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COP26: A Summit of Big Promises and Not Enough Action

The Government’s lack of commitment to ending fossil fuel production was indicative of a disappointing climate change conference, says Thomas Perrett

Prime Minister Boris Johnson attends a conference about the COP26 UN climate summit in 2020. Photo: Reuters/Alamy

COP26A Summit of Big Promises and Not Enough Action

The Government’s lack of commitment to ending fossil fuel production was indicative of a disappointing climate change conference, says Thomas Perrett

As COP26 began in Glasgow, the Prime Minister enthusiastically proclaimed the significance of the conference in providing a final chance to halt ecological breakdown.

In his opening speech, he appeared to recognise the devastating ramifications of inaction on climate change, stating that “the children who will judge us are children not yet born, and their children, and we are now coming centre stage before a vast and uncountable audience of posterity and we mustn’t fluff our lines or miss our cue, because if we fail, they will not forgive us”.

He continued: “They will know that Glasgow was the historic turning point when history failed to turn. They will judge us with bitterness and with a resentment that eclipses any of the climate activists of today, and they will be right.”

At COP26’s conclusion, the participating nations reached an agreement to “accelerate the development, deployment and dissemination of technologies and adaptation of policies of transition towards low-emissions energy systems” – a deal which included provisions to “phase-down unabated coal power and phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies while providing targeted support to the poorest and most vulnerable”.

This marked a change from the original iteration of the deal, which had promised to phase-out fossil fuel power entirely,.

The revision drew criticism from several groups, including Nairobi-based think tank Power Shift Africa, the director of which, Mohamed Adow, was quoted in the Guardian as saying: “The needs of the world’s vulnerable people have been sacrificed on the altar of the rich world’s selfishness. The outcome here reflects a COP held in the rich world and the outcome contains the priorities of the rich world.”

Other voices from the Global South expressed their frustration at the meagre outcomes of COP26. Lia Nicholson, delegate for Antigua and Barbuda, said: “We recognise the presidency’s efforts to try and create a space to find common ground. The final landing zone, however, is not even close to capturing what we had hoped.”

The COP26 agreement expressed “deep regret” at the failures of developed nations to mobilise $100 billion to facilitate climate mitigation measures in the Global South by 2020.

The inadequacy of the conclusions reached at the summit were reflected in a report by the Climate Action Tracker, which predicted that although many countries’ long-term climate commitments seemed pragmatic, the more tangible 2030 targets set by the majority of nations would result in 2.4C of warming by the end of the century. The report’s co-author, Nikolas Hohne, has argued that the findings, which excoriated countries such as China, India and Vietnam for failing to phase-out coal power, presented a “reality check” for world leaders.

Despite the Prime Minister’s claims that COP26 signalled a “death knell” for coal power and that a “game-changing agreement” had been reached in the battle against climate change, Britain’s climate commitments have been met with criticism.

Shadow Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary Ed Miliband claimed that, as a result of the summit, “keeping 1.5C alive is frankly in intensive care” and that a “chasm” still separates the rhetoric commitments that many of the participants – including the UK – have made to climate mitigation from the grim realities which are now due to unfold.

Throughout COP26, Boris Johnson committed the UK to a series of international agreements seeking to reverse the effects of deforestation and methane production, including the Glasgow Declaration on Forests and Land Use, signed by 131 world leaders, in which 12 donor countries have aimed to provide $12 billion of public climate finance to counteract deforestation by 2030, and a £110 million commitment to clean infrastructure in Asia, announced by Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.

But, while Johnson continually lectured other parts of the world about their contribution to averting climate breakdown, COP26 exposed the UK’s lack of a coherent strategy for phasing-out domestic fossil fuel production.

Many of the country’s contributions towards international funds have since been exposed as woefully inadequate. On the second day of COP26, for instance, Johnson pledged £1 billion towards international climate finance, which would take the UK’s total climate commitments to £12.6 billion. However, the money will only be contributed if the British economy grows as forecast, and is expected to be donated from the UK’s aid budget, which runs counter to an agreement brokered by the UN which promulgated that new climate finance contributions were required to be “new and additional”.

Johnson’s insubstantial climate finance contributions drew criticism from Rebecca Newsom, Greenpeace’s head of politics, who described his proposals as “a complete distraction”, arguing that “it’s not new money and it’s not even guaranteed”. She went on to criticise the Prime Minister for having “left the door open to new oil and gas licences at a time when climate scientists and energy experts have made clear this is incompatible with the global goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees”. 

The Government’s inability to phase-out new fossil fuel production was among the most galling aspects of its presence at COP26, demonstrating the futility of criticising other nations for failing to do the same. A recent report by the New Economics Foundation think tank has shown that at least 40 new oil and gas projects in Britain are due to be confirmed before 2025, with the potential to emit a combined total of 1.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gas – almost three times the country’s annual emissions. 

Moreover, the report examined British influence in financing overseas oil and gas infrastructure in Mozambique, where the Government has pledged the equivalent of $1.15 billion to financing a project which could emit up to 4.5 billion tonnes of CO2. 

The UK Government is currently facing a legal challenge from environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth, which back in April was given permission to sue on the basis that the project in Mozambique was unaligned with Britain’s commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Will Rundle, of the organisation’s legal team, described the Government’s hypocrisy as “astounding,” arguing that “on the one hand, it claims to be a climate leader, and on the other, we are providing $1 billion in financial support to a new gas mega-project that will sabotage all our efforts to stop climate breakdown”.

Johnson has also been heavily criticised for failing to rule out the continued development of a new coking coal mine in Cumbria. When repeatedly questioned on the issue, he has failed to provide a coherent answer, stating that he is “not in favour of more coal” but that he is unable to rule out the coal mine, which the Green Alliance think tank estimates could release 8.4 million tonnes of CO2 annually until 2049.

But recent Government inaction on climate change is part of a wider pattern. The Chancellor’s October Budget, which included investing £21 billion in road infrastructure and halving domestic air passenger duties, in addition to freezing duties on fossil fuel used by cars for the twelfth consecutive year, was criticised by Government advisory body the Climate Change Committee. Its head, Chris Stark, described the Budget as a “market-based approach” to achieving net zero, which contrasts sharply with the Labour Party’s proposed plan to spend £280 billion on green capital investment by 2030.

Furthermore, the green investments which Rishi Sunak has promised are themselves insufficient and highly unlikely to spur the decarbonisation of the economy. Only £1.5 billion of the proposed funding for public transport in Britain’s cities was new money, and the entire stimulus package for climate change fell £55.1 billion short of what was required to adequately address the scale of the climate crisis, according to The Green Alliance. 

Another widely criticised element of Sunak’s Budget was the insufficient funding available for facilitating the decarbonisation of the housing sector, which is currently responsible for leaking 58.5 million tonnes of CO2 annually. Sunak only proposed a partial subsidy for 30,000 heat pumps per year for three years, despite the Government’s plans to install 600,000 heat pumps by 2028, phasing-out gas boilers.

Moreover, an independent review of the UK’s Net Zero Strategy by the Climate Change Committee found that “concerns remain” regarding the implementation of the Government’s heat and buildings strategy which backs the electrification of Britain’s housing stock. It stated: “While there are some efforts to improve information, enforcement and skills, concerns remain in these areas. Funding overall, and specifically for heat networks, the public sector and heat pumps, appears to be relatively low.”

It is clear that the Government’s domestic policies have been woefully insufficient in divesting from oil and gas infrastructure, in retrofitting housing and in decarbonising transport. Yet, during COP26, its commitments largely focused on ensuring that other countries, such as China, accelerate the development of clean energy. China, meanwhile, is home to approximately two-thirds of high speed rail capacity, and has lower per capita emissions than Britain. 

While the Government’s commitments to international schemes to eliminate deforestation and reduce methane emissions represent improvements on past pledges, the hypocrisy of its pronouncements on other countries’ climate policies was one of COP26’s most striking aspects.

The Government’s domestic policies, which have prolonged the existence of fossil fuel production overseas as well as in Britain, provide a stark contrast to Boris Johnson’s lofty proclamations that this country is a world leader on climate change. If his administration is to set an example to the rest of the world in the aftermath of COP26, it must choose to leave fossil fuels in the ground.

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