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Crucial UN Climate Talks on Track to Fail, Insiders Warn

Two weeks of crucial negotiations at this year’s United Nations climate conference are on a trajectory for failure, key negotiators say, despite official warnings that the upcoming talks are one of the last moments available to avert runaway climate change.

With COP 26 scheduled to open in Glasgow November 1, key officials are acknowledging that the conference will miss its original goal of aligning future greenhouse gas emissions with a 1.5°C target for average global warming, The Guardian reported Monday. Instead, they’re reaching for less ambitious but still important goals—like phasing out coal, delivering overdue and desperately-needed climate finance to the world’s most vulnerable countries, and improving forest protection—to support the broader hope of “keeping 1.5°C alive”.

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“That pathway, in the form of a ‘Glasgow pact’, would allow for future updates to emissions pledges in the next few years that could be sufficient for the world to stay within scientific advice on carbon levels,” the UK-based paper writes.

“We are not going to get to a 45% reduction, but there must be some level of contributions on the table to show the downward trend of emissions,” a senior UN official told The Guardian.

“We are going to try to achieve” the level of emissions reductions dictated by the science of climate change, a United States official added. “No one in the administration wants to admit defeat before we have made the maximum effort. You should set an ambitious agenda and may have to, in the end, take baby steps, but you should plan for long strides. We are taking long strides.”

“I agree with [the UN] and most observers that we will not close the gap completely,” said iconic UK climate economist Lord Nicholas Stern. “But we should hope for good progress in closing that gap, and we should hope for mechanisms and ways forward on how we close that gap further between now and 2025. That’s the way we should think about what is a good, or better, or worse result. A language of success or failure doesn’t seem to me to be very helpful.”

The Guardian recalls that the emission reduction promises that countries brought to the 2015 Paris conference translated into average global warming of at least 3.0°C. That’s why the Paris climate agreement includes a “ratchet mechanism” that called for countries to speed up their climate response every five years through a series of voluntary commitments—in COP-speak, Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).

With last year’s deadline for the first round of “ratchets” postponed by the pandemic, and another year of mounting climate disasters in the books, pressure had been mounting for substantial progress in Glasgow.

Looking Beyond Glasgow

But with pre-COP diplomacy bogging down, The Guardian article shows countries focusing on next steps, even as they prepare for two weeks of gruelling, dawn-to-dusk negotiations.

“The Paris agreement built this five-year cycle of ambition, but there is nothing preventing a country from reviewing and updating its NDC next year,” the senior UN official told veteran Guardian climate reporter Fiona Harvey. “COP 26 is a very important milestone, but it should not be seen as the end of the game, where we give up on 1.5°C.” The end goal “remains in reach,” he added, through “a combination of NDCs, negotiated outcomes, and signals in the real economy.”

But Harvey’s dispatch points to the obstacles still to be overcome, from questions over China’s and India’s participation to the list of major emitters—including Australia, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, Russia, and Saudi Arabia—that have either held back their NDCs or actually scaled back their ambition.

A weekend analysis by the BBC pointed to small signs of progress in the lead-up to the COP. The list of steps forward included China’s “profoundly important” pledge to end financing for international coal projects, the Biden administration’s plan to double its contribution to international climate financing, and individual countries’ or regions’ commitments to methane reductions during last week’s United Nations General Assembly in New York.

The proceedings at the UN also included a “bizarre if powerful speech” by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson that “harnessed the Greek tragedian Sophocles and TV’s Kermit the Frog to accuse some other leaders of behaving like adolescents waiting for someone else to tidy up their mess,” the BBC says. This would be the same British prime minister whose government enabled a new underground coal mine in Cumbria, plans to approve new oil and gas exploration off the Shetland Islands, declined to block construction of a carbon-intensive third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport, cut its international climate finance commitment by £100 million while halving the amount available to the world’s most vulnerable countries, and has utterly failed to avert the vaccine apartheid limiting developing countries’ participation in Glasgow.

Urgency at the UN

Other soundings from the UN General Assembly pointed to the depth and urgency of the climate emergency that countries are supposed to address at the Glasgow COP. Leaders of small island states and coastal nations called for urgent action on sea level rise, particularly from the world’s wealthiest countries, The Hill reports.

“We simply have no higher ground to cede,” said Marshall Islands President David Kabua. “The world simply cannot delay climate ambition any further.”

“The difference between 1.5 and 2.0°C is a death sentence for the Maldives,” said President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.

Guyana President Irfaan Ali said the climate emergency will kill far more people than the COVID-19 pandemic, adding that his low-lying country—which is also engaged in a major offshore oil exploration push with ExxonMobil—already uses seawalls to protect its coastal cities. “We hold out similar hope that the world’s worst emitters of greenhouse gases that are affecting the welfare of all mankind will also come to the realization that, in the end, it will profit them little to emerge king over a world of dust,” he said.

During last week’s UN session, more than 200 civil society organizations from more than 40 countries called for an end to international public financing for fossil fuels, Climate Home News writes. “Pumping more public money into oil and gas projects in countries that are already bearing the brunt of the climate crisis will risk locking in stranded assets, burdening Global South countries with further fiscal debt, and will increase the threat of runaway climate change,” said Climate Action Network-International (CAN-I) Executive Director Tasneem Essop.

The UN also heard statements from three presidents and seven foreign ministers, complete with “apocalyptic images”, arguing that a warming world will also be more violent, The Associated Press says. Irish President Micheál Martin, who chaired the ministerial meeting of the UN Security Council, said climate change “is already contributing to conflict in many parts of the world.” Vietnam President Nguyễn Xuân Phúc described climate change as “a war without gunfire, so to speak, that causes economic damage and losses in lives no less dire than actual wars.”

“Our lives and daily realities are at the nexus of climate change insecurity,” added Somali-Canadian peace activist Ilwad Elman. “The impact of climate change and environmental degradation are also changing what it takes to build peace… because we are experiencing climate-related shocks and stresses.”

UN Secretary General António Guterres agreed that “the effects of climate change are particularly profound when they overlap with fragility and past or current conflicts. When the climate emergency creates scarcity of water or other natural resources, “grievances and tensions can explode, complicating efforts to prevent conflict and sustain peace.”

Obstacles to a Successful COP

But the multiple, urgent calls to action last week didn’t solve a cluster of obstacles surrounding the COP, from slow or confused responses from different countries and regions, to continuing concerns about the UK’s approach to pandemic safety. On Saturday, a senior diplomat from South Africa told Sky News his country hadn’t ruled out boycotting the talks over the UK’s arcane quarantine rules for incoming delegates.

“A decision on whether South Africa will choose not to attend has not been made yet, but we can’t rule it out,” said Clayson Monyela, the country’s head of public diplomacy. “I can’t speak for other countries, but I know the questions South Africa is asking, many of the countries on the continent and in South America are asking similar questions.”

Monyela warned that, “at the rate things are going, you risk having a ‘European COP 26’, to the exclusion of Africa and South America.” Given that COP decisions are meant to be taken by consensus, “how is that then the United Nations conference on climate change? When you have basically banned other countries from participating?”

On September 7, CAN-I released a statement urging the UN climate secretariat to postpone the COP over the UK government’s failure to ensure pandemic safety, particularly for delegates from the Global South. “With just two months to go, it is evident that a safe, inclusive, and just global climate conference is impossible given the failure to allow vaccines to reach millions of people in poor countries, the rising costs of international travel and accommodation, and the uncertainty in the course of the COVID 19 pandemic,” CAN said at the time.

Since then, U.S. President Joe Biden has received a televised COVID-19 booster, in a bid to motivate vaccine-resistant people in a country that has managed to administer 117 shots per 100 population, and is said to have bought up more doses than it needs. Elsewhere, some national vaccination rates are as low as 0.2, 0.5, or 0.6 per hundred, and SciDevNet is reporting that Africa accounts for just 2% of the more than 5.7 billion doses delivered worldwide.

“Africa is lagging behind,” World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a virtual conference earlier this month, and “it does not only hurt Africa. It hurts all of us because the longer vaccine inequity persists, the more the virus will keep circulating and mutating, the longer the socioeconomic disruptions will continue, and the higher the chances that more variants will emerge, rendering vaccines ineffective.”

The WHO’s regional director for Africa, public health physician Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, has more on vaccine equity in an essay for the New York Times.

While the vaccine issues are a new wrinkle for this year’s conference, some of the other tensions are more familiar to the COP process. Recent news reports have had European Union countries struggling to agree to a common time frame for emission reductions, New Zealand embarrassing itself with a five-month delay to its emissions reduction plan, and climate-denying Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison refusing to commit to a fossil fuel phaseout while musing that he might just skip attending the COP altogether.

“I mean, it is another trip overseas, and I have been on several this year and spent a lot of time in quarantine,” Morrison said. “I have to focus on things here and with COVID. Australia will be opening up around that time. There will be a lot of issues to manage and I have to manage those competing demands.”

On The Guardian, an anonymous COP negotiator urged countries to break out “into a new 21st-century diplomacy where we recognize that we all have an interest in the planet.” But so far, they said, “I do not see that happening at these talks.”

Instead, “we are still living in the diplomacy of 200 or 300 years ago. Everyone still appears to be bound by their national interest in these talks. They have a narrow focus on their own country, and they see diplomacy as a zero-sum game: if one wins, another must lose.”

The problem, the negotiator added, is that “it is not like that anymore. With climate change, we all lose. We cannot look at the climate through this narrow focus on national interest as that leads to disaster, as we have seen.”