Tuesday, 25 January, 2022


COP26 Climate Deal: Hope without Optimism and Optimism without Hope

Dr Kanan Purkayastha

COP26 Climate Deal: Hope without Optimism and Optimism without Hope
Dr Kanan Purkayastha

The final draft climate deal from the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) held  in Glasgow last two weeks (31 October-12 November 2021), was passed by almost 200 countries on 13 November 2021 as negotiations went past the Friday closing of the conference. Glasgow was an ideal place for climate negotiation, because it is the place where James Watt conceived the idea for a separate condenser for the steam engine that revolutionised the efficiency of the steam engine and started the industrial revolution. Again here, several centuries later, delegates from all over the world gathered to solve the problem that industrial revolution brought to the earth named - global warming and climate change.

In a nutshell what has been agreed in Glasgow climate summit are as follows: The countries need to republish their climate action plans, with more ambitious emissions reduction targets for 2030, by the end of next year. Currently, the nationally determined contributions (NDCs) lead to 2.4 degree Celsius of global warming. According to the Paris Agreement, nations are only required to return every five years to set new NDCs. As NDCs for 2030 has not yet been determined properly, so a new road map will be drawn to discuss and agree new NDCs at the next year COP summit to be held in Egypt.

The developed countries need to increase the money they give to those countries already suffering the effects of climate change, beyond the current $100bn target. The most of the climate finance currently available goes to funding emission cutting project, such as renewable energy schemes. But the countries that need money for adaptation are struggling to get such fund. The UN and different countries have urged for 50:50 split between funding for emission cut and adaptation. It has been agreed to double the proportion of climate finance for adaptation. 

The countries commit to ‘phase down’ of ‘unabated’ coal - in other words coal-burning which is carried out without some form of carbon capture and storage and ‘phase-out’ of ‘inefficient’ subsidies for fossil fuels. India's climate minister Bhupender Yadav asked how developing countries could promise to phase out coal and fossil fuel subsidies when they ‘have still to deal with their development agendas and poverty eradication’.  Because of pressure from India and China the word ‘phase out’ become ‘phase down’. International Energy Agency (IEA) has made it clear that if coal is not rapidly phased out, then the world has no hope of staying within 1.5 degree Celsius of global warming. According to the Energy Transitions Commission pledges before COP 26 the projected greenhouse gas emission (GHG) was 52.4 Gt, pledges at COP 26 GHG emission would be 41.9 Gt, but by 2030 we need to be 26.6 Gt.  This means that big emission cut is still needed to limit global warming by 1.5 degree Celsius by 2050.

Steps were agreed on a range of issues, including: methane emissions, the transition to clean energy and de-carbonisation. More than 100 countries, representing about 85% of the world's forests, promised to stop deforestation by 2030. A scheme to cut 30% of current methane emissions by 2030 has been agreed by more than 100 countries. More than 40 countries - which include major coal-users like Poland, Vietnam and Chile - agreed to shift away from coal. Some 450 financial organisations, who between them control $130tn, agreed to back "clean" technology, such as renewable energy, and direct finance away from fossil fuel-burning industries. Besides this, the US and China pledged to boost climate co-operation over the next decade. The joint declaration says both sides will "recall their firm commitment to work together" to achieve the 1.5 degree Celsius temperature goal set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

The deal reached at COP 26 doesn't cover other fossil fuels such as oil or gas. Some countries can phase out quickly from coal, but rely on natural gas, which is a cheap option. While natural gas is less polluting than coal, it is still a fossil fuel and is highly problematic for the climate. Also ‘loss and damage’ issue has not been addressed. Loss and damage refers to destruction from hurricanes, cyclones and inundation of low-lying areas. Countries have been talking about loss and damage for a decade but the discussions have made little progress. Some countries considered it as a call for compensation and thought that this may lead to endless liability claim. So, this issue will return again for talk next year.

COP 26 President Alok Sharma mentioned that ‘this is an agreement we can build on. But in the case of China and India, they will have to explain to climate vulnerable countries why they did what they did.’ Prime Minister Boris Johnson mentioned that ‘we cannot force nations to do what they do not wish to.’ However, he hoped that the world would ‘look back on COP 26 in Glasgow as the beginning of the end of climate change’. John Kerry, the US envoy for climate, said ‘it was always unlikely that the Glasgow summit would result in a decision that ‘was somehow going to end the crisis’ but that in his word ‘starting pistol’ had been fired. The Wales First Minister Mark Drakeford believes that in COP 26 ‘hope delivered but hope delayed’. He opined that ‘If I was summarising I'd say it was a combination of hope delivered, because there are some very important things that were achieved at COP and  hope delayed, because there are some things that will need to go on being discussed beyond Glasgow.’

This suggests that hope is still alive but delayed, hope has not been destroyed. Roman Philosopher Seneca argued that both hope and fear ‘belong to the mind that is in suspense, which is worried by its expectation of what is to come.’ Like prisoner and a guard are bound to each other by the same chain, some countries are similarly bound by the chain of coal. Their hope and fear is like that. Like Schopenhauer, I say that if we really curb our desires to use coal we should mistrust hope for achieving something. Philosopher Sartre thought that we ‘should act without hope’. This means we should commit ourselves to action but on the understanding that ‘one need not hope in order to undertake one’s work.’

If we think about Indian and Chinese views that they would not be able to phase out coal now rather they can phase down the use of coal, it is like Voltaire’s view depicted in his satirical creation ‘Pangloss’. In the fictional character Pangloss of Voltaire’s novel ‘Candide’, we see the defiance of all evidence including an earthquake in Lisbon in which thirty thousand people of all ages were crushed under the ruins. Pangloss consoles survivors by telling them ‘all that is for the best’. What we have achieved in COP 26 is like Voltaire’s Panglossian view of ‘as good as we can get’. So some part of the deal hope has survived but not enough optimistic, in other part of the deal enough optimism is there but acting without hope. While former justify Voltaire’s ‘panglossian view’ later justify Sartre’s ‘without hope’ view.

On the one hand our hope for achieving net zero emission by 2050 is still alive but its pulse is very weak. So, we are not so optimistic. On the other hand, we are optimistic that talk will be ongoing and coal is now on the agenda for discussion but we are not hoping for it as Seneca said, ‘you will cease to fear if you cease to hope.’  However the COP 26 climate deal - although not legally binding - will set the global agenda on climate change for the next decade and accelerate the momentum towards net zero emission reduction using renewable energy.


The writer is a UK based academic,

chartered scientist and environmentalist, columnist and author