THE Cop26 summit in Glasgow was meant to be a defining moment in the struggle to save our planet from climate catastrophe. So was it a success or failure? That depends on what you compare it with. Since the first ‘conference of parties’ to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was held in Berlin in 1995, when atmospheric carbon levels were around 358 parts per million (as opposed to approximately 414 today), there have been good Cops and bad Cops. It’s a kind of circus, a money-spinner for global capital, that produces a lot of hot air and geopolitical drama but hasn’t yet managed to reduce carbon emissions.
In 2009, many people had expectations of a legally binding agreement at Cop15 in Copenhagen – officially branded ‘Hopenhagen’ by the UN. Instead, negotiations collapsed after a disagreement between developed and developing countries. In many ways what happened in Glasgow recalled those disastrous proceedings.
Until late in the day, the pact seemed to be on the way to calling for a phase-out of coal. In a last-minute intervention, though, China and India had the wording changed so that the agreement now talks only of ‘phasing down’ coal. This intervention couldn’t help but sour the mood as the conference closed. It was also a depressing verdict on Cop26 that semantics mattered so much.
On the other hand, if you compare the Glasgow summit with the last Cop in Madrid, for example, you might think it had been moderately successful. Incredibly, for the first time in the history of the Cops, the final text actually included the words ‘fossil fuels’.
Twenty nations agreed to stop financing global oil and gas projects abroad, although most continue to subsidise oil projects at home – echoing the G20’s commitment to stop financing coal plants internationally, even if its members continue to use coal domestically. A hundred countries, led by the United States and the European Union – but excluding China, India and Russia – pledged a 30% methane reduction by 2030. A hundred and forty-one countries agreed to stop and reverse deforestation by 2030 – although Indonesia, where primary forest has decreased by approximately 50% since the 1960s, has already backtracked.
Coming into the talks, the UK Cop26 presidency had set high expectations, calling for the summit to ‘keep alive’ the possibility of limiting the world’s temperature to within 1.5°C of what it had been in the mid-19th century. The trouble is, the 1.5°C target is not like other political negotiations, which can be haggled over or compromised on. A rise of 1.5°C is not an arbitrary number, it is not even a political number. It is a planetary ultimatum. Achieving the 1.5°C limit was always understood to require cuts in emissions far larger than those set forth in the promised emissions reductions – ‘nationally determined contributions’, or NDCs – tabled in Paris in 2015. This new round of NDCs at Cop26 was not enough to make the 1.5°C target reachable.
Modelling carried out by number-crunchers in Glasgow showed that, if the NDCs were delivered, there would be a 68% chance of temperatures rising to 1.9°C-3.0°C, with a median value of 2.4°C.
So even the most enthusiastic cheerleader would have to admit that Glasgow was a disappointment. Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, two of the main players in climate diplomacy, didn’t even bother to show up at Cop26 because, it seems, they agree with Greta Thunberg’s memorable description of the summit as a place of talk and no action: ‘blah, blah, blah’.
Much of the talk was of a brighter green future that is just around the corner – a familiar refrain of climate summits. Back in 2011, for example, Barack Obama promised to ‘win the future’ by investing in ‘innovation’. From the perspective of many of those gathered at Cop26, however, the trouble with any capitalist shift to green industrial policy is that it bypasses many parts of the world that have no hope of competing with rich countries on green tech.
In Glasgow there was also a lot of talk about climate finance. Don’t get too excited. That just means status-quo financial capitalism is now entering its ‘green phase’. It’s hardly a transformative project. The response to covid-19 spurred talk of the end of neoliberalism and a return to the interventionist state. But so far the role marked out for the state in climate finance is not to undertake public investment but just to ‘de-risk’ private investments in green projects.
So the dead end of the Cop process was clear to see in Glasgow. Rich countries hold the process to ransom in order to get their way. The consensus model always results in a lowest common denominator agreement. No doubt the cycle of annual summits will continue but perhaps only as an afterthought from now on. In any case, climate politics will have to stop pinning its hopes on UN-brokered agreements and start emphasising the need to address climate change with mechanisms such as degrowth and social justice.
In tackling climate change, the Alliance for Green Socialism advocates a new socialist deal where the transition to renewables includes a redistribution of wealth. That will require a serious political challenge to global capitalism – and about time too. Genuine climate solutions cannot be based on the very market system that created the problem in the first place.
Photo by Ross Sneddon