Can COP26 really live up to its claim of being “normal and inclusive”?

Fri, 15/10/2021 - 16:09

The stakes are at an all-time high for the 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change(UNFCCC) as the fate of the sheer existence of our planet is dependent on its outcome. COP26 was originally scheduled to be held during November 2020, but, like several other international conferences, it was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is now rescheduled to be held this year from 31st October to 12th November in Glasgow and will be hosted by the United Kingdom and Italy. 197 signatory parties involving almost every nation, country, or state are expected to attend the summit. 

COP25, which was held in Madrid, Spain in 2019 ended with a lot of unresolved issues. The main highlight was the unforgettable speech by the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg on climate change accusing world leaders of inaction and half-measures. However, one common thing that was decided upon unanimously by nations was that every country needs to improve their emissions reduction plans and submit new or updated national climate action plans, referred to as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) at COP26. These INDC’s comprise each country’s intended domestic target for reducing or slowing its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and information on topics such as adaptation, loss, damage and other mitigation related financial needs.  

As per the “ratchet mechanism'' decided upon in the Paris agreement in 2015, all countries are expected to commit to enhanced ambition and update their INDC’s every five years. COP26 will be the first of its planned “global stocktake” since then. Therefore, it is the most keenly anticipated conference in the climate science space by scientists, environmentalists, leaders and everyone alike. However, the conference is clouded by a few controversies as literally none of the members has reduced GHG emissions as promised.

First and foremost the power imbalance between the global north and the global south is pretty apparent. The global Covid vaccine apartheid is one such example where humanity has been let down. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of World Health Organization (WHO) at the World Health Assembly in May this year described the vaccine crisis as “a scandalous inequity” wherein around 10 affluent countries alone have received 75% of all vaccines administered so far, while 0.3% have gone to lower-income nations, with the African continent receiving just 1%. This disparity has created a void of trust between the poor and the rich countries. The lack of vaccines in poor countries has made the “normal and inclusive” mission of COP26 by the UK presidency a mere gimmickry. Hence fair participation from the global south under safe conditions seems highly unlikely. Activists believe that COP26 will end up being dominated by participants from rich countries and fair representation from poor countries will be affected due to economic and logistical hurdles. To add to this, a few feminists coalition groups have termed COP26 as inequitable due to a lack of adequate women representation. They claim that those who are worst hit by climate change are being left out of COP26.

Moreover, based on the principle of “Common But Differentiated Responsibility (CBDR)” that was agreed upon in the Paris agreement, wherein on one hand it puts the onus of addressing global environmental destruction on all countries but on the other hand, it recognizes the difference in levels of economic development of countries based on which their contribution to addressing these problems varies.Therefore developed countries are required to provide financial resources to assist developing countries in implementing their climate ambition. The global north has however consistently fallen short of its promise to pay a combined 100 billion dollars a year to the poorer countries. This has made the high cost of adaptation extremely in-affordable to these vulnerable nations. These countries have contributed the least to climate change but end up facing the major brunt of its effects. Discussions on scaling up climate finance as a matter of urgency in order to avoid massive loss of lives and livelihoods should be one of the main agendas in COP26. 

Another worrying factor in the run up to COP26 is its agenda on decisions leading to implementing border adjustment mechanisms and taxes on carbon under the pretext of decarbonization. As per the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) regulated by the EU nations, taxes on imports and rebates on exports that account for variance in carbon pricing policies across different countries is proposed to be charged and will be a major topic of discussion at COP26. However countries which have low or no access to alternative technology will end up facing the major brunt. The higher cost of procurement of non-carbon based energy will rather act as a backlash and hinder the economic growth of such countries. According to Mr. Rajni Ranjan Rashmi, a former principal negotiator for India at the UN climate change negotiations and ex-special secretary in India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change, the fundamental concept of carbon tax is erroneous and should be contested as it is not in sync with the CBDR stipulation mentioned in the Paris Agreement. The CBAM could instead cause importing countries to discriminate against certain exporting countries which could in turn have the potential of disrupting the global trading system. 

On the national front, India is under tremendous pressure to update its nationally determined contributions (NDCs) before the summit. It is expected to crank up its climate ambition and its current emission reduction target is branded as “highly insufficient”. However, India has maintained its stance that it will not succumb to the pressure from developed countries and set forth a carbon neutrality deadline. Experts argue that it is unfair to expect a developing country like India to set a net-zero target as it limits its development prospects. Furthermore, they persist that India has the same right to industrialize as its peers who have done so for the past two centuries. India’s Union Minister of Forest, Environment and Climate Change (MoEFCC) shifted the onus on the developed countries to scale up their climate finance and provide requisite new technology to the developing countries in lieu of their emerging markets as well as infrastructural requirements for their populations. He added that developing countries have the provision in the Paris agreement to update their NDCs as per their national circumstances at any given period and therefore flexibility must be given in fixing timelines for their climate ambition. 

A lot has been debated on what India's strategy should be at the negotiations table of COP26. According to Mr. Shyam Saran, former Foreign Secretary, India should focus on safeguarding its interests and enhancing its development prospects. Adaptation should not be ignored in the pretext of mitigation because we are already witnessing the effects of climate change and the least developed countries (LDCs) and small island developing states (SIDs) are hit the hardest. Contrary to the 100 billion dollars per year climate finance promise given by the developed countries, the Indian Ministry of Finance has estimated that there have been only a billion dollars in new and additional finance transferred to developing countries annually. India should highlight this renege and urge the developed countries to keep up their end of the deal. Apart from this, India should undertake to provide intellectual leadership and be at the forefront of a global climate regime.

Despite all the controversies surrounding COP26, it is still considered a landmark summit. There are huge expectations from it and a lot of anticipation from the climate science community is building up in the runup to the conference. Committing to phasing out fossil fuels and shifting towards clean energy is a proposition that should be backed unanimously by almost every country. At the same time, the shoddy climate finance promises need to be rectified by the developed countries for the climate-vulnerable countries to have a fair chance of adapting and mitigating the catastrophic effects of climate change. The whole world is eagerly waiting to see how the fate of our planet is determined at COP26. Let us hope that the outcome facilitates leaving a liveable planet for our future generations. After all, hope is what we have