Contributed by Robert Lyman © 2021. Robert’s full bio can be read here.
The 26th Conference of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 26) concluded in Glasgow, Scotland on November 12 2021. The conclusion was accompanied by a virtual avalanche of announcements and claims by the United Nations, various other multilateral international organizations and environmentalist organizations about how much “progress” had been made. It is important to have a more accurate assessment of exactly what was agreed by whom and what was merely part of an extremely elaborate political and bureaucratic process.
Observers of past major climate conferences may be used to thinking of them as multilateral negotiations that produce agreements with legal effect, That was the case with the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, but it has become increasingly less so with the passage of time. COP15, held in Paris in 2015, achieved actual agreement on very few undertakings by the Parties – they committed to submit plans every five years indicating how and to what extent they would voluntarily reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and they committed to submit other “progress” reports to the United Nations secretariat. A sub-group of the wealthier countries (referred to as “Annex II countries) recommitted in principle to provide financing of no less than $100 billion per year to help the less developed countries increase climate mitigation and adaptation measures, with no specification as to how much each country would pay or how much each country would receive. The first question to answer about the outcome of COP 26, therefore, is which new legally-binding commitments did the member countries make.
The answer is that the countries agreed to “revisit” their plans to reduce GHG emissions (i.e. the five-year ones they submitted in 2021, one year late), as necessary, by the end of 2022 to put the world more “on track” to the goal of avoiding more than 1.5 degrees C. in average warming by 2100. The Annex II countries agreed to double the collective share of adaptation finance within the $100 billion annual funding target for 2021-2025, and to reach the $100 billion per year level of funding “as soon as possible”. They added no clarity with respect to how much each individual country would pay or receive. Beyond that, the result of the conference, ostentatiously but inaccurately titled the “Glasgow Climate Pact”, included only a series of statements about the need for and urgency of reducing GHG emissions and about the elaborate bureaucratic processes that have been initiated to continue meeting, planning and reporting on activity. That’s it.
As an international treaty-making occasion, in other words, COP 26 was a non-event. However, that does not mean that it was without significance. That significance, however, lay in the opportunity that it presented for the large multilateral UN process to set in motion new series of meetings and discussions on a wide range of climate-related topics, and the various announcements and political commitments that sub-groups of countries made to pursue various subjects. Before cataloguing those things, however, one should “revisit” (to use a UN word) what this was all supposed to be about.
The UN’s incessantly repeated goal is to reduce global GHG emissions by significant amounts, specifically by 45 % below 2010 levels by 2030, and to achieve “net zero” emissions around midcentury. As acknowledged in the Pact, on the basis of the plans submitted by countries to date, global GHG emissions will increase by 13.7% above the 2010 level by 2030. In other words, the actual energy consumption choices made by the people of the world, voting with their dollars or equivalent currencies, are proceeding precisely in the opposite direction to that politically endorsed by the UN and its members. Coincidentally, the Pact included no references to the extraordinarily rapid rises occurring in global consumption of oil, natural gas and coal, to the higher energy costs facing consumers, or to the danger of fuel shortages facing many of the people living in the UN member states. The UN’s focus is on the GHG emissions reduction target, not on the world population’s wants and needs.
To fully appreciate what the COP26 conference achieved, let us start by listing the other notable accomplishments listed in the Pact and in the press releases:
• COP26 agreed for the first time to accelerate efforts towards the phase-down of unabated coal power. At India’s insistence, there was no agreement on the timing of the phase-down, and the reference to “unabated” means that the countries prepared to pay a fortune to capture and store GHG emissions from coal combustion can go on burning it indefinitely.
• COP26 agreed to move towards ending inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. As the majority of fossil fuel subsidies involve the imposition of price controls by the major OPEC producers on the prices of refined oil products charged to their citizens, it will be interesting to see how fast gasoline prices rise in Saudi Arabia. Unsurprisingly, there was no reference to eliminating hopelessly inefficient (from an economic perspective) subsidies to wind and solar energy. Renewables subsidies exceed by an order of magnitude any subsidies received by fossil fuel producers.
• COP26 agreed to recognize the need for a just transition. One wonders who was arguing for an “unjust” transition. In fact, “just transition” is code for endorsing the need for governments, having subsidized non-fossil fuel alternatives and driven coal miners and other hydrocarbons producers out of business, to then subsidize the unemployed workers so that they can move to lower-paying jobs.
• COP26 completed the technical negotiations on the so-called Paris Agreement Rulebook, which fixes the transparency and reporting requirements for all Parties to track progress against their emission reduction targets. The Rulebook also includes the Article 6 mechanisms, which set out the rules governing the functioning of international carbon markets. This actually may be the most important thing done by the conference, even though in one case it layers on a new set of reporting and “accountability” (to the UN) procedures that countries must follow, and in the other case it seeks to rein in the high risks of fraud and miscounting involved in international carbon trading markets.
• Parties agreed to a process by which to seek agreement on long-term climate finance beyond 2025. Here lies the most spectacular disparity between what climate campaigners were seeking and what was achieved in the conference. Before and during COP26, various developing country sources published demands that developed countries increase climate aid to at least $750 billion per year or, in the case of Africa, at least $1.3 trillion per year. Instead, they got an agreement to a “process” for talking about the subject. What a let down! As a large number of the developing countries where emissions are growing the fastest have made their emissions reduction spending conditional on receiving immense funding, this single and highly predictable failure means that the attainment of the global emissions reduction goals is impossible.
• The conference agreed to “establish a dialogue between parties, stakeholders and relevant organizations to support efforts to avert, minimize and address loss and damage associated with climate change”. This is the most puzzling and bizarre item in the Pact. The “loss and damage” reference is code for the demands of the developing countries that the developed countries pay billions (if not trillions) of dollars in compensation and reparations for the allegedly adverse effects that climate change is allegedly already having on the developing countries. One can only imagine the difficulties in arranging a “dialogue” between those governments that would be called upon to pay and those that would be privileged to receive the funds. How much more improbable (farcical?) would it be to include in these discussions thousands of “stakeholders and relevant organizations” (read: environmental groups plus Greta Thunberg and her friends)?
There were two other categories of action associated with COP26. The first concerned processes that have already been initiated to some extent but to which the attendees at COP26 attempted to lend additional impetus. The second were agreements reached by sub-groups of countries outside of the COP26 formal proceedings, but related to climate change policy.
Of the processes already underway but welcomed in the text of the Pact, perhaps most important for publicity purposes was the Santiago Network. In 2019, several countries agreed to set up a technical assistance program, known as the Santiago Network, to help countries with “loss and damage”. The program was established in name only, without staff or funding. The inclusion of wording endorsing the Santiago Network in the text of the Pact is being viewed by UN officials as of great significance.
Somewhat related was the decision of the conference to establish the “Glasgow Dialogue between Parties”, an official-sounding term for an agreement to meet. The proposed meeting would be among “relevant organizations and stakeholders to discuss the arrangements for the funding of activities to avert, minimize and address loss and damage associated with the adverse impacts of climate change”. The developing countries wanted a “facility” (i.e. cash), but the developed countries balked at that, so developing countries had to settle for a “dialogue” which they will use to press for real financial commitments at next year’s COP in Egypt.
On the “margins” of COP26, a number of agreements were announced by a subset of members. The most important of these were the following.
The Statement on International Public Support for the Clean Energy Transition. This statement was issued by 28 organizations including the United States and Canada. In it they committed to take several actions including to “end new direct public support for the international unabated fossil fuel energy sector by the end of 2022, except in limited and clearly defined circumstances that are consistent with a 1.5 degree C. warming limit and the goals of the Paris Agreement” and to encourage other governments and public financial institutions to make similar commitments.
The launch of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance. Eleven national and subnational governments announced the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance to seek a managed and just transition away from oil and gas production. This group, which includes Quebec as a member and California as an associate member, are composed of jurisdictions that today have relatively little oil and gas production, a fact that no doubt makes the alliance more palatable to its citizens.
The Global Methane Pledge. More than one hundred countries signed the U.S. and Europe-led Global Methane Pledge and agreed to collectively reduce methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030. Methane has a half-life in the atmosphere of only about six years – so that every new molecule added is offset by the expiry of a molecule emitted a few years earlier. Its impact on global GHG concentrations in the atmosphere thus depends on increases over time, yet methane emissions in the OECD have already been declining for years.
The Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use. Most of the Parties present at COP26, including the United States and Canada, signed this declaration. In it, they reaffirmed their commitments to “sustainable land use and to the conservation, protection, sustainable management and restoration of forests and other terrestrial ecosystems”. They also committed to follow various new efforts including facilitating “the alignment of financial flows with international goals to reverse forest loss and degradation, while ensuring robust policies and systems are in place to accelerate the transition to an economy that is resilient and advances forest, sustainable land use, biodiversity and climate goals.” Brazil is also one of the signatories. One can only wonder what to make of that.
According to Wikipedia, the Theatre of the Absurd is a post-Second World War designation for certain plays of absurdist fiction written by a number of primarily European playwrights in the late 1950s. It is also a term for the style of theatre the plays represent. The plays focus largely on ideas of existentialism and express what happens when human existence lacks meaning or purpose and communication breaks down. The structure of the plays is typically a round shape, with the finishing point the same as the starting point. Logical construction and argument give way to irrational and illogical speech and to the ultimate conclusion—silence.
The Conferences of the Parties relating to climate change seem remarkably similar to the theatre of the absurd productions. They are increasingly unrelated to the reality of what is happening in energy markets and what the world’s consumers want. They repeatedly set goals and targets that are unattainable based on technologies that largely do not yet exist. From 1992 to 2021 they seemingly have started and ended in the same place, only to move on to next year’s COP with basically the same agenda.
What happens at the conferences of the Parties, sadly, is used to justify the quite real damages being inflicted through unwise policies that harm energy consumers and cost taxpayers in the OECD countries trillions of dollars. As is evident from COP26, the theatre of COP has become more tragedy than absurdity.
More insights and examples of Theatre of the Absurd: