Hope Eroding as COP26 Climate Pledges Fall Short

Hopes are already fading that the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow will result in any new deal for a significant cut in global greenhouse gas emissions, after China and Russia declined to attend the conference and India’s pledges fell short of expectations. 

The summit got under way Monday as dozens of world leaders addressed the delegates, defending their performances on climate action and in some cases presenting new emissions targets.

Over 25,000 delegates are attending the two-week conference, including heads of state, government ministers, nongovernmental organizations, official observers and media.

Hundreds of protesters and members of the public are also gathering outside the secure “Blue Zone” on the banks of Glasgow’s River Clyde. The area has become official United Nations territory for the duration of the summit. 

Scientists have warned that a failure to agree to much deeper cuts in greenhouse gas emissions will result in catastrophic and irreversible climate change. 

Global warning

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres set a grim tone in his address to world leaders. 

“Our addiction to fossil fuels is pushing humanity to the brink. We face a stark choice: Either we stop it, or it stops us. And it’s time to say ‘enough.’ Enough of brutalizing biodiversity. Enough of killing ourselves with carbon. Enough of treating nature like a toilet. Enough of burning and drilling and mining our way deeper. We are digging our own graves,” Guterres said. 

“The science is clear. We know what to do. First, we must keep the global goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius alive,” he added, referring to the goal of limiting the average global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. 

Will that warning be heeded?

India is the world’s third-biggest polluter. Hopes were high ahead of the summit that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi would seek to grab the limelight in presenting ambitious new plans to cut emissions.

“Between now and 2030, India will reduce its total projected carbon emissions by 1 billion tonnes (metric tons). … By 2070, India will achieve the target of net-zero emissions,” Modi told delegates, describing the policies as “an unprecedented contribution by India towards climate action.” 

However, the target date of 2070 is 20 years later than the U.N. target of 2050. 

In his address Monday, U.S. President Joe Biden said “we only have a brief window” to fight climate change. Earlier this year, he had pledged that by the end of the decade, the U.S. would cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 50% or more below 2005 levels. 

While Biden was speaking in Glasgow, however, U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, a fellow Democrat, said he did not yet fully support the $1.75 trillion bill in Congress that included more than $550 billion in climate spending. 

The White House also released on Monday its plan to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

No-shows 

Arguably, the biggest story of the summit is not what’s being said on stage but rather is who hasn’t shown up at all. President Xi Jinping of China, which is by far the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, is not attending the summit. Xi offered a written statement calling on richer nations to do more to support developing countries in dealing with climate change, but he made no new significant pledges to cut emissions. 

Xi’s absence is a major setback, said China analyst Martin Thorley of the University of Exeter. “Xi Jinping’s no-show at COP26 is an important reality check for those who expect enlightened climate policy from the Chinese Communist Party.” 

Thorley continued, “Whilst it is argued that authoritarian rule gives the leadership more scope to implement ambitious climate policy, it also gives the leaders greater capacity to block out civil society pressure that in other parts of the world is driving change. … Though there is genuine concern about the climate in some quarters within the Party, the threat to the CCP’s supremacy by power shortages mean that continued reliance on coal will be tolerated,” he wrote in an email to VOA. 

“That Xi Jinping addressed COP26 in writing only will be a massive disappointment to organizers and campaigners alike. Until very recently, China was considered a genuine leader on climate change,” Thorley added.

Others argue that COP26 can make significant progress without Xi.

“(Xi’s absence) could be probably because they don’t have too much else to offer,” said Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, head of climate and energy at the World Wildlife Fund and the former president of the 2014 COP20 climate summit in Lima, Peru. 

“And probably they would prefer to avoid the pressure of being in a COP (climate summit); that could be the reality. But let’s recognize that Minister Xie (Xie Zhenhua, China’s special climate envoy), it’s probably his tenth COP. He’s a top-level officer of the Chinese government — I think that is a good signal. But for sure, we are missing President Xi,” he added. 

President Vladimir Putin of Russia, which is the world’s fourth-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, is also absent. 

Among climate campaigners at COP26, the disappointment is already palpable. 

Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist who has inspired youth protests around the world, told a rally outside the summit, “This COP26 is so far just like the previous COPs. Add that has led us nowhere. They have led us nowhere. 

“Inside COP, there are just politicians and people in power pretending to take our futures seriously. Pretending to take the present seriously of the people who are being affected already today by the climate crisis. Change is not going to come from inside there,” she said. 

COP26 shouldn’t be written off so early, however, said Pulgar-Vidal. “To have finally a collective vision for the world that nobody’s doubting or questioning, I think it is a good thing. But now we need to have more clear actions, not only targets but more clear actions.”

Positives 

Not all hope was lost, however. According to The Associated Press, a coalition moved Monday to put $1.7 billion toward protecting Indigenous peoples and tropical forests in the coming four years. Involved are the governments of the U.S., United Kingdom, Norway, Germany and the Netherlands as well as 17 private investors including The Ford Foundation, the Bezos Earth Fund and Bloomberg Philanthropies. 

Amid the bleak warnings from the speakers at the summit, Max Blain, a spokesman for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, said “we are seeing some positive signs so far” that leaders are understanding the seriousness of the situation, according to AP. 

“We expect to see countries to come forward with some more commitments” during the summit, Blain said. “We continue to encourage that those are ambitious, measurable targets that can be delivered particularly in the next decade.” 

The president of Spain, Pedro Sánchez, also vowed to increase his country’s climate finance by half by 2023 as part of a global effort by wealthy countries to help developing nations combat and adapt to the changing climate, the AP reported. 

World leaders will address the summit again Tuesday, before most head back to their home countries, while the negotiations continue at ministerial level. COP26 is due to finish November 12, but it could run longer if it looks as though the talks will succeed in reaching a new climate deal. 

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press. 

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