true to their words. Without any specific goals set for 2030, experts estimate that the actual rise in the average temperature could be as much as 2.4C. But considering that before the Paris Accord, the world was headed towards a 3–4C rise, the Paris and the Glasgow Agreements can still be regarded as significant progress. Also, post the summit, we now have about 90% of the world economy signed up to net zero-emission targets, rising from about 30% a year ago.

Establishing consensus in a world so large and diverse itself is a monumental task. Given that, the summit with all its shortcomings is most certainly a step in the right direction. At the very least, climate change is a phenomenon now widely acknowledged, and to a large extent, a consensus established on the need to initiate and accelerate actions to mitigate it. As they say, “well begun is half done".

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