Putting COP26 in Perspective

The most charitable assessment is that at best, Cop26 should be remembered as FLOP26

By Anil Madan

For all the fanfare about the hoped-for promise of COP26, the most charitable assessment is that at best, it should be remembered as FLOP26.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ comments convey the sentiment of failure. Referring to the agreed texts as a “compromise,” he said: “They reflect the interests, the conditions, the contradictions and the state of political will in the world today.” In other words, a flop. Then, trying to put the best spin on things while not succumbing to the temptation to fabricate a narrative of success, he said the stated goals mark important steps forward “but unfortunately the collective political will was not enough to overcome some deep contradictions.”


Some perspective on the gap between reality and necessity is in order. The UN says current plans would allow emissions to rise 13% by 2030 compared with 2010. Scientists believe that emissions must fall 45% to hit the target of a 1.5ºC global temperature increase set by the Paris accord. By this metric alone, COP26 is a massive failure.

Even that may overstate the extent of the problem.
First, the agreed texts call on governments to increase their emission reduction targets by next year to meet the goal of the 2015 Paris Climate accord to keep the global temperature rise under 2ºC and close to (but just above) 1.5º C.
Second, NASA, the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration, an agency charged with tracking and monitoring climate data, warns rather dolefully that:

“Humans have caused major climate changes to happen already, and we have set in motion more changes still. However, if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases today, the rise in global temperatures would begin to flatten within a few years. Temperatures would then plateau but remain well-elevated for many, many centuries. There is a time lag between what we do and when we feel it, but that lag is less than a decade.”

In other words, we really are not in a position to undo the damage already done.

NASA offers an even more sobering assessment:

“While the effects of human activities on Earth’s climate to date are irreversible on the timescale of humans alive today, every little bit of avoided future temperature increases results in less warming that would otherwise persist for essentially forever. Without major action to reduce emissions, global temperature is on track to rise by 2.5°C to 4.5°C (4.5°F to 8°F) by 2100, according to the latest estimates.”

Needless to say, climate scientists tell us that a 2.5º C rise in temperatures will produce catastrophic weather events.

So, at best if we are to believe NASA’s assessment, the warming that is already baked in will last forever and the best we can do is avoid additional temperature increases. At COP26 we did not come close to even this much.

Abject failure

Since COP26 wound down, three stories have underscored the abject failure of the world’s nations to address in any meaningful way the proposition that curbing the burning of fossil fuels is absolutely essential. NASA’s commentary may suggest a certain futility to the effort, but certainly at the political level, no serious world leader has spoken out against the proposition since Donald Trump pooh-poohed the very idea of climate change.

One story is that, as The Wall Street Journal reports, coal power plants in parts of Europe are running at full tilt and enjoying massive profitability as prices of natural gas soar and there is still not enough electricity available. With power shortages, utility companies able to bring online their dirty coal-burning power plants stand to make enormous profits.

A second story, as I mentioned in my previous comments on COP26 is the enormous increase in coal consumption by China to increase power production as power shortages have disrupted industrial activity and cold weather imposed more demands for home heat. China and India account for about 12.5 million tonnes of coal consumption per day in “normal” times but as I mentioned, China alone ramped up coal mining to a level of 12 million tonnes per day recently.

This tells us that there is no appetite for cutting coal consumption notwithstanding the language of the COP26 statements. A unit of Bloomberg reported that China and India account for 95 per cent of the new coal-fired power plants brought online over the last decade — 444.2 gigawatts (GW) in China, and 113.7 GW in India. The next three countries on the list — Indonesia, Vietnam, and South Korea — added 54 GW among them. In short, coal remains an integral part of China’s and India’s power needs for decades to come. And it may well remain indispensable for other Asian countries.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian was reported to have explained Beijing’s stance at a media briefing: “In many developing countries, not everyone has access to electricity. Energy supply is not adequate,” he said. “Before asking all countries to stop using coal, consideration should be given to the energy shortfall in these countries.”

This tells us that China is not ready to cut any more than is the U.S. as John Kerry made clear in comments I quoted in my previous article.

The third story was that New Delhi faces threats of a lockdown, not because of the coronavirus, but because of pollution.

Schools in New Delhi and its environs were shut indefinitely while area coal-power plants were ordered temporarily to cease operations. Air pollution, already at one of the highest levels in the world, was reaching intolerable levels.

New Delhi recorded Fine Particulate Matter pollution at a level of 379, last week, putting it in the hazardous range. The safe level for the fine, poisonous particles according to the World Health Organization is around 25. A neighbouring industrial area near Delhi recorded a level of 454 last week, the worst in the city. Prolonged exposure to such hazardous levels of particulate matter is believed to cause lung cancer and respiratory ailments.

These events tell us that economic activity is the driver of energy consumption and human comfort is a secondary, but perhaps as important driver. One cannot shut down industrial activity and home heating indefinitely.

Meaningful twist

COP 26 had one meaningful and promising twist, the possibility that businesses will be incentivized to find solutions. Solar and wind energy development continues apace. Research on fusion is ongoing. Hydrogen and particularly green hydrogen show promise as answers to our energy needs. Electric vehicles promise less polluted air in core city areas. Advanced nuclear power technologies are being pushed by a strong nuclear power lobby.

It does not take a genius to figure out that the solution to reducing emissions and hoping that such a reduction will indeed be the answer to the climate change crisis is to find new technologies for releasing energy without concomitant carbon release, or finding economical and durable carbon removal and carbon capture means and methods. Work along these lines proceeds feverishly, but breakthroughs are just glimmers for now.

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal tries to address the write-downs that will have to be taken by industry as we transition to alternative energy sources and transition away from fossil fuels. It mentions, almost as an aside, an estimate that it will cost $131 trillion to reduce global warming. That is a subject for a future exploration but it should be sobering that at COP26, poorer nations upped their ask for support from richer nations to $1 trillion per year, up from the previous request of $100 billion per year. If the true cost is anywhere near $131 trillion, even over a ten or twenty year period, it is doubtful that the world can afford it. On the other hand, the world cannot afford not to do it.


* Published in print edition on 23 November 2021

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