Climate negotiations still have a long way to go
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The COP26 climate conference, one of the most important in history, is at a critical juncture after one week of negotiations. The rubber will really hit the road, politically, in the second week of the Glasgow COP, with ministers engaging directly in the final deal. The good news is the landmark methane slashing deal, in which leaders have committed to lower their emissions of methane - a potent greenhouse gas - by at least 30 percent this decade.
The other positive development is the agreement to finally provide US$100 billion a year in climate financing to emerging economies to make the conversion to green energy more affordable, and to assist those nations struggling to recover from disasters caused by climate change. What has frustrated developing countries is that at the COP15 climate conference in 2009, wealthy nations had promised that by 2020 they would donate US$100 billion a year to developing countries which are extremely vulnerable to climate change, but the promise was not kept.
At the G20 meeting which preceded the start of the COP26 this week, leaders of the world’s major economies (which are responsible for about 80 percent of the world's carbon emissions) agreed to the climate change target of 1.5 degrees celsius. Experts say that meeting the 1.5 degree target means slashing global emissions nearly in half by 2030, and to “net-zero” by 2050.
What was most problematic was that they failed to reach an agreement with a clear deadline of 2050 for reaching net zero emissions. Net zero means reducing greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible, until a country is absorbing the same amount of emissions from the atmosphere that it is putting out. Scientists say net zero must be achieved by 2050 to avoid a climate catastrophe, and most countries have agreed to this.
The challenge in reaching a net-zero consensus by 2050 is that China (the world’s largest carbon emitter) and Russia (the third largest emitter) have pushed the net-zero target out to 2060. Both nations are coal-reliant, as are other countries in the G20, including India (the third largest emitter), South Africa (the 12th largest emitter), and Australia (the 10th largest emitter), and they are hesitant to end coal power in their countries. G20 members on the whole make up the largest users and producers of coal, and are unlikely to lead on the phasing out of coal or any fossil fuels.
Coal represents a cheap form of power, but climate change is being driven by burning fossil fuels like coal, which release heat-trapping pollution into the atmosphere. Scientists say that to avoid the worst damage from global warming, countries must keep fossil fuels in the ground, including 90 percent of coal reserves. The G20 declaration did include a commitment to "put an end to the provision of international public finance for new unabated coal power generation abroad by the end of 2021."
Seventy percent of India’s electricity grid is powered by coal, but climate disruptions are pounding India through intense rainfall, flooding and heatwaves, and researchers warn that parts of the country could become uninhabitable by late this century. India has little of its own oil or natural gas which it has to import, and that leaves the country vulnerable to price fluctuations on global markets. But India has large reserves of coal, which India’s President Narendra Modi wants to exploit in order to make the country more self-reliant. Last year Modi presided over an event called “unleashing coal” launching an auction of 41 new tracts of land for coal mining.
India’s overreliance on coal is what made Modi’s pledges on Monday so surprising. He promised that by 2030, half of India’s energy would come from renewables, and by 2070 India would stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and achieve carbon neutrality.
South Africa, which is also over reliant on coal with more than 90,000 people employed in coal mines across the country, has pledged to cut emissions by 2030 in an updated contribution to global efforts. South Africa was buoyed by the initiative of the US, Britain, France, Germany and the European Union on Tuesday, which announced a multi-billion dollar partnership to help countries like South Africa finance a quicker transition from coal that will provide a model for other countries.
South Africa has said the money will help it to accelerate investment in renewable energy and the development of new sectors like electric vehicles and green hydrogen, and ensure state utility Eskom has access to funds to re-purpose coal-fired power stations due to be decommissioned in the next 15 years. The funds are also needed to ensure communities reliant on coal mining or coal power stations for jobs have greener alternatives to make a living as part of that process.
Shannon Ebrahim is the Group Foreign Editor.