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COP26 – global ‘step forward’ leaves the poorest nations drowning

On Saturday 13 November, 197 nations signed the COP26 Agreement that saw important improvements in key areas such as coal and methane but ultimately global leaders have fallen short of their ambition to bind nations below 1.5C.

The headline achievements of the summit are cautiously progressive. An important global partnership has been announced to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030 – this is one of the most cost-effective short term solutions available, believed to have the potential to avoid 0.3C of warming by 2040. Global rules for Carbon Market have been formalised, leading to a boom in speculative investment that analysts believe will push up the price of carbon and so ultimately incentivise cleaner technologies above abatement strategies. Most significantly, leaders signed the first ever agreement that pledged to reduce the use of fossil fuels at source, rather than simply to reduce emissions as has been pledged previously. The UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, hailed it as a “decisive shift” away from coal dependency. However, in the final minutes of Saturday’s  negotiations China and India forced a redrafting of the commitment, reducing the agreement to “phase out” coal to one that seeks to “phase down” coal. This is a significant softening that gives nations wiggle-room and ambiguity going into future summits.

On Friday, hundreds of delegates walked out of the summit in order to join protestors in expressing their frustration with the proceedings, labelling the failure to meet the 1.5C commitment “A Giant COP Up” on street banners. Even the Prime Minister admitted that the conference was “tinged with disappointment”. Analysts at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research estimates that the summit has moved the world’s trajectory from 2.7C of warming to 1.9C if all pledges are met. Given these agreement’s tendency for ‘slippage’ and delay, the future of 2C seems uncertain.

This crucial difference, between below 1.5C and below 2.0C, appears to be undervalued by wealthier nations and the developing nations with the most power as they seek to balance important economic priorities with their national economic ambitions. The watering down of coal commitments, and the failure of COP26 to bind nations to 1.5C, is reflective of a privilege among wealthier nations. For small island states and the world’s lowest lying and poorest nations climate change creates poverty in a more absolute and destructive sense than is being prioritised by wealthier nations in their softening of the agreement. Aminath Shauna, environment minister of the Maldives, does not see the COP26 agreement as a hopeful document, emphasising that “The difference between 1.5C and 2C is a death sentence for us.” Indian, Chinese, and Brazilian delegates have historically emphasised that the economic development of their countries must not be stifled by climate targets only necessary due to the unrestricted economic expansion of the ‘West’ since the industrial revolution. This was an important and reasonable argument at previous summits but in watering down this most recent agreement, countries have failed to recognise their own position of privilege and power. The small-island states have been at the forefront of climate activism for years, the failure to heed their warnings, and the devastation that it may entail, represents a significant failure of COP26 and the perpetuation of a question of global inequality and the reality that climate is as much a social and political question as an environmental problem.