COP26: Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

Image credit: Dr Emily Hite

‘Do you like scary movies?’ (Scream 1996) This is not a movie. This is real life. The latest instalment of the global climate change conference, COP26, began on All Hallows’ Eve in Glasgow last week on 31 October 2021 – and make no mistake, climate change is scary. While Halloween is about ghouls and goblins, overconsumption of candy, and movies with terrifying endings, this year’s climate conference in Glasgow needs to address the global climate crisis. If we do not, we could be faced with a real-life terrifying ending.

Upon arriving in Scotland, the streets were crawling with revellers enjoying the spirit of Halloween. A little more of that spirit needs to be brought into the negotiations themselves. As a COP veteran (if I do say so myself), this particular Conference of the Parties (COP) has been particularly chaotic. Among observers, youth voices, indigenous activists and civil society groups there is a sense of urgency in the air. And world leaders opened the conference with a sombre warning. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres openly declaring ‘We are digging our own graves.’ However, the language of urgency has all-to-often not matched actual action that will adequately address the global climate crisis that we have been warned about for well over 30 years. The ghouls and witches roaming the streets of Scotland this week are an uneasy parallel with the eerie spectre of climate change that hangs over all of us.

In the first week of COP26, we heard many pledges and declarations from countries to increase ambition. The first two days – the Leaders’ Summit – had India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announce that India would be net-zero by 2070. Nigeria went a step further, with President Muhammadu Buhari pledging to cut its emissions to net-zero by 2060. On 2 Nov, over 100 countries signed the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forest and Land Use – committing to end and even reverse deforestation by 2030. This was even signed by Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who have vast tracks of rain forests and high levels of deforestation. The US and EU’s joint initiative to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030, was also signed by 105 world leaders. John Kerry, U.S. special climate envoy, declaring that methane is ‘20 to 80 times more destructive’ than carbon dioxide. So far, 26 countries and organisations have pledged to ‘end new direct public support for the international unabated fossil fuel energy sector by the end of 2022.’ Again, no small pledge, ending the financing of overseas oil, gas and coal, that include the US, UK, Italy, as well as the European Investment Bank (EIB) among the signatories. Then, on Thursday, 4 November, more than 40 countries vowed to phase out coal, leading to COP President Alok Sharma to declare ‘the end of coal is in sight.’

So, the first week was full of declarations! And I would stress that these are no small feats. However, the absence of certain world leaders (Putin, Xi Jinping etc.) has been seen as a lack of ambition from key emitters – significantly, China made no new commitments this week – a major setback in global ambition. China had previously said they would end investment in coal abroad, however, they, along with the US, India and Australia (all major consumers of coal), have not signed up to phase out coal. While there have been many advancements at COP26, with every development, there have been setbacks. The global climate change regime is quite simply not on track to achieve the objectives as set out in 2015 in the Paris Climate Change Agreement six years ago.

What’s more, while ambition is important, declarations and pledges need to turn into actual action. What are the numbers? The strategies that will ensure countries live up to their promises. In the months and weeks in the lead up to COP26, most countries put in their second round of NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions). These are the national climate strategies that countries pledge to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that are to address the climate challenge and limit global temperature rises to 1.5°C. While this approach to solving the climate crisis was necessary after the failure of previous efforts to limit global warming (Kyoto or Copenhagen anyone?), current submissions are simply not ambitious enough. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 6th assessment report that came out in August 2021 was unequivocal – with the current trajectory, we will exceed 1.5°C within the next two decades.

Climate change is multigenerational and measured in timelines of at least 20-30 years – it is the measurement of weather over large time scales and around the globe. In the global climate regime, countries talk of targets for 2030, 2050, even 2100. If the IPCC is to be believed, and as it is the synthesis of literally thousands of scientific reports this seems a safe bet, we do not have this time if we are going to achieve the objectives as set out in Paris and limit the harmful effects of anthropogenic climate change. COP26 should be viewed as a crucial step towards achieving these goals. This was the year that we were supposed to see a ratcheting up of ambition since the previous NDCs were submitted after the ratification of the Paris Agreement. However, we need to rely on countries not just to declare, but act on climate change. Prior to COP, both Canada and the US were praised for the increased ambition in their new NDCs. However, if you look at action actually being taken at the national level, they are not even living up to their promises they made in their first round of NDCs – so what are we to believe with all of these promises? The world needs to act now, and if world leaders and policy makers with industry are not prepared to act on seriously eliminating the use of fossil fuels in the near future, then temperatures will continue to rise.

Greta Thunberg addressed the Youth March, declaring COP26 a failure, a PR stunt for countries, accusing leaders of greenwashing their country’s emissions. Many developing countries and small islands states here have taken up the mantra ‘enough of the blah blah blah…’ This is being echoed through the halls of power as well as on the streets which saw 100,000 people march on Glasgow in the middle the conference. The voice of the indigenous groups, of the youth, of the people are crying out to the conference negotiators – enough with the empty promises, the time for action is now!

And they are right. This is urgent, and this isn’t a movie. The world is already on fire. Sea level rise and coastal erosion are risking the very lives and cultural heritages of small island states. Desertification and droughts have intensified in many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. Extreme weather events, from cyclones, wildfires, mudslides are intensifying and destroying communities from Sierra Leone to California. Climate change is already a very real and scary reality for many across the world. Small island states and indigenous leaders here at COP26, are pressing for increased mitigation measures. African states are pressing for finance for adaptation projects, as many are already experiencing a warming way beyond 1.5°C. Loss and damage is not just a concept used by developing countries to push for action, but a real and present danger. The destruction of lives and livelihoods because of climate change is here. And it is scary. And this is not new. At COP24 Katowice, Former President of the Maldives and Chair of AOSIS, Mohamed Nasheed, made an impassioned plea to the international community to make urgent commitments to reduce global carbon emissions stating:

We are not prepared to die … We are not going to become the first victims of the climate crisis … We Maldivians are a nation of survivors. And we will do everything we can to ensure the survival of our country. But we can only survive as a nation if we also survive as a planet.

With a week left of COP26, politicians and policy makers need to move forward quickly with substantial increases in ambition, with actual strategies explaining how they are going to achieve these targets. At the end of next week, countries will go back home. What then? Will the world still be watching? At the Leaders’ Summit, Boris Johnson stated that ‘the tragedy is that this is not a movie … It’s one minute to midnight on that doomsday clock and we need to act now.’ No, it is not a movie, Mr Johnson, this a scary reality. This is our future. We need to keep watching, listening and holding these politicians to account – enough of the empty promises. In its 2018, and now backed up by the 2021 report, the IPCC told the world that we have until 2030 to solve the climate crisis. But little has changed. That’s terrifying. We cannot afford to wait for COP66, we need governments to act now. We know who is lurking in the deep (Jaws 1975); this Boogeyman is real, and ‘the Boogeyman is coming’ (Halloween 1978).

Dr Simon Chin-Yee is a Lecturer at UCL. He is currently at COP26.