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There is no Planet-B

The Conference of Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is an annual ritual. The nearly universal members (197 countries) meet every year to discuss joint strategies to combat climate change.

However, all the COPs are not equal. Among them the COP21 held in 2015 in Paris is given great importance. That was where the member countries agreed to take initiatives and steps (Nationally Determined Contributions – NDCs) to limit the increase in Earth’s temperature (global warming) to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial level (and preferably limit this increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius). The industrialised (developed) world, among the most polluters, agreed to raise finances enabling developing countries to achieve their ambitious NDCs. A $100 billion/annum Climate Finance Fund (CFF) was to be established by the year 2020 by the developed world.

The countries were given five years (that is: in COP26) to report progress on their NDCs. Based on the NDCs submitted in Paris, global warming was predicted to be 2.7 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level by the year 2100. Since 2.7 was way higher than the target of 2.0 degrees Celsius, the members were asked to raise their decarbonisation ambitions and, along with the performance report, submit revised NDCs in COP26. That is why like COP21, COP26 also became important. COP26 had to be deferred by a year due to Covid-19. This delay made it even more important, as the world had lost another year of action, meaning even higher ambitions to contain global warming in time.

After spending an extra day and a half than the allocated two weeks for COP26, the parties (members) agreed on a joint plan of action, called the Glasgow Climate Pact (GCP). They have decided to enhance their efforts to achieve Paris Agreement goals.

Scientists predict that, if implemented in letter and spirit, the revised NDCs submitted in Glasgow would limit global warming to 2.4 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level by 2100; still higher than the target of 2 degrees Celsius but better than the Paris pledges.

Worried about this situation, more than 100 (mainly developing) countries in Glasgow pushed for the NDCs to be reviewed and refreshed annually instead of five years (the review cycle agreed in Paris). In their opinion, shortening the cycle could help any mid-course correction and thus accelerate decarbonisation. However, Britain, the EU, China and Saudi Arabia blocked that suggestion.

Both sides made a compromise. The suggestion of developing countries for the annual review of NDCs was accepted for the 2030 goals only. At the same time, the pledges for 2035 goals would be reviewed after five years – in 2025.

The like-minded countries present at COP26 formed issue-specific ‘coalitions of the willing’ to overcome the lack of consensus on decarbonisation measures. These coalitions went beyond national states and included cities and the private sector too. These coalitions came up with their own decarbonisation plans, such as phasing out coal for power production, reducing methane emissions, greening financial services and industry, ending illegal deforestation, and ending Oil and Gas exploration beyond 2021 etc. Almost all these coalitions were led by one or more developed countries; one or more developed/emerging economies was conspicuously missing from each coalition. Pakistan joined the coalitions on methane emission reduction, and ending illegal deforestation.

One of the salient features of COP26 was the realisation that use of fossil fuels is a significant cause of global warming. Although petrostates were reluctant, in-depth discussions about phasing out coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies took place during negotiations. It was proposed that without specifying a timeline, such phasing out should be made part of the GCP. However, India, China, and Australia resisted this move.

The agreement on the GCP could only be reached when, on the insistence of India, the promise to “phase out” coal power and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies were replaced with the phrase “phase down”. The US (second-largest emitter of CO2) did not oppose India’s position, later on giving a justification that in the future, technological advancement may help atmospheric “carbon-capture and storage,” thus minimising the need to curb fossil fuels.

The flip side of that development is that the largest emitters of CO2 will keep using fossil fuel and emit CO2 for the time being. However, the good news is that for the first time there is a mention of fossil fuel and fossil fuel subsidies as a reason for global warming in a UNFCCC COP document.

Many developing countries whose primary reliance for power is coal were expecting some financial support for the energy transition. Most of them are still waiting for promised climate financing to be operational. However, in a welcome move, America, Britain, European Union, France, and Germany agreed to mobilise $8.5 billion over the next three to five years for greening South Africa’s power sector. In exchange, South Africa has agreed to decarbonise its coal-dependent power sector.

Another positive development in Glasgow was modest progress on global carbon markets rules (breaking a long hiatus on these issues), giving more clarity on how countries could buy and sell carbon offsets. Although far from greenwash-proof, the rules closed the worst loopholes, paving the way for a boom in the trading of emissions credits.

Despite raising their ambitions (revised NDCs), most developing countries felt betrayed on the climate financing front. Besides the $100 billion fund (which has not yet fully materialised), they were demanding separate funds as compensation for the loss and damage they had faced (and will be facing in the future) due to the global warming caused mainly by the emission of industrialised countries. Developing countries, especially in Africa, are also expecting more ambitious climate finance deals to implement their NDCs.

The US, Britain, and the EU stymied the loss and damage finance and bought open-ended time for coming up with any tangible commitment on it. Likewise, they also ignored the demand of developing countries for a more ambitious post-2025 climate-finance deal by promising “further discussion” on it.

The only snail’s pace of progress on climate finance is an agreement by rich countries to at least double the amount for climate adaptation, such as building sea walls, by 2025. However, it’s worth mentioning that there will not be any additional funds for adaptation. Instead, internal allocations would be made for adaptation and mitigation from the already promised CFF.

Principles of ‘climate justice’ and ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ stress that the higher the share in emission by a country, the higher its financial contribution should be for mitigation and adaptation to global warming. However, the developed world is not willing to abide by these principles.

I personally feel that COP26 (yet again) failed developing nations. However, we the people of the developing world cannot keep waiting for funds from the richer world to leave a livable planet for our future generations. Without compromising on our demand on the developed world to pay for its emission, we should keep doing whatever we can through our available means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt climate-smart ways of living.

They say the sign of successful negotiations is the fact that nobody leaves them happy. If it is true, then COP26 was almost successful. However, it is not about saving a particular event from failure. Delaying tactics and the inability to meet the Paris goals may fail humanity. In the absence of ‘Planet-B’, we will have to save Planet Earth, for which the time to act is now.

Dr Abid Qaiyum Suleri, "There is no Planet-B," The News. 2021-11-18.
Keywords: Environmental sciences , Climate change , Global warming , Temperature , Pollution , Atmosphere , Paris , China , GCP , CFF , NDCs