by Ben Davis
(image: Callum Shaw, Unsplash)
As 125 world leaders swooped in on Glasgow onboard their private jets (horrifying I know) on October 31st, things looked optimistic. COP26 had been hailed as one of the most crucial COPs, occurring at a critical moment in the race to save the planet. The statistics looked bleak yet we felt a sense of optimism and newfound urgency amongst country leadership that looked to yield meaningful change. Yet, as I sit writing this article on the 9th of November, I am not yet feeling as though the COP has been all that successful. In fact, it has drawn my attention to some of the dire problems affecting this and all COP summits that limit their effectiveness and credibility when combating climate change.
Here, I’ll document some of the issues I believe to be impacting the COP26 summit and how this will impede climate action.
China and Russia are not in attendance. Two of the most influential, power hungry nations on the planet are simply not even attending the summit, let alone pretending to be invested in the climate cause. This spells major problems for the rest of the delegates in attendance and to everyone at home. As reported by the BBC, China’s emissions exceed those of all developed nations combined. At approximately 13.8Gt CO2e (2020), China has an enormous task ahead of it if it is to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060 (which by the way is not the same as net zero). Current predictions estimate that China’s emissions will still continue to rise until about 2030, before plateauing at between 14-114.5Gt CO2e and then gradually decreasing. China’s decline to ‘carbon neutrality’ is predicted to eventually result in 3℃ of warming as opposed to the absolute limit of 2℃ documented at the 2015 Paris Agreement and thus it falls far short of what is needed. Reflecting back to COP26, China’s failure to participate gives even more evidence to suggest that the country won’t meet its targets. Russia, amidst all of its political tensions with the West, whilst less of an immediate concern by way of emissions, should still be actively participating in COPs, not least to prevent communication breakdown with the Western superpowers, but to reduce its environmental impacts in line with recommendations.
World leaders have been privately flying into Glasgow. Whilst I can somewhat appreciate that delegates from the far reaches of the planet may find it difficult to attend the summit efficiently and securely without private air travel, the hypocrisy is alarming. We all know that air travel in itself is disastrous for the climate. Private air travel takes commercial air travel and outdoes it by a wide margin. The 1% that fly privately are accountable for 50% of all aviation emissions, churning out 2 tonnes of CO2 per hour on their flights. Compared to a commercial flight that generates 143kg of CO2 per hour (hugely different between long haul/short haul, aircrafts, routes etc..) that's 14x more CO2 emissions from the private jet. Given that approximately 400 private jet flights delivered all of the world leaders to Glasgow, that is a mammoth amount of CO2 emissions in itself, at a summit with the sole principle of reducing emissions. It’s easy to foresee that leaders will fly privately to attend such summits, yet I think it just represents a general lack of care about climate change that echoes through into political discussions and policy making.
There is a lack of accountability at COP summits. Commitments made at COP summits are wishy washy show off statements designed to be politically and economically beneficial. Countries lay out a set of ‘targets’ and put an ambitious, likely unachievable date on it. There is no way of assessing whether a country has met its target and if it hasn't, how sanctions could be imposed. This lack of accountability for one’s targets and actions must be addressed if future COP summits are to make meaningful progress towards climate change. The 2015 Paris Agreement to (aim to) limit warming to 1.5℃ (and set a max limit of 2.0℃ was signed by 192 states. 192 individual governments collectively agreed to limit and actively combat emissions to prevent global temperature rise above 2℃. Yet, we sit here watching COP26 and the past agreements in Paris and before seem to be seldom mentioned. I can accept that science has moved on and that commitments may need to be altered/ tweaked to align with current thinking yet the complete disregard for them highlights that COP summits are ineffective at truly monitoring and ensuring the progress of climate action.
The issues expressed above give a pessimistic view of COP26 and the motivations behind country leadership. I do believe that we can adapt to if not tackle the climate crisis but there still, as of 2021, needs to be a change in the way climate action is brought about by leaders (whose travelling habits also need a shake up!) and monitored by summits like COP26.