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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Troubled COP26

Air Date: Week of

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Luis Arce, President of Bolivia and Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations. During the opening of the COP26 world leader summit, the Bolivian President criticized the imbalance of power between developed and developing nations. He said "Developed countries are promoting a new world re-colonization process that we can call the New Carbon Colonialism, because they are trying to impose their own rules in the climate negotiations." (Photo by Karwai Tang, UK Government (Flickr, CC BY NC ND 2.0)

As the UN climate negotiations among nearly 200 nations called COP26 continue in Glasgow, Scotland, all eyes are on world leaders and negotiators as they face strong headwinds in their efforts to ramp up ambition and commit to substantial climate finance. Alden Meyer is a Senior Associate at E3G and joined Host Steve Curwood from Glasgow to talk about the challenges that remain on important matters like loss and damage, and what it would take for the conference to have a successful outcome.


BASCOMB: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley studios at the University of Massachusetts Boston this is Living on Earth. I’m Bobby Bascomb.

CURWOOD: And I’m Steve Curwood.

Negotiations are continuing in Glasgow, Scotland through the second week of November at the UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, and so far they are not going well. Under the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 the nations of the world were due to report their individual national plans that together would cut emissions enough to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees centigrade above preindustrial temperatures. But so far submitted plans would still permit 2.7 degrees Celsius or nearly five degrees fahrenheit of warming, which scientists tell us would all but destroy human civilization as we know it. More than a hundred national leaders representing the US, much of Europe and the Global South attended the opening session, but the leaders of China, Japan, Russia, Brazil and Mexico were among those who stayed home. UK Prime minister Boris Johnson, host of this year’s climate talks, begged the nations of the world to come together.

JOHNSON: It's one minute to midnight on that doomsday clock, and we need to act now. If we don't get serious about climate change today, it will be too late for our children to do so tomorrow.

CURWOOD: Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley called out the missing heads of state and government.

MOTTLEY: Do some leaders in this world believe that they can survive and thrive on their own? Have they not learned from the pandemic? Can there be peace and prosperity, if 1/3rd of the world literally, prospers. And the other two thirds of the world, live under siege and face calamitous threats to our well being.

CURWOOD: Absent action by Congress President Joe Biden outlined executive actions to address US emissions, emphasizing rules he has proposed to slash potent methane emissions. We’ll have more on that later in the broadcast but first for a look ahead to the rest of COP26 I’m joined now by Alden Meyer. He’s a senior associate of E3G, currently in Glasgow Scotland Welcome back to the program, Alden!

MEYER: Thanks, Steve, it's good to be with you.

CURWOOD: So Alden what needs to happen next week, what would make the second week of COP26 successful in your view?

COP26 Logo (Photo: UK Government, Wikimedia Commons)

MEYER: What would register as a real success here in Glasgow would be to have a ambition accelerator package in the final decision, which acknowledge the fact that we're way off track between where we need to be in 2030 to keep any chance of staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius alive, and where we are heading now, and a call to all countries to increase the ambition of their current commitments under the Paris Agreement significantly, within the next year or two, that would be really moving the needle and creating some hope that we're going to come out of this conference with a chance of limiting temperatures to the point where we avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

CURWOOD: Let me ask you about the question of loss and damage, much of the global south has endured a lot of the damage from the effects of climate disruption. And of course, they really don't have the money to deal with it.

MEYER: That's right, and loss and damage refers to the now unavoidable climate impacts that we're starting to see around the world, the floods, the hurricanes and typhoons that are stronger than been experienced the wildfires, the droughts. And the science tells us that even if we were able to zero emissions overnight, and wave a magic wand to do that, those impacts will continue to mount over the next several decades because of historical emissions and inertia in the climate system. So this is an issue that countries are going to really need to start grappling with in a serious way. And we're hoping they're going to start here. The trick, of course, is that what's involved is not billions of dollars, or even tens of billions of dollars, it's literally hundreds of billions of dollars needed today to help these countries deal with the climate disasters, the economic losses that they're experiencing. And it will probably go to trillions of dollars later in the century. So it's a moral issue, i’s an economic survival issue. For many of these countries, it's actually a security issue, as our Pentagon and other security officials in the US have recognized because not helping these countries deal with these problems means mass migration, it means failed states, that means breeding grounds for terrorism. This is not a world that we would want to leave to our children and grandchildren. So dealing with loss and damage is critical. But it's also very difficult. Because countries like Europe, Japan, the United States that put out most of the emissions over the last century century and a half, that have led to this problem don't want to be held liable and feel like they have to compensate for those past emissions. So this is a very polarized issue. It's almost brought down two or three of the Conference of the Parties meetings over the last decade. Hopefully, it's going to be a more constructive tone here. And we'll actually start to give some hope to these vulnerable countries and communities that help us on the way.

CURWOOD: Explain to me the arguments of the countries that historically had the most emissions not being responsive to the question of loss and damage. What do they say is the reason to oppose taking action along loss and damage?

MEYER: Well yeah, they say that it's only recently that we became fully aware of the impacts of those past emissions. And so one argument is it's sort of fine to hold us accountable in the North for emissions since 1990, for example, when we started negotiating the Rio climate treaty, but we shouldn't be held responsible for emissions over the previous century, century and a half. Others say yes, it is a responsibility, and we need to help. But it's not a legal responsibility. In other words, there's no liability on the table. Of course, some countries in the developing world argue just the opposite, that you are imposing these damages on us by your reckless behavior, and you should be held liable and pay compensation. So that's why I said this is a very charged debate. And we will see where the United Kingdom Presidency of this process is able to get us by the end of next week to try to start to address it in a constructive way.

CURWOOD: Going back to 2009, the climate talks in Copenhagen, didn't go very well. But out of that process, came a pledge from the rich nations to provide $100 billion dollars a year to less wealthy nations, starting in the year 2020 on an annual basis to help them adapt to climate change and mitigate more rises in temperatures. But so far, that hasn't happened, what went wrong and how will this process move forward in your view?

MEYER: Well, that pledge was made in Copenhagen. It was reiterated in Paris and made applicable to the years 2020 to 2025. So it's actually a six year commitment to mobilize public and private resources at that 100 billion dollar level. Why haven't we achieved that? Several reasons: first of all countries, including the United States did not put adequate public resources on the table. Second, those public resources did not leverage the volume of private resources that originally was thought would happen. And third, the World Bank and the other multilateral development bank's have not done what they need to do in devoting more of their financial firepower to addressing the climate crisis to helping developing countries decarbonize their development paths to helping the vulnerable countries deal with climate impact. So it's a combination of three or four different factors coming into this meeting in Glasgow, the United Kingdom presidency asked ministers from Germany and Japan, to consult with the developed countries and to put forward what they call the delivery plan for how those countries intend to meet the commitment. They did submit that a couple of weeks ago, it shows that they expect the 100 billion dollar level will be met in 2023. And it will be exceeded in 2024, and 2025. But of course, over that six year period, they will not meet the 600 billion cumulative target that they committed to and in Paris. So that has been a big topic of discussion here, how to make up some of that shortfall. What to do about the fact that only about 25% of that money is being devoted to climate impacts and adaptation, as opposed to the 50% fifty, fifty split, that many developing countries and international NGOs are are talking about. But of course, the 100 billion is just a prelude the discussion about the much larger sums, hundreds of billions or trillions that need to be mobilized to really decarbonize development in countries like India, Indonesia, South Africa and elsewhere.

CURWOOD: We've seen over this last year, incredible volatility in fossil fuel prices, whether it's the price of gasoline in the United States, or natural gas in the UK, or the price of coal for places like China that buy from overseas. Prices have just gone in some cases through the roof. All of those economies would do better with stable pricing under renewable resources, you know, you can't throw a meter on the sun and double the price. So what is it that's keeping folks from moving forward to the economic stability that a more sustainable and climate friendly set of economies would give us as opposed to the current struggles that we have with the fossil fuel economy?

Kenya President, Uhuru Kenyatta called on leaders of wealthier nations to provide support for Africa and the overall global south. Amongst the environmental issues Kenya faces are deforestation, water shortage, poaching and soil erosion. (Photo: Karwai Tang, UK Government, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

MEYER: Well, you're right Steve, that no one puts a meter on the sun, no one charges you for the wind that's blowing. The trick of course, is many of these technologies have a higher upfront capital cost for investment. The good news is that over the last decade solar photovoltaics, LED light bulbs, lithium ion batteries, a whole host of technologies have fallen in cost by 90% or more to the extent where if you're comparing a clean energy package of renewable energy, energy efficiency, investments, storage technologies to a new central coal power station the clean package wins. But of course, we're still depending on fossil fuels for roughly 80% or more of our energy supply. So we're very vulnerable to these erratic price swings on natural gas, coal and oil. But as you say, the economics the national security, the independence from relying on stable imports, all would be addressed if we could accelerate that transition away from fossil fuels and towards these more stable sources.

CURWOOD: You know, I don't think the fossil fuel industry likes the idea of going out of business and perhaps not being able to make the profits that they've made historically.

MEYER: Yeah, they certainly don't and and over the history of this process as we've discussed in the past, they have put up ferocious resistance to every stage of this process. To the original Rio Treaty, where they worked with Saudi and Kuwaiti government officials to try to block adoption of the original treaty to the Kyoto Protocol where Exxon Mobil famously was telling China, India and other developing countries not to accept any binding commitments because it would hurt their economies, and then running multimillion dollar advertising campaigns in the US, saying that the US shouldn't ratify Kyoto because China, India and other developing countries weren't part of it. Totally cynical, but it worked. Now, some of them are starting to realize they have to reinvent themselves. They're seeing the direction of travel, especially in Europe, and realizing if they are going to stay in business unprofitable, they're going to have to move to diversify their portfolio. Some of them are doing that more willingly and gracefully than others. The European carbon majors are out ahead of the US. But none of them have really laid out a pathway to net zero emissions not only in just their operations, but in the products they sell.

CURWOOD: Alden, as the climate emergency proceeds, what is the risk to this climate negotiation process that many people will see it as irrelevant to being unable to really fully address the crisis?

MEYER: Well, I think that is a growing concern. There's a widening gap between what this process is delivering and what the public needs and expect from their leaders. And that was pointed out by a number of, of leaders and others. The Queen of England actually talked to the leaders at the reception on Monday night and she said, It's time for you to rise above short term politics and rise to statesmanship that you're doing this not for yourself, but for your children, your children's children, and those that will come after. She was appealing to their better angels and saying get out of your usual food fighting and blame casting and finger pointing and act as if the planet really was at stake because in fact, it is. That is not something that leaders are accustomed to in our current geopolitical world. They're accustomed to maneuvering for advantage. They're accustomed to competing with each other, to trying to frustrate each other's plans. But this is really like an alien invasion. Would this be something that can unite the world to really address this climate emergency in a credible way. If they don't start to do that and signal that they've really moved to that level of urgency and ambition by the end of next week, I think people are going to have growing doubts about this process. But as I've said to you many times, Steve, this process is not to blame. It's basically a mirror that we hold up to ourselves to say how well are we doing as a planet in coping with this crisis, and the real problem is not at these annual conference of the party meetings. It's back in the capitals in Beijing and Delhi and Washington and Brussels, and Pretoria and elsewhere, where there's not enough being done before countries arrive here to move the needle on climate commitments on climate finance on helping deal with loss and damage. So the fault is not in the process, the fault is really in the absence of political will in too many countries around the world.

CURWOOD: Well, I want to thank you so much for taking the time with us today Alden. Alden Meyer is a Senior Associate of E3G and he joined us from Glasgow. Thanks so much Alden.

MEYER: Thanks Steve. I enjoyed the conversation.



Watch live full coverage of COP26 from SkyNews

Learn more about Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs)

Nature | “The broken $100 Billion Promise of Climate Finance and How to Fix It”

World Resources Institute | “What Vulnerable Countries Need from the COP26 Climate Summit”

Inside Climate News | “World Leaders Failed to Bend the Emissions Curve for 30 Years. Some Climate Experts Say Bottom-Up Change May Work Better”


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