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Vulnerable countries’ urgent calls for global climate action collided with disappointing news from a handful of major carbon polluters as delegates gathered over the weekend for this year’s high-stakes UN climate conference, COP 26, in Glasgow.
“It’s a make-or-break time for the world,” wrote veteran climate advocate Sunita Narain, director general of the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi, India. “Science has already spoken about the dire emergency that stares us in the face,” but “we no longer need scientists to tell us this. We can see the devastation in our world—every day there is news about another region that has faced an extreme weather catastrophe. As I write this, my mind is numbed by images from the northern Indian Himalayan state of Uttarakhand and the southern state of Kerala, where mountains have crashed and lives and homes have been lost.”
Last week, the Globe and Mail reported that leaders from hard-hit African countries were planning a tougher line on negotiations in Glasgow. Gabon is leading the continent’s negotiating team, and Environment Minister Lee White “is readying an arsenal of arguments” about the importance of his country’s forests—as a catalyst for rainfall across much of the continent, and a resource for preventing widespread drought that would in turn trigger a wave of migration out of the region and war within.
“One of the problems we have in the climate negotiations is the skepticism among African countries and others because of a whole series of promises that haven’t been honoured,” White said. “The biggest problem in the negotiations is the lack of confidence between the developed and developing nations.”
Small island states are in a similar position, states U.S. National Public Radio (NPR), at a conference where one-third of them have been unable to send their regular negotiating teams due either to pandemic restrictions or limited funds.
The Washington Post’s Today’s WorldView newsletter has an update on the vaccine apartheid that has made lifesaving COVID-19 treatments largely unavailable to countries that are also on the front lines of the climate emergency, prompting an early September statement from Climate Action Network-International urging the UN to postpone COP 26.
“It’s existential,” Ambassador Janine Felson, head of delegation for Belize and an advisor to the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), told NPR. “If you think back to the massive hurricanes like Dorian, María, and Irma that just ripped through the entire Caribbean and also impacted the United States—when you think of that and you think of the relative size of these countries, you recognize immediately what is at stake. It’s our lives. It’s our children’s future. It’s the entire nation. One hurricane can expand over an entire island.”
Felson pointed to both the challenge and the urgency AOSIS will face in making its case to bigger, richer countries, many of which have no connection to small island states. “It’s easy to overlook the small, but we are the ones on the front line,” she told NPR. “We are the ones who are experiencing the impacts of others continuing to do things with a business-as-usual approach.”
The 46-member Least Developed Countries bloc issued a weekend statement that called for “real progress” on a 50% global emissions cut by 2030 and stressed the urgent need for wealthy countries to deliver on their international climate finance promises.
“Raising global ambition and increasing climate finance is paramount to our survival,” said LDC Group Chair Sonam P. Wangdi of Bhutan. “But of course words alone are not enough. Leaders must back their commitments with plans and policies that lead to real action, and real emissions reductions, phasing out fossil fuels and accelerating a just transition to the clean energy future we need for a safe and fair world. We cannot leave Glasgow without strong commitments that will ensure the survival of the billion people living in the LDCs, now and in the future.”
To address those priorities in the face of the “sheer fury of nature”, Narain said countries will have to rework the UN climate process itself.
“Over the past few decades, climate negotiations have been ossified to such an extent that they have kind of lost their purpose,” she explained. “A myriad of committees, institutions, and funds have been set up purportedly to manage climate change—but this maze is just full of papers and wordage.” The result is a climate process “detached from reality,” where “negotiations are lost in fights over commas, full-stops, and other punctuations, and discussions and decision papers that make no sense to even most negotiators. They have literally become meaningless.”
The solution, she says, is to replace “the endless process” with a commitment to multilateralism that holds powerful polluters to account, rather than bullying the poor into submission, sets tough carbon reduction goals for 2030, and leads to equitable sharing of the remaining carbon budget that will keep average global warming within a 1.5°C limit.
But despite the combination of front-line urgency and the soaring potential of decarbonization technologies, the avalanche of news leading into the COP included disappointing reports from some of the world’s biggest carbon polluters.
Australia delivered a 2050 net-zero target with no commitment to increase its emission reduction goals for 2030, amounting to a plan with zero detail and zero ambition. Australia also indicated it would steer clear of a global methane reduction agreement, to which at least 35 countries are expected to sign on in Glasgow, Reuters reported.
New Zealand might yet join the methane deal, but received tough pushback over the weekend for an updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris climate agreement that used questionable math to back up a 50% emissions reduction promise for 2030, civil society analysts said.
Russia is hinging its 2060 target for carbon neutrality on the ability of its vast forests to sequester carbon, an approach that has drawn criticism and skepticism from observers, the Washington Post wrote.