The fact that the COP26 has left the main sticking points that needed to be addressed unresolved is well-known. The weight and scope of the opposing geographical divisions, no longer just North-South but also East-West, are aspects that need to be focused on in order to understand how they can fuel or halt the progress that is needed.
The first relationship to analyze is a historical one: North-South. The principle of common but differentiated responsibilities requires the countries of the global North, which have emitted more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, to compensate with more ambitious measures and financial transfers for the lesser responsibility and greater vulnerability of the global South. This principle, enshrined in the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement, informs climate law and should guide the establishment of international commitments.
Phuntsho Wangdi, the Bhutanese president of the Least Developed Countries Group, reminded the COP26 audience that “Words alone are not enough. 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.”
In the end, they did leave Glasgow without strong commitments. Not just in terms of emissions, but also in terms of financial commitments. The “sincere regret” with which the COP26 has again postponed decisions on the climate finance front, after two weeks of announcements and declarations of solidarity, gives the measure of the problem. Thus, the $100 billion annually that has been promised for more than 10 years disappeared from the text of the agreement.
This is another example of how the power relationship between the “rich” North and the “poor” South reveals the inequities it carries with it: if we go beyond the rhetoric, North diplomacy is working to crystallize inequalities instead of removing them.
The other geographical opposition that conditions climate governance is that between the East and West of the world, or between the industrialized West (particularly North America and Europe) and the Asian giants.
Today, China emits 27% of global greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, more than the United States, India, Russia and Japan together. This figure must be contextualized, as Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wenbin did in Glasgow, where he recalled that “the US’s cumulative historical emissions level per capita is eight times that of China.” A recent report by Bloomberg, entitled “The Chinese Companies Polluting the World More Than Entire Nations,” calculated the contribution of Chinese industrial sectors by comparing them with the emissions of entire countries.
Missing from this reconstruction, however, is an important question: who is consuming those products? The demand from which markets is being sustained by the emissions of the mega-production poles that are shipping goods all over the world from China? Meanwhile, India for its part still gets 70% of its energy from coal, and demand is expected to grow faster than in any other country in the next 20 years.
So there is no doubt that the role of Asian economies, with China in the lead, in climate negotiations is of the utmost importance. Just as there is no doubt that it is a convenient alibi for Western countries to point to the two giants as the main obstacles to the launch of effective policies. The truth, according to the Climate Action Tracker, is that no country in the world has targets compatible with the 1.5°C warming goal. Those of Europe and the US are rated “insufficient,” those of Australia, Canada, Indonesia and Brazil are “highly insufficient,” while those of Russia, Iran and Turkey are “dramatically insufficient.”
The issue is very complex. The objective, however, is clear: to reduce emissions sufficiently to the point of not deviating from the safety trajectories projected by science. The division of responsibilities cannot be merely arithmetical, and must balance different criteria: the national carbon budget, emission load per capita, and equity-based approaches.
One must also keep in mind that the new global geopolitics is multi-centric, even if the political commentators who continue to assign world leadership to the EU and the US are finding this hard to come to terms with. Making progress takes more than diplomatic effort: It takes genuine cooperation and a good dose of forward thinking.
Marica Di Pierri is part of the Associazione A Sud.