COP26 failed to raise ambitions or finalise the path to curb emissions.

After all the devastating climate related events recently witnessed—from fires and floods to hurricanes and heat waves—alarm bells had been ringing about the further impending disasters. These recent warnings, combined with the considerable progress made at the preceding 2015 COP in Paris, had led to much being expected from the fortnight-long climate conference at Glasgow. That progress, however, did not materialise. The yawning chasm between the warranted emission-cuts and the pledges made by the 197 participating nations, the hesitancy of developed countries to live up to past assurances, and the widely perceived lack of urgency on the part of almost all national governments meant, first the delaying of agreements or the customary conference ending declarations beyond the scheduled deadlines, and then the final outcome being disappointingly underwhelming.
The major planned objectives before negotiators at COP26 were to finalise a set of rules for operationalizing the treaty entered into at COP21, securing an agreement on timelines for the promised climate financial assistance to developing nations, and delving deeper into suggestions for creating a market for carbon instead of merely having the mechanisms for carbon offsets. Along with other related matters, these were to be constructively deliberated at the biggest ever COP, with 40,000 delegates attending several plenaries and negotiating sessions. All this was undertaken with the backdrop being the just presented status report of IPCC (a long existing UN forum on Climate Change with all its member states).
The alarming IPCC observations, as well as a new assessment by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), had reported that instead of containing the mean temperature rise to between 1.5-2 degree Celsius over the 1850-1900 pre industrialization era, as was agreed at Paris, the now expected mean increase by the turn of the century was put between 2.4 and 2.7 degrees. Several other credible research-bodies had also warned that the world seemed to be on a trajectory of an over 3-degree increase, with the attendant horrific consequences laying ahead. For once, political leaders, as well as civil society, seemed genuinely concerned about climate change. Such red alerts, as well as the unprecedented attendance of over 100 heads of national governments, had raised expectations from the periodical summit.
In an effort to find a way out of this emerging situation, a group of affluent nations, led by the returning USA (after Trump had unilaterally withdrawn from the Paris Agreement in early 2017) and UK, had come up with a proposal of reaching carbon neutrality or net zero emissions by 2050. With an in-principle commitment reached pre-conference from all the members of the newly formed Carbon Neutrality Coalition, the developed world’s primary objective at Glasgow had, in many ways, become getting the consent of all other participants. To that end, they did meet with notable success; during the first ten days of the deliberations, 135 nations—responsible for 76% of global emissions—ended up signing it, with as many as 124 countries consenting to achieve it by the proposed year 2050, including 6 countries even indicating their willingness to enshrine their targets into law.
By the end of the conference, several of the initially reluctant developing countries had considerably diluted their theoretical opposition to carbon neutrality. They pledged to attain it either by the proposed year or indicated their willingness to do so, though on extended deadlines. Yet, on the other important issues, they vehemently held forth their customary divergent views. Recalling that industrialised countries had the historical responsibility for the high emissions, and therefore the imperativeness to now significantly reduce their gaseous emissions, the developing countries reiterated their demand for more carbon space in the atmosphere. In effect, they sought differentiated actions and timelines for the fulfilment of their respective roles. By going along with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s commitment to India attaining neutrality by 2070, and China and Russia by 2060, the world leaders and international agencies like IMF indirectly conveyed their acceptance of the developing countries’ favoured principle of “Common But Differentiated Responsibility” (CBDR).
The Group of 22 Like Minded Developed Countries (LMDCs), which included China, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Bolivia and Sri Lanka, went one step further—it demanded that instead of a common timeline for carbon neutrality, the developed nations, or Annex 1 countries should advance their date for neutrality to 2030, while developing countries (whose emissions have yet to peak) be permitted time till 2070 in line with the CBDR principle. Since the adopted Article 6 of the Paris Agreement was based on this principle and had previously drawn a delicate balance of responsibilities, towards the end of the deliberations, the group spokesman, Bolivian Diego Pacheco decried the present proposal as amounting to “carbon colonialism” by advanced nations. LMDCs as well as the BASIC countries (comprising China, India, Brazil and South Africa) had heavily criticised the affluent nations’ proposal as reinventing the 2015 Paris Agreement—in the garb of their renewed focus on the 1.5 degree C target for all countries—despite 60% of the carbon space being presently occupied by developed countries, with only 18% of the population. All of them feared that if they accepted the common year deadline, they would be “ethically and financially condemned for not complying”.
In addition to such disagreement, were the polarising stands of the rich and poor countries on the issue of climate finance. Though agreed way back in 2009 at Stockholm, the industrialised nations had been dithering on initiating action on the $100 bn financial assistance promised for undertaking the requisite mitigation and adaptation measures. Prior to the Glasgow meet, affluent nations had jointly come up with its deferment from 2020 to 2023. They continued to reject an independent review of the delivery of the assured $100 bn per year, and instead favoured the rich nations’ Paris based Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) continuing to maintain their accounts of assistance. The well-off nations also exhibited a remarkable indifference to the needy nations’ request for revisiting the estimates on their requirements of funds—the 2009 estimate of $100 bn per annum had since grown manifold with a back of the envelope calculation putting it at $1 trillion a year for the next 8 years. In addition, the developed nations turned down giving an indication of their post 2025 aid commitments; nor did they agree to earmark as much of the assistance amounts for the adaptation measures as for mitigation. All that could be extracted from the donor countries were words of sympathy and their willingness to set up a working group to look at the entire gamut of climate finance related matters.
Peeved and disappointed, LMDCs, BASIC, the newly formed 40 nation Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), and the Least Developed Countries, reacted with a degree of belligerence. They either linked their raised NDCs to the availability of climate finance or flatly refused to heed any calls for their revision. The revisions to NDCs of all 135 nations have also been found to be rather modest and not necessarily pointing towards early attaining of carbon neutrality. Looked at holistically, such developments put together did not demonstrate the warranted urgency to combat climate change occurrences, forget reach any sort of understandings on the quantum of emission cuts to ward them off or reach carbon neutrality.
The resulting impasse created on the issue of climate finance virtually blocked any meaningful progress on other matters of consequence, such as facilitating the transfer of climate technology to developing nations, relaxation of the prevailing national intellectual property regimes and the creation of carbon markets. Stating their respective positions and rejoinders publicly, instead of in private negotiating chambers, also seemed to have vitiated the environment. Surely, it contributed to the growing trust gap between the rich and the poor, the fossil fuel dependent and the better endowed, and the technologically advanced and those well behind.
From the very beginning of the summit and right till the earlier decided closure last Friday evening, the media had a field day lampooning the world leaders and their negotiators. As could be expected, the perceptible public angst at the lack of any worthwhile progress in climate finance and other significant matters found its customary exaggeration and distortion in global media. Their focus was not on thorny, intricate issues but on demonstrations of the thousands of youths who had gathered at Glasgow and taken to the streets to demonstrate their anger and frustration at the slow pace of progress. The young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg pulled out a placard with “BLAH, BLAH, BLAH” boldly written, while a 22-year-old youngster starkly declared to a rally of protesters that she had decided not to have any children—the expected climate occurrences would, in any case, she said, not let the baby survive for too long. It was such expressions and images that caught global headlines.
While not addressing the arising emergency head on, the COP26 did manage to build consensus on a few matters of significance. These included an agreement amongst over 100 countries on limiting the emissions of methane gas by 30% by 2030. Reportedly, over a 20-year period, methane has a global warming potential 80 times more than carbon dioxide. In view of its high population of bovine animals, India, however, did not agree to be a party to this.
Another matter of value in slowing down climate change was the pledge from 110 countries including US, UK, Brazil and China to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030. As is widely accepted, forests provide a natural carbon sink to capture swathes of CO2 and are a cost effective way forward. They are known to have positive effects on the environment, as well as many species of life. India’s new agenda had not mentioned the NDC targets for forests, nor did it join this declaration.
Though accepted so far by only 40 nations, yet another positive outcome was the signing of an initiative to quickly end the use of coal. Signatories included major users such as South Korea and Vietnam, though missing from the deal were China, US and India, as well as Australia, a large exporter of this highly polluting fuel. In fact, for obvious political reasons back home, the country’s representative went on record to assure that it would continue to sell coal for “decades into the future”.
Towards the official end of the conference, reports also emerged of a joint initiative between China and the US to deliver enhanced climate action. China, the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, had provided assurances to accelerate its transition from coal. In another encouraging development, the US also became the 102 nd member of the Indian initiative, the International Solar Alliance. Along with host PM Boris Johnson, PM Modi had earlier launched the ambitious One Sun One World One Grid mission.
In the absence of the required consensus on many of the consequential matters including a draft declaration by the end of the prescribed day, the host country’s president of the congregation has decided to extend the negotiations by two days till Sunday afternoon, i.e., 14 November. Hopefully, a last hour effort might yield a deal on a matter or two and an optimistic declaration with a consensus to accelerate the global response to climate change and the deliberations on the pending subjects continuing at the 2022 ministerial gathering. Questions would, however, remain on whether substantive progress was made at COP26.

Dr Ajay Dua, a development economist and a former Union Secretary, has had a long association with the electrical-power industry.