Analysis. COP26 opened in chaos. Nations cannot agree on an end date for coal, and some of the worst polluters did not bother to attend. Boris Johnson quoted Greta, but an agreement is not expected..

Major powers absent in Glasgow, UN’s Guterres says we’re ‘digging our own graves’

A worse-for-wear and almost one-dimensional multilateralism took center stage in Glasgow at the opening of COP26, against a backdrop of trade wars and rising energy prices that are making governments shake with fear.

The big UN summit, six years after the Paris Agreement, is meant to commit the world to implementing and improving on the 2015 decisions. The day after the ambiguous conclusions of the G20 in Rome, which willingly gave in to the demands of the big extra CO2 producers, the US and EU, the leaders of the great democracies competed in rhetoric in the opening speeches, in response to the repeated alarm of the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres: “it’s time to say enough,” “enough of brutalizing biodiversity,” “enough killing ourselves with carbon,” we must “save humanity” instead of “digging our own graves.”

Meanwhile, the leaders of the main authoritarian regimes were absent or far away: China and Russia are among the major culprits for CO2 emissions, but Xi Jinping did not even join by video (as he did at the G20) and instead sent a paper in which he called for “doing more.” Vladimir Putin was absent, as were Brazil’s Bolsonaro and Mexico’s President Lopez Obrador. Erdogan decided at the last moment to return to Turkey. For India’s Modi, coal neutrality will be reached in 50 years, by 2070.

Left in the middle were the poor countries, victims of a history of inequality where “those who’ve done the least to cause this problem are being the hardest hit,” said the English naturalist David Attenborough. They are waiting for the materialization of the commitment made 12 years ago of funding in the amount of $100 billion per year for transition and adaptation, while the G20 has updated the deadline for compliance with the goal to 2023 at the earliest. According to the representative of the Maldives, an island nation, “the difference between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees, for us, really is a death sentence.”

The host, Boris Johnson, even quoted Greta Thunberg, who called on everyone to sign an indictment of “betrayal” of the leaders: “all those promises will be nothing but blah blah blah” if there is a failure in Glasgow, which would mean “the anger and impatience of the world will be uncontainable”; “yes, it’s going to be hard, but yes, we can do it”; “let’s get to work.”

Joe Biden, who had to scale back his own environmental reform, assured that the U.S. was “committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52% by 2030” compared to 2005. For the U.S. president, who apologized for Trump’s exit from the Paris Agreement, fighting climate change is “a moral and economic imperative.” Then he called on the trump card that the West hopes to have up its sleeve: salvation will come from technology, we will be able to produce energy without polluting and in the quantity necessary to avoid the changing of the model.

Mario Draghi spoke about “alternatives” to renewables. Israel offered its technology. But even Prince Charles had doubts: many countries “are already feeling the devastating impact of climate change” and “the cost of inaction is far higher than the cost of prevention.” Emmanuel Macron said that trade agreements should “reflect climate commitments,” after a French court convicted the government of failing to meet its climate goals. “Ambition,” “solidarity,” “trust and transparency” are needed according to the French president, who sang praises to the EU, France and Britain, calling on the “others” to “raise their ambitions.” The president of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, is putting another €5 billion on the table (after a total of €27 billion for 2020).

For the COP26 president, Alok Sharma, what we have to do in Glasgow is “in many ways harder than in Paris” in 2015. Back then, with plenty of difficulty, agreement was reached. Now there will be a test of credibility of the 2015 Agreement: we are at the first review, which takes place every five years (the most vulnerable countries gathered in the Climate Vulnerable Forum are asking for it to be every year). This session is meant to review the rules of transparency, the calendar, the budget planned for 2030, and updating the functioning of the international carbon market (left in suspense by COP24 and 25) with new trading rules, on which Angela Merkel insisted.

A new agreement is not expected in Glasgow, but rather a series of concrete and particular decisions. There is a need for “honesty, seriousness and clarity,” says the negotiator of the Paris Agreement, Laurence Tubiana, director of the European Climate Fund. The only concrete result so far is that, with the measures promised by the states so far, at the end of the century there would be an average increase in temperature of 2.7 degrees (i.e. a small drop from +3.2 degrees, if nothing at all is done)—“a climate catastrophe,” according to the UN.

The G20, i.e. the 20 richest nations that produce 80% of CO2, committed to “continue efforts” to stay at +1.5 degrees, but avoided giving a precise date for carbon neutrality (“towards the middle of the century,” while China and Russia want 2060) and refused to commit to end coal mining (there is only the promise, already made at the G7, not to finance more coal-fired power plants abroad from the end of this year). Seventeen countries out of 20 have specified their goals of coal neutrality, and they range from 2050 (the EU, with a 55% decrease in 2030), to 2070 for India, while Indonesia and Mexico have not made decisions.

Australia, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and Turkey do not intend to make commitments for 2030 and postpone to mid-century.

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