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.
“The planet is probably going to be OK. But we won’t.” EU climate chief Frans Timmermans.
Oil for green
Heard about the country that gets less than one per cent of its energy from renewables, but has a plan to convert half of it by 2030?
This country currently has a “critically insufficient” rating – the worst possible – from Climate Action Tracker. But it says it will spend NZ$260 billion this decade, removing 278 million tonnes of carbon-equivalent greenhouse gases from the atmosphere each year and planting 10 billion trees in the process.
It has also signed up to the Global Methane Pledge, which commits it to cutting methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030.
The country is Saudi Arabia. And yes, there is a catch.
The astonishing transformation will only happen, says Crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, if the world continues to buy Saudi oil. The oil will fund the programme. In fact, the stated-owned Aramco oil company expects to increase oil production.
Saudi Arabia can produce oil more cheaply than any other country. As global demand shrinks, says analyst Ben Cahill at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the US, “their comparative advantage will be clear and their market share should grow”.
Oil’s share of Saudi Arabia’s GDPO has fallen in the last 30 years, from 65 per cent to 42 per cent. But the country still produces one barrel in every 10 in the world.
The Saudis believe they have two options. One is to use oil revenues to build new industries, including financial services, tourism and clean energy. The other is to continue using oil and gas for its own petrochemicals and other heavy industries.
“We question the seriousness of this announcement,” says Greenpeace Middle East and North Africa campaigns manager Ahmad El Droubi.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) is also sceptical. In order to reach global net zero by 2050, It has called on investors everywhere not to fund any new oil, gas and coal supply projects beyond this year.
Bin Salman’s brother, the Saudi energy minister Abdulaziz bin Salman, has previously mocked that target, calling it a sequel to the movie La La Land.
Fine words in Glasgow, a weak weekend in Rome
A stormy start. Many delegates took the train from London to Glasgow, as you do to a climate conference, only to find fallen trees on the track delayed their trip.
When they got there, it was speech time. There were “so many fine words,” to paraphrase Greta Thunberg. The last best hope, the leaders all said again, blah blah blah. They also relegated “all the key priorities for Africa” to “footnotes”, according to Zaheer Fakir, South Africa’s lead climate negotiator.
Still, high hopes for Glasgow makes a change after the low outcome from the G20 summit in Rome, which ended over the weekend.
China, Australia, India and Russia blocked a deal to agree to phase out coal. They even rejected a commitment to do “their utmost” to avoid building new coal power plants, although the summit did agree to stop funding such plants overseas. That’s a policy already adopted by China, Japan and South Korea.
Instead, they committed to more action this decade “in line with the latest scientific developments and national circumstances”. They removed the date ‘2050’ from the draft agreement, in favour of agreeing to reach global net zero emissions “by or around mid-century”.
“If the G20 was a dress rehearsal for COP26, then world leaders fluffed their lines,” said Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International.
UN secretary-general António Guterres said his hopes were “unfulfilled … but not buried”. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson gloomily declared “Words and promises are starting to sound, frankly, hollow.”
But maybe they were merely setting up the hurdles that Glasgow negotiators will have to jump?
The official optimist
In a speech in London just before the Rome meeting, US special envoy John Kerry staked out his position as an optimist. “Glasgow has already summoned more climate ambition than the world has ever seen,” he said.
“Nations representing nearly 65 per cent of global GDP will arrive in Glasgow committed to the 1.5 limit, including more than half of the top 20 economies in the world.” He said he saw hopeful signs everywhere, from the commitments of private investors to progress with new technologies.
He wasn’t all sunshine, though. “Is all the world fully aligned with what science says we must do to avoid the worst of the climate crisis? In two words: not yet.”
As for the US itself, it almost has a climate-action budget, with US$555 billion (NZ$774 billion) allocated to clean energy transition and other measures. That’s five times more than the previous federal record for green spending, set by Barack Obama in 2009, although it’s also far less than what President Biden was originally hoping for.
Half a trillion is also less than what the US has spent in disaster relief just in the last four years. Since 2017, floods, fires, hurricanes and other disasters have cost America nearly US$700 billion.
It’s still not clear if President Biden, who is now in Glasgow, has the numbers to get this new budget passed.
One way to think about global warming
A rise of 1.5 degrees celsius doesn’t sound like much, does it? We get more than that every day, so what’s the fuss?
One way to look at it is to forget about the weather and think about your own body instead.
Normally, your temperature should be around 37 degrees. If it rises to 38 degrees, you’ve officially got a fever. At 39 degrees, according to the Ministry of Health, your fever is high. At 40 degrees or more it’s very high.
It’s like that for the planet. The Earth hasn’t been as warm as it is now for 2,000 years. It’s got a fever: 19 of the hottest years on record have occurred since 1998. In the Arctic, the warming is twice as great as the global average. In Antarctica, it’s five times greater. Both regions have a very high fever.
Simon Wilson’s online Glasgow Diary appears daily during the COP26 conference in Glasgow.
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