The power plays, the conflicts, the drama and the news about the weather: Diary notes from afar as the world meets for the United Nations COP26 climate conference in Glasgow.
“Don’t be afraid, don’t be scared, it won’t hurt you. It’s coal.” – Australian PM Scott Morrison, 2017.
And so it begins
Full of hope, choirs around Britain have sung What a Wonderful World. The pope will be there, although not actually in Glasgow. He’ll be holed up with the Queen, up the road in Edinburgh.
Climate scientists have issued a new warning, reminding the 30,000 delegates (up 5000 on previous expectations) that the 1.5C limit to global warming agreed as an aspirational target in Paris is not a bargaining chip.
“A rise of 1.5 degrees is not an arbitrary number, it is not a political number,” said Johan Rockström, the director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and one of the world’s leading climate scientists. “It is a planetary boundary. Every fraction of a degree more is dangerous.”
If this limit is not achieved, Rockström added, it will “vastly increase” the risk of summer ice disappearing in the Arctic, the Greenland ice sheet melting and the Gulf Stream slowing or even reversing. If events like these happen, he warned, they could set up a feedback loop, causing major sea-level rises and irreversible changes to the climate.
“This is real science – it is a real number,” he said.
And many of the rooms at the conference site have been named after British mountains. As an inspiration to climb, perhaps?
Perhaps the task confronting delegates is not so hard, after all: even the tallest mountain in Britain is only half the height of Mt Ruapehu.
What will Australia do?
In 2017, Scott Morrison, now the Australian PM but then the country’s Treasurer, stood up in parliament holding a piece of coal. “Don’t be afraid,” he said, “don’t be scared, it won’t hurt you. It’s coal.”
In the summer of 2019/2020, smoke from Australian wildfires drifted over New Zealand and was visible 11,000km away in Chile. Those fires killed or displaced nearly 3 billion animals. Three thousand homes were destroyed. And 479 people died.
Australia has always had wildfires. But in the 2019/2020 season they burned more, spread faster and lasted longer than ever before. The World Wide Fund for Nature called them “one of the worst wildlife disasters in modern history”.
Australia, said one commentator, “is at the extreme edge of a future awaiting us all”.
It is also the world’s second-largest exporter of coal (Indonesia is the largest) and Morrison has confirmed they intend to keep it that way. Australia’s commitments lag behind those of all other Western countries, even though the climate crisis has already done more damage to Australia than most others.
Art vs politics
In 2015 the Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson created his work Ice Watch in Paris, near the site of the COP21 climate conference. It consisted, he said, of “12 large blocks of ice cast off from the Greenland ice sheet … and presented in a clock formation”.
Eliasson said at the time the ice sheet was losing the equivalent of 1000 such blocks, every second. The writer Rebecca Solnit called the work a “beautiful, disturbing, dying monument”.
Glasgow also has artists putting a bit of pressure on the politicians. Sculptor Steuart Padwick will unveil three large works using human figures to celebrate hope, with poetry by Scottish writers Jackie Kay, Ali Smith and 2020 Booker Prize winner Douglas Stuart.
Later in the week, Irish artist John Gerrard will unveil Flare (Oceania), dedicated to Tongan efforts to fight climate change; while English artist Bamber Hawes has been escorting her giant polar bear on a 500km walk from Shropshire to Glasgow.
The Big Oil hearings
Meanwhile, in America, the US Congress has been holding hearings into Big Oil, sparked by an undercover Greenpeace investigation.
Former ExxonMobil lobbyist Keith McCoy had told a reporter in that investigation: “Did we aggressively fight against some of the science? Yes. Did we hide our science, absolutely not. Did we join some of these ‘shadow groups’ to work against some of the early efforts? Yes, that’s true.”
So far, none of the oil company execs has agreed to allow an independent audit into whether they have funded groups that deny climate science.
At the hearings, Shell has made a big deal of its green credentials: in Britain, you can “drive carbon neutral” with Shell, by paying to offset the emissions of the petrol you buy.
But the offset programmes don’t always stack up. For example, as Bloomberg has reported, Shell’s Glengarry Project will generate credits for tree planting that are already counted in credits claimed by the Scottish Government.
“It’s a problem if companies count reductions which countries are already counting,” says the nonprofit Carbon Market Watch. Stopping this kind of thing with clearer carbon trading rules is one of the prominent agenda items at Glasgow.
Too much hot air, one way or another
How often should countries have to revise their “nationally determined commitments” (NDCs) for reducing emissions? Every five years is the current rule, set in Paris.
The president of COP26, British Cabinet minister Alok Sharma, has called for a “roadmap for strengthening 2030 NDCs”.
Christiana Figueres, who orchestrated the Paris Agreement as head of UN Climate Change, agrees. “At COP26,” she says, “there has been to be a clear agreement that governments will come back in 2023 … to guarantee that we are on a path to 1.5 degrees.”
The Climate Vulnerable Forum, which represents 48 countries critically exposed to climate impacts, has gone even further. It wants annual updates until at least 2025.
But some countries are pushing back. They argue that NDCs are being used by developed countries as a smokescreen to hide their own failure to address global targets.
“This talk of another round of [climate plans] will just feed into the hot air which is already plenty in the COP process,” says Pakistan’s climate minister, Malik Amin Aslam.
“The huge gap between what is already in the NDCs and what is actually being implemented needs to be plugged … Let’s talk climate action and not bureaucratic and endless updating of meaningless NDCs.”
And Navroz Dubash, a professor at the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, says he doubts the Indian Government will agree to a new NDC plan until “it sees money on the table”.
Both countries belong to a group that wants a much bigger focus on the historic responsibility of the developed countries which created the climate crisis. If the world must halve its emissions by 2030, they argue, then the rich countries are obliged to go much further than that.
Last week the group even said it was “against climate justice” to expect all countries to aim for mid-century net-zero targets.
New Zealand’s new NDC – a 50 per cent cut by 2030 – was announced yesterday and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said it “now represents our fair share”. But does it? This dispute is the context for that claim.
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