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Weak commitments from the G20 cast a shadow over COP26’s opening

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COP26, THE UN climate summit that began in Glasgow on Sunday, has got off to an inauspicious start. The city itself is grappling with a strike by rubbish collectors, who complain, among other things, of being attacked by growing numbers of rats. Incisors are being bared at the conference, too. On one side are the wealthy countries who want the summit to appear a success, but are loth to stump up the cash and commitments to make it so. On the other are the developing countries which feel the existential threat of climate change most keenly, and are unwilling to have their concerns smoothed over to make the conference look a success.

On Sunday the first tranche of 30,000 delegates gathered in the vast, spaceship-like conference centre in Glasgow for COP26’s opening plenaries. Kicking off proceedings, Patricia Espinosa, the executive secretary for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, told countries that averting the worst consequences of climate change is “entirely within our grasp”, but that it “depends on the completion of our work here”.

At about the same time, 2000km to the south-east, leaders from the G20 club of mostly rich countries—which are collectively responsible for around 80% of current greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide—were wrapping up their own meeting in Rome. That summit was meant to galvanise international political leadership ahead of COP26. It failed to do so. After two days of negotiations the final statement on climate change was insipid, doing little more than reaffirm countries’ commitments to the goals laid out in the Paris agreement in 2015 to “limit warming” to 2°C above pre-industrial efforts and “pursue efforts” to keep it to 1.5°C.

They promised to end overseas financing for coal projects, though it has already largely been curtailed after China, South Korea and Japan, which provide 95% of such funding, already pledged to stop. No pledges were made about domestic coal use beyond a token commitment to “support” countries phasing it out, nor was a precise date for doing so agreed on. They promised to slash leaks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, again reiterating a commitment that has already been made. They recognised the “key relevance” of getting global net emissions to zero by mid-century but skirted round making 2050 the actual target for doing so. And they promised to strengthen national plans to cut emissions “where necessary”. New commitments were notably absent, as were concrete ways to achieve them.

Such wateriness can be attributed, at least in part, to leaders’ desire to kick off COP26 from a position of consensus, rather than acrimony. But it also highlights how difficult progress is to achieve. Leaders emerged from the meeting in Rome pointing fingers at each other. Joe Biden, America’s president, attributed the G20’s shortcomings to a lack of meaningful participation by China and Russia, neither of whom sent representatives in person (and who do not intend to do so for COP26). Xi Jinping, China’s president, dialled in by video to call instead for developed countries to take the lead on emissions reduction and to fulfil their long-touted promises of providing climate financing for developing countries. Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, called countries’ commitments ahead of COP26 “drops in a rapidly-warming ocean” but declared a call from Narendra Modi, his Indian counterpart, for G20 leaders to offer 1% of their GDP to help developing countries make the transition away from fossil fuels to be “unlikely in the short term”.

Negotiations between at least 120 world leaders begin in earnest today. The aim of the conference—described by Alok Sharma, the COP26 president, as “to keep 1.5 alive”—requires agreement on both a marked reduction in emissions by the end of this decade and on the later implementation of schemes to remove already-emitted carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Unlike Paris five years ago, Glasgow will be judged a success or failure according to what countries can actually deliver, rather than what they can simply promise. A huge amount remains to be done.

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This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.