Glasgow sends the World a Lump of Coal for Christmas

Breakfast with Bwana

By Anil Madan

The global climate summit or, more accurately, the almost global summit has been held in Glasgow. “Almost,” because key players were missing. President Xi of China, the world’s biggest burner of coal, did not attend. He was too busy being exalted as almost Emperor at the head of the CCP that described itself as “great, glorious and correct.” Can you hear the strains of Hallelujah?

President Putin of Russia, the biggest supplier of natural gas to Europe and at 11+ million barrels per day the second biggest producer of oil, did not attend. He was too busy orchestrating an immigrant invasion of Poland via Belarus and a possible military invasion of Ukraine.

And over in Brazil, President Jair Bolsanaro, the world’s biggest climate change denier after Donald Trump and the King of deforestation in the world, did not attend. He was too busy being humiliated by Brazil’s Senate recommending that he be charged with crimes against humanity due to his mishandling and denial of the Covid-19 pandemic.

How are we to measure the success of COP26? First, a word of what COP26 is. It signifies a Conference of the Parties, referring to 197 nations that in 1992 agreed to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to combat “dangerous human interference with the climate system” and stabilize levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. This is the 26th meeting—reflected in the numerical suffix. So far, this UN Framework has neither combated dangerous human interference, nor stabilized levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

To get an understanding of how little has been achieved by the previous 25 meetings, consider host British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s admonitions when he opened the conference: “The tragedy is this is not a movie and the doomsday device is real,” and: “While Cop26 would not be the end of climate change, it can and it must mark the beginning of the end.” Well, maybe it just marked the beginning of the beginning. But the beginning of what?

To get a sense of both hope and disappointment as COP26 came to a close, consider the Prime Minister’s closing message: “But today’s agreement is a big step forward and, critically, we have the first ever international agreement to phase down coal and a roadmap to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees.” The key here is that the words “phase down” were negotiated by India and China as replacements for “phase out” so, at best, for long into the future, they promise to continue burning coal.

The problem, of course, is that what Boris Johnson refers to as an “agreement” is not an agreement at all. It is, at best, an agreement to agree or an agreement to keep hopes alive. Nevertheless, the attempts to convey a sense of hope came from all directions. A European Commission statement said the deal kept the targets of the 2015 Paris climate agreement alive, “giving us a chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius”.

John Kerry, the US Climate Envoy, crowed: “We are in fact closer than we have ever been before to avoiding climate chaos and securing cleaner air, safer water and a healthier planet.” At the same time, he noted more realistically the International Energy Agency’s estimate that even if all the world’s nations’ current long-term emission reduction commitments are fully met, the temperature rise would be at best limited to 1.8º C and will not reach the goal of 1.5º C deemed essential to control runaway heating.

Indeed, Kerry also noted that countries’ short-term goals through 2030 would see a rise of temperatures by 2.4º C and hence, the whole world needs to do more. On the other hand, while exhorting others to do more, Kerry also stated that the US will not need to revise its 2030 goal of reducing emissions by 50%, arguing that it is strong enough. It shouldn’t take more than a moment’s reflection to understand why these talks get nowhere.

A more realistic statement came from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres: “Our fragile planet is hanging by a thread,” he warned, adding “we are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe.”

There were some developments worth noting, but I caution that “worth noting” is not the same as saying they were game changers. The US and China announced that the two countries would work together to accelerate the emissions reductions required to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. No more specifics were given other than that China and the US also announced that they would work together to reduce methane emissions.

Greta Thuneberg, the Swedish climate kid denounced COP26 as nothing more than “Blah, blah, blah.” In a curious twist, the Chinese seem to agree. Wang Yi, a senior Chinese negotiator at COP26 signalled that China may not, after all, join any deal to cut methane emissions, arguing, in an echo of Kerry, that China was doing enough to reduce greenhouse gases. He said: “The U.S keeps telling people to join it for new pledges but without giving solutions about how to tackle methane.” He added: “Young people say there’s a lot of blah, blah, blah here, which to some degree is true.” 

On a positive (?) note China did promise to get to net zero carbon by 2060. Xi, the glorious, will then be 108 years old. 

Narendra Modi did Xi one better by setting India’s net zero date to 2070. Modi will then be 121 years old. Although that is far, far out in years, Modi promised at COP26 that by 2030 India will produce 50% of its energy requirements from renewable sources. The other 50% will presumably still come from fossil fuels.

That underscores just how difficult quitting fossil fuels is going to be. Indeed, China gets almost 60% of its electricity from burning coal and in 2020 brought 38.4 Gigawatts of coal-fired power plants online, more than three times the amount of coal-based power put in service everywhere else. Moreover, with a recent cold spell and the need to keep its economy going, China ramped up its production of coal and just last week boasted that in one day, it had produced 12 million tons of coal.

Another aspect of COP26 was the anticipation that the rich nations of the world responsible for more than 50% of the carbon emissions over the decades, would honour their pledge under the Paris Climate Accord to provide $100 billion per year of assistance to poorer nations for adaptation and mitigation related to climate change. As might be expected, reality has fallen short of pledges and expectations.

However, not to be deterred, the poorer nations have started to demand even more. Now the call is for the rich nations to pay up to the tune of $1 trillion per year. Add to that a growing chorus of calls for reparations for the damage that rich emitters of carbon from burning fossil fuels justly owe to the smaller and poorer nations that have been adversely affected, and you have the makings of a feeding frenzy if the trough were to be filled.

The pessimistic view is that we are doomed. The optimistic view is that we have kept alive the hope that we have postponed the day of reckoning. The so-called “agreement” does call for the nations attending COP26 and perhaps the big players who stayed away to come back next year and report on progress.

It seems likely that the only progress they will report is that lumps of coal were duly dispatched to Christmas stockings all over the world.

Meanwhile, spokespersons for both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi each denied responsibility for sending the lump of coal Greta Thunberg found in her Christmas stocking.


* Published in print edition on 16 November 2021

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