COP-Out: What the summit missed

Paddy Stephens

In 2021, a few days after COP26’s conclusion, Emily Thornberry expressed her hope that at the following year’s conference things might be different. Situated close to a beautiful coral reef in a developing country, she hoped, there might be a greater sense of urgency and focus on supporting developing countries. That shift, if it has occurred at all, is almost imperceptible. Yet another climate summit has, admittedly, offered progress; but limited, gradual progress on an immensely urgent and dangerous issue, like a snail racing a Frenchman on a bicycle.

Let’s start with why it exceeded its own deadline. Getting almost 200 countries to agree on a statement is never going to be easy, but this COP was extended due to the most fraught of topics: who will pay. The EU, fairly sensibly, suggested the creation of a new fund to help poorer nations deal with climate disasters,
a positive step forward in terms of international cooperation. With a “broad donor base” which seems to include China, and the creation of a new fund rather than simply slowing into the “mosaic” of existing arrangements provoking the ire of the US, it is unpopular among some important players. Proposals to fund it partly with taxes on fossil fuels, flying, and shipping will enthuse few already worried about the cost of living. The extension hopefully will have given more time to hash out a funding deal.

The elephant in the room, how to restrict carbon emissions, is still stood in the middle of the carpet

Vulnerable countries have argued that richer nations owe this money because they are responsible for most of the total greenhouse gases released historically. Developing countries on this issue are led by Pakistan, whose devastating floods may have started to recede but whose development costs continue to wrack up. They do have a point. That new fund seems to be the main success of the summit. In the best conceivable outcome of this COP27, you, dear reader, now live in a world which has just agreed on a robustly-funded new fund to help with climate disasters. It’s a positive step, I’ll grant you. But it’s also essentially just a caffeine and paracetamol tablet for the symptoms rather than antibiotics for the cause.

The elephant in the room, how to restrict carbon emissions, is still stood in the middle of the carpet, wise and wizened by the passage of 30 years of being unaddressed. The draft document for COP27 notes that countries’ emissions reduction plans are not in line with keeping to 1.5C, the threshold for
dangerous warming. The “rapid, deep, and sustained” cuts required are nowhere to be seen. Many argue that emissions would need to peak in
2025 to keep this goal alive, but that has not been included in the draft text. Reports said that Brazil, China, and Russia were pushing to stick to the Paris goal of “well below 2C”; they argue that the more ambitious target is no longer possible.

And here we come back to COP26’s sticking point, a conversation continued this year, and doubtless into the next: what do we do about
fossil fuels? As the ongoing dispute rages between COP’s Judean People’s Front and People’s Front of Judea – I am referring of course to the “phase
down” and “phase out” camps – concrete progress on fossil fuels remains sparse. The International Energy Agency warned this week that coal use needs to be slashed by 90 % by 2050 to limit global heating to 1.5C. Rather than yelling about the need for other countries to stop using coal, maybe developed countries should reflect on the reasons behind their use of it.

There is a significant opportunity cost in relinquishing coal

Employing around 13 million in India, coal mines offer jobs in developing countries in areas that are, as in Britain before the 80s, poor and rural, like Heilongjiang in the far North-East of China. In both India and China, the choice examples of the “other countries pollute more than us so why should we pollute less” crowd, coal is plentiful. And trying to suddenly put an end to the coal industry would be to condemn millions of people in poorer areas to unemployment, as Thatcher did to many communities in this country, but in a context where social safety nets are much weaker.

To be clear, I am not defending the coal industry. But there is a logic which perpetuates it: the cheapness of coal and the reliance of communities upon it. There is a significant opportunity cost in relinquishing coal, as is necessitated by the threat of climate change. The reality is that if developed countries genuinely want others to move faster to cleaner fuels, they need to be prepared to offer not just undelivered commitments for money, but actual cold, hard cash.

Image: Visible Hand via Creative Commons.

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