What should we expect from COP2?
20 October 2021 By Khoa Tran and Stella Chen
This week, we touch upon a few important points to expect from COP26 happening at the end of the month, the struggle for China to balance out its new climate commitments with its ongoing urban development goals, and COP15, the UN Biodiversity Conference.
COP26: a checkpoint for global policy on carbon emissions cuts
The annual United Nations Conference of the Parties, or COP26 as it is the 26th one organized, will be held between 31 October and 12 November 2021. Last year’s conference was cancelled due to covid so it is highly anticipated this year.
The first thing to note is that this conference is supposed to discuss the first round of updates since the 2015 Paris Agreement. After all, what’s novel about this international climate pledge is the use of Nationally Determined Contributions, or NDCs, to reduce carbon emissions. The NDCs system recognizes that not all nations have the same means to combat climate change: some have more immediate development goals to achieve, but all have a stake in this generational fight. As of now, only 70% of nation-parties, representing 60% of global emissions, have submitted updated emissions pledges.
Rather concerning is that big polluters like China, India, Australia and Saudi Arabia, have yet to submit their updated pledges. The US has already announced its updated pledges earlier this year on Earth Day (April 22) to reduce its emissions 50 to 52% by 2030. Not dramatic compared to Japan, who is the only G20 nation to have announced reduced emissions from 26% to 46% by 2030. It’s no question that greenhouse gas emissions keep increasing year-on-year, the most we can do is to limit this growth.
To put that into perspective, the last carbon emission estimates from NDCs (consolidated in a Synthesis Report by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) indicates a 16% increase in emissions between 2010 and 2030. This means that, at the rate we’re living, we are expecting 16% more greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 than in 2010. And this is a problem, since to limit global temperature increase by the 1.5 degrees celsius goal, we would need a dramatic drop by about 45% in global emissions between 2010 and 2030, and net zero by 2050.
Things aren’t looking so good coming into COP26, especially in Asia. Recent power blackouts in China have renewed interest in domestic plans to build new coal power plants. This comes into conflict with China’s own announcements of reaching peak carbon emissions by 2030, being carbon neutral by 2060 and pledging to stop building coal plants abroad. Analysts have estimated that to meet this, at least 600 coal power plants domestically would have to be shut down in China, something that seems unrealistic given recent energy blackouts.
On top of that, it is hard to ignore the possible political tension at COP26 between China the US. John Kerry, the US presidential envoy for climate who has recently travelled to China, believes that cooperation is the only way to move the climate agenda forward. Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister, seems to be taking a different stance, saying that quote: “it is impossible for China-US climate cooperation to be elevated above the overall environment of China-US relations.”
The other important thing to mention about COP26 is the finance aspect. To help developing nation-parties to finance their climate initiatives and meet their NDCs, the Paris Agreement provides that developed nation-members are to provide 100bn USD per year to assist. This pledge has been missed already, in 2019, the figure was 20bn short, and the numbers aren’t yet in for this year but it doesn’t look promising given the economic slowdowns of the pandemic.
This is particularly important for the trust aspect of the agreement. Meeting those financial pledges helps sustain the will of developing nations to participate in this global cause. This also leads to the other financial aspect: loss and damage, which is a term used to encompass irreversible losses due to climate change. Think of rising sea levels in island nations for example.
We’ve covered in episode 8 how climate vulnerable nations have held a summit in Bangladesh that was largely uncovered by western mainstream media this summer. Financial help for loss and damage due to climate change is expected to be an issue of contention at COP26, a message iterated last week by the ministers of 46 of the least developed countries at a summit in Thimphu, Bhutan, in preparation for COP26.
China’s climate ambitions are conflicting with its domestic development plans in construction
Moving on to our next story, we’re now back in China, where construction and development projects are clashing with the country’s climate ambitions. According to BBC News, China’s ambitious manufacture in steel and its heavy dependence on such production to boost its economy makes people worry about how that is going to live along with its sustainable goals. China ranks first in the world when it comes to carbon emissions and steel is its second most polluting industry, following coal.
Wuzhou, a city in southern China, is one of the cities that contributed a huge part to the one billion tonnes of steel production of China last year. While being relatively “small” according to China’s standards, Wuzhou’s three million inhabitants live in a city jammed with development projects and construction sites. Locals however don’t seem to have many complaints about this, apparently. Partly because the huge steel supply needs to create a huge number of jobs for workers who produce rods supporting buildings and bridges, and chassis and sheets that make cars. Increasing modernisation and urbanisation in China is also another reason.
Last month authorities in Wuzhou gave the order to six steel mills, requesting a reduction in steel production. This relates to China’s goal to hit energy consumption and emissions targets. Workers in the city confirmed this and said they were temporarily on reduced working hours.
Sustainable as it seems, we need to see the whole picture here. The top one polluting industry in China, coal, is expected to grow as China will keep its demand on coal increasing until 2026 and it is expected that China’s carbon emission will continue to grow until 2030. The Carbon Brief estimated that the two largest carbon-emitting sectors in China, power and iron and steel, have seen continuous new investment in coal-based capacity, which clearly is not compatible with the country’s emissions goals.
COP15: let’s put biodiversity back on the climate agenda
Looking now at other sustainable goals set by China. Last week saw Part 1 of a two-part UN conference on biodiversity, called COP15, hosted by the country. Not to be confused with COP26 which is happening later this month; those are separate talks. COP15 is focused on taking action and protecting biodiversity whereas COP26 is about cutting emissions.
Part 1 was held virtually from October 11 to 15, kicking off discussions on what the framework to protect biodiversity and reduce mass extinction will look like. Building the momentum, these negotiations will conclude in Part 2, to be held at the end of April 2022, and lead to the signing of a new international biodiversity treaty on halting massive species loss after countries failed to meet any of the goals set in Aichi, Japan in 2010.
On 11th October, Vice Premier of China, Han Zheng, said China will embed biodiversity protection in development plans through all regions and sectors. China’s economic ambitions became the major environmental concern during the talk. Experts said that China needs to include an international aspect to their biodiversity pledge because the biggest impacts they have on biodiversity are known outside China. For example, China’s huge demand for soybeans and imported beef has threatened the ecological balance in the Afro-Tropics and in South America. We have seen some signs of willingness to improve overseas for China with shifts to cleaner investments and supply chains that are biodiversity-friendly, but as stated in our first story, domestic improvements have yet to be seen.
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Sustainable Asia’s podcast “GreenBites’’ is hosted by Chermaine Lee, Khoa Tran, Avery Choi and Stella Chen. Producer: Bonnie Au and Executive Producer: Marcy Trent Long Associate Producer: Rachel Li