The fortnight-long UN COP26 climate summit in Glasgow started with a bang but ended the first week with the usual stalemate between developed and developing countries over climate finance. A flurry of announcements about the year by which a country’s greenhouse gas emissions would become “net zero” and about some countries ending coal use, reducing methane emissions and stopping deforestation by 2030 had raised hopes of a political push that would take climate negotiations past the developed-developing country binary. But the hopes collapsed, not least because the promises broken earlier made it difficult for poor nations to believe the promises being made now.
By Saturday 6 November, conference president Alok Sharma had to say at a press conference, “On finance, I hope we’ll be able to make progress next week.”
Fury over delayed pledge on climate finance at COP26
A veteran US government delegate had once remarked to this correspondent about the UN climate negotiations, “Nothing is final till everything is final.” The truth of the adage was proven again last week. Incensed over the failure of developed countries to keep their longstanding promise to mobilise USD 100 billion per year in climate finance by 2020 and now announcing a fresh 2023 deadline, developing countries blocked progress on the issue of transparency over climate actions and on fixing a common timetable by which all countries would keep updating their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the 2015 Paris Agreement. In retaliation, developed countries blocked progress towards finding money for adaptation to climate change impacts and refused to discuss what to do about the loss and damage being experienced due to the floods, storms, droughts, landslides and other catastrophes being exacerbated by climate change here and now.
The stalemate over most of the major issues could not be broken despite night-long negotiations by bureaucrats over half the weekend. On Sunday, it was decided that major issues such as finance would be referred to the ministers gathering in Glasgow for the second week, while the bureaucrats would continue to grapple with some of the other issues, at least until Monday evening. On Sunday night, observers were hoping that there would be consensus within a day on the issues of a common NDC update timetable and on transparency of climate actions.
Sharma agreed that the finance issue would “need political consensus”, while expressing confidence that the rich world would mobilise USD 500 billion between 2021 and 2025 to enable poorer countries to move towards a green economy while dealing with climate change impacts. Developing countries have sought trillions of dollars – most of their updated NDCs are conditional on receiving such finance.
‘The young want to see delivery’
Barack Obama, the former US president, is scheduled to make an appearance at the conference on Monday, and many observers – especially young climate activists – are hoping he will be able to inject much-needed momentum into the negotiations. Sharma acknowledged the frustration palpable during the huge rallies held in Glasgow on Friday and Saturday when he said, “This is the COP [Conference of Parties, the official name of the summit] where the young want to see delivery.”
Climate activist Greta Thunberg articulated the frustration of young people by describing the decades-long climate negotiations as “greenwash” and “blah blah blah”. Even veteran negotiators appeared frustrated. An Indian negotiator who did not want to be named said: “Developed countries keep asking us to forget about the past. How can we do that when we clearly see a past full of broken promises?”
Asked to respond to this, a veteran European negotiator said: “Developing countries are refusing to even accept that whatever they do in the name of climate action must have social and environmental safeguards. They are refusing to allow substantial human rights guarantees in their projects. How can we finance projects without such guarantees? Our voters will never agree.”
Public financing will not be enough
Public financing from developed countries will clearly not be enough for all the actions required to combat climate change. Some developing countries such as Brazil have been hoping that at least part of the money will come through sale of the certificates they have been accumulating over years by reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. These certificates were central to the Clean Development Mechanism introduced in the Kyoto protocol, but prices have crashed in financial markets due to low demand. There is no point trying to sell the certificates until the price recovers. Countries are incensed because developed nations have been insisting these certificates cannot be carried over. This is an issue that has been bedevilling negotiations since 2018 and has done the same in 2021.
The refusal, led by the US, of developed countries to discuss loss and damage in any meaningful way is another point of friction. There is some hope from activists because Ed Miliband, the shadow secretary for business, energy and industrial strategy of Britain’s main opposition Labour Party, has expressed support for recognising loss and damage being suffered due to climate change by developing countries.
Without climate finance, going backwards at COP26
But all in all, “the negotiations are going backwards, and are taking us away from the goal of keeping global average temperature rise since the start of the Industrial Age within 1.5 degrees Celsius,” Sanjay Vashist, director of Climate Action Network South Asia, told The Third Pole on Sunday evening.
Environment ministers of over 100 countries are arriving in Glasgow for the final week of the negotiations. They will have their work cut out, and may have to refer repeatedly to their national capitals to see how far they can go to bridge radically different points of view. Meanwhile, climate change keeps gathering pace and the impacts keep getting worse.