Climate Injustice at Glasgow Cop-Out

Yves here. If you’ve become acquainted with Jomo Kwame Sundaram’s writing, you’ll have notice that he is normally measured and careful. The departure, via show of frustration and desperation in this piece, presumably reflects widespread unhappiness among representatives of the Global South at the Glasgow COP26 climate summit. It’s obvious that these events have become exercises in porcine maquillage.

By Anis Chowdhury, Adjunct Professor at Western Sydney University and University of New South Wales (Australia), who held senior United Nations positions in New York and Bangkok and Jomo Kwame Sundaram, a former economics professor, who was United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, and received the Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought. Originally published at Jomo Kwame Sundaram’s website

The planet is already 1.1°C warmer than in pre-industrial times. July 2021 was the hottest month ever recorded in 142 years. Despite the pandemic slowdown, 2020 was the hottest year so far, ending the warmest decade (2011-2020) ever.

Betrayal in Glasgow

Summing up widespread views of the recently concluded Glasgow climate summit, former Irish President Mary Robinson observed, “People will see this as a historically shameful dereliction of duty,… nowhere near enough to avoid climate disaster”.

A hundred civil society groups lambasted the Glasgow outcome: “Instead of a multilateral agreement that puts forward a clear path to address the climate crisis, we are left with a document that takes us further down the path of climate injustice.”

Even if countries fulfil their Paris Agreement pledges, global warming is now expected to rise by 2.7°C from pre-industrial levels by century’s end. Authoritative projections suggest that if all COP26 long-term pledges and targets are met, the planet will still warm by 2.1℃ by 2100.

The United Nations Environment Programme suggests a strong chance of global warming disastrously rising over 1.5°C in the next two decades. Earlier policy targets – to halve global carbon emissions by 2030, and reach ‘net-zero’ emissions by 2050 – are now recognized as inadequate.

The Glasgow UN Framework Convention on Climate Change 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) was touted as the world’s ‘last best hope’ to save the planet. Many speeches cited disturbing trends, but national leaders most responsible for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions offered little.

Thus, developing countries were betrayed yet again. Despite contributing less to accelerating global warming, they are suffering its worst consequences. They have been left to pay most bills for ‘losses and damages’, adaptation and mitigation.

Glasgow Setbacks

Glasgow’s two biggest hopes were not realized: renewing targets for 2030 aligned with limiting warming to 1.5℃, and a clear strategy to mobilize the grossly inadequate US$100bn yearly – promised by rich country leaders before the Copenhagen COP in 2009 – to help finance developing countries’ efforts.

An exasperated African legislator dismissed the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use as an “empty pledge”, as “yet another example of Western disingenuousness … taking on the role of ‘white saviour’” while exploiting the African rain forest.

Meanwhile, far too many loopholes open to abuse remain, undermining efforts to reduce emissions. Further, no commitment to end fossil fuel subsidies globally – at US$11 million every minute, i.e., around US$6 trillion annually – was forthcoming.

No new oil and gas fields should be developed for the world to have a chance of getting to net-zero by 2050. Nevertheless, governments are still approving such projects, typically involving transnational corporate giants.

Various measures – e.g., ‘carbon capture and storage’ and ‘offsetting’ – have been touted as solutions. But carbon capture and storage technologies remain controversial, unproven at scale, expensive and rarely cost-competitive.

The Glasgow outcome did not include any commitment to fully phase out oil and gas. Meanwhile, the language on coal has been diluted to become virtually toothless: coal-powered plants will now be ‘phased down’, instead of ‘phased out’.

Offsets Off Track

Offset market advocates claim to reduce emissions or remove GHGs from the atmosphere by some to ‘off-set’ emissions by others. Thus, offsetting often means paying someone poor to cut GHG emissions or forcing them to pay someone else to do so. With more means, big business can more easily afford to ‘greenwash’.

Carbon offset markets have long overpromised, but underdelivered. As they typically exaggerate GHG emission reduction claims, offsetting is a poor substitute for actually cutting fossil fuel use. Meanwhile, disagreements over offset rules have long stalled international climate change negotiations.

Buying offsets allows GHG emitters “to keep polluting”, albeit for a fee. Highly GHG emitting activities by wealthier individuals, companies and nations can thus continue, after “transferring the burden of action and sacrifice to others” – typically to those in poorer nations – via the market.

For Tariq Fancy – who managed ‘sustainable investing’ at BlackRock, the world’s largest fund manager – the market for offsets is a “deadly distraction”, “leading the world into a dangerous mirage, … burning valuable time”.

Meanwhile, most established offset programmes – e.g., the United Nations’ REDD+ programme or the Kyoto Protocol’s Clean Development Mechanism– have clearly failed to meaningfully reduce GHG emissions.

More than 130 countries have committed to achieve net-zero by 2050. But net-zero targeting has actually allowed the world to continue kicking the can down the road, instead of acting decisively and urgently to verifiably cut GHG emissions.

Hence, it is seen as a cynical “scam”, “nothing more than an expensive cover-up for continued toxic emissions”. Trading non-verifiable offsets – supposedly to achieve net-zero – allows continuing GHG emissions with business almost as usual.

Loss and Damage?

Vulnerable and poor nations have argued for decades that rich countries owe them compensation for irreversible damage from global warming. In fact, no UN climate conference has delivered any funding for losses and damages to countries affected.

Rich countries agreed to begin a ‘dialogue’ to discuss “arrangements for the funding of activities to avert, minimize and address loss and damage”. Representing developing nations, Guinea expressed “extreme disappointment” at this ruse to delay progress on financing recovery from and rebuilding after climate disasters.

Developed nations account for two-thirds of cumulative emissions compared to only 3% from Africa. Carbon emissions by the wealthiest 1% of the world’s population were more than twice those of the bottom half between 1990 and 2015!

Low-lying small island nations – from the Marshall Islands to Fiji and Antigua – fear losing much of their land to rising sea levels. But their longstanding call to create a ‘loss and damage’ fund was rejected yet again.

South Pacific island representatives have expressed disappointment at lack of funding for losses and damages, and the watered down language on coal. For them, COP26 was a ‘monumental failure’, leaving them in existential peril.

Although historical responsibility for GHG emissions lies primarily with the wealthy countries, especially the US and the European Union, once again, they have successfully evaded serious commitments to address such longstanding problems due to global warming.

Climate Injustice

For the UN Secretary-General, “[o]ver the past 25 years, the richest 10% of the global population has been responsible for more than half of all carbon emissions, and the poorest 50% were responsible for just 7% of emissions”.

The World Bank estimate sthat, if left unchecked, climate change will condemn 132 million more people into poverty over the next decade, while displacing more than 216 million from their homes and land by 2050.

Meanwhile, poorer countries – who have contributed least to cumulative GHG emissions – continue to suffer most. To address climate injustice, rich countries – most responsible for GHG emissions and global warming – must do much more.

Their finance for developing countries ought to be much more ambitious than US$100bn yearly. Financing terms should be far more generous than currently. Also, funding should prioritize adaptation, especially for the poorest countries most at risk.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    COP26 demonstrated clearly that there is simply no chance of an international agreement working to combat climate disaster until its far too late. The rich countries will not give the resources needed to the poor countries, and the fast growing ‘mid’ level countries will not give up their ‘right’ to dirty growth to catch up. International agreements are only likely to work on sectoral issues, such as protecting habitats and preventing the trashing of the oceans.

    The only hope is action at national level – for self interest if nothing else (this is one of the main reasons why China is genuinely concerned). The best thing the wealthy countries can do is drive down the cost of energy saving and renewables and undermine the economics of fossil fuels by whatever means necessary. And this will only happen with mass active political action. And this will only happen when the majority of people get really, really scared by the runaway elephant thats about to hit them. And by then its probably too late to do anything but mitigate things marginally. But really, we have no other choice, even if it is probably too late.

    1. MP

      and the fast growing ‘mid’ level countries will not give up their ‘right’ to dirty growth to catch up

      I disagree with this assessment. This is a commonly used line in the right-wing US media to deflect away from the real issue. The reason Global South countries are under-developed and have to “catch up” is because of Western countries’ colonialism and neo-colonialism, and they only “catch up” to a system that is built primarily for Western consumption. The root of the issue is our global consumption, and even (as has been talked about on this site), “green” solutions proffered are really just as dirty because the whole deal really depends on….. less consumption overall! There’s no getting around that we need to drive less, fly less, and consume less, which isn’t an individual choice, or even an individual country’s choice, but a global choice to decouple our societal indicators from growth. ie: socialism or barbarism.

    2. steven

      From everything I can see the Chinese are having trouble transitioning from exploiting their cheap labor and lax environmental restrictions – including especially burning coal and other fossil fuels – in exchange for yet more technology transfer from the West. From the 70s to maybe a few years ago this made sense from a Chinese perspective but it is hard to see how it does anymore. Looks to me like the Chinese are having as much trouble breaking free of a government controlled by their billionaires as we are a government controlled by Wall Street and the fossil fuels industry.

      If the US government really wanted to beat up on Russia and China, how about a national policy that declares all-out war on fossil fuels (Russia I believe is still mainly an oil-state) and repatriates off-shored jobs to the US?

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Hopefully people will make the point ever louder and ever clearer in public that until Free Trade is abolished or at least totally defected from, none of what you suggest is possible. Free Trade Agreements and Treaties were designed on purpose to make what you suggest impossible.

        Nothing is possible until Free Trade has been exterminated. Hopefully that can be done without rounding up and killing every single Free Trade supporter and practitioner within the borders of America, because that would be political mass-democide, and no nice liberal would ever want to suggest doing such a thing.

    3. flora

      Reading the post’s description of how COP26 treats developing countries, it seems that Whitney Webb could be right about the real purpose of the COP26 meeting, at least for the developed world’s “leaders”. hint: it’s nothing to do with climate.

      Whitney Webb’s assessment of COP26:

      ” The most powerful private financial interests in the world, under the cover of COP26, have developed a plan to transform the global financial system by fusing with institutions like the World Bank and using them to further erode national sovereignty in the developing world. ”

  2. Dave in Austin

    For the rich countries there are actually two choices; one, as Plutonium Kum said, is to drive down the cost of renewables and drive up the cost of fossil fuels. The second is” batten down the hatches”; accept that with no Third World buy-in the increase in CO-2 and temperature are inevitable and the best course is stop all immigration, do Swiss-style food and fuel reserves, and also reduce fossil demands with renewables and taxes.

    The latter choice is essentially an abandonment of the more overpopulated parts of the world and an acceptance that a government’s most important job is to protect its own people from being sideswiped by history. During WWII think Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal and Turkey, all of whom choose moral pragmatism and selfdefense over doing good.

    If you don’t have a copy yet, the best book on the science of climate change for a literate audience is “the Physics of Climate Change” by Lawrence M. Krauss. I’m giving some away for Christmas… the proverbial bag of coal.

  3. David

    It’s worth remembering that in essence politics is like physics – it’s about forces acting on bodies. Political obstacles can therefore be just as real as physical ones. The problem with global warming is that the number of interlinked moving parts is enormous, and the number of combinations of them almost infinite. It’s become too complex a problem for any individual country to have much control, or even influence, over, and attempts at action in one area will have unforeseeable consequences elsewhere. Which means, I’m afraid, that mitigation is the best we can realistically hope for.

    1. NotThePilot

      I’m not sure I agree politics is entirely like physics, though there are some remarkable similarities, to thermodynamics in particular. I’m also not sure it necessarily means humanity is doomed to fail at the climate crisis.

      What I do agree 100% though is that there’s something about the problem we still don’t really understand. Yes, we know about the greenhouse effect, fossil fuels, even how things like consumerism, capitalism, & imperialism contribute to it. Yet there’s some other mechanism that prevents what most of us know we need to do from translating into actively doing it.

      To riff off Spinoza again, we have many ideas about the problem, but still only inadequate ideas. Or to put it in more current terms, we’re still at step 2 in the underpants gnome business-plan.

      I think slowly and surely, you’ll see people pop up that do understand that mechanism (and therefore acquire power over it). It will be stochastic though, so there won’t be any cathartic moment when humanity joins hands & enacts a clean solution. Instead, there will be a chaotic grab-bag of actions, ranging from individuals quietly doing their own small-scale thing to entire states being overthrown. In the aggregate, it will be a very messy period of muddling through, and while we won’t land anywhere near the best-case outcome, I also think we’ll avoid a lot of the worst-case too.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Free Trade Abolition and Rigid Militant Belligerent Protectionism-restoration is an adequate idea which makes other adequate ideas and responses possible.

        Want implicit proof? Just look how fanatically the Free Trade running dog lacky flunky stooges obstruct our ability to defect from the Free Trade system. But till we can run away from the Free Trade Plantation, we will not be free to downcarbonize our own economy within our own borders. If we try to downcarbonize in a Free Trade context, our trading enemies will flood us with their carbon skydumping production and destroy every downcarbonization effort we make.

        Trade is the pursuit of War by other methods.

      2. Thomas Neuburger

        Yet there’s some other mechanism that prevents what most of us know we need to do from translating into actively doing it.

        Our nature as a species. If we were bonobos, for example, the outcomes might be very different.


  4. drumlin woodchuckles

    ” International co-operation” is where fond hopes and wishes go to die.

    De-fossilize America? Or even down-fossilize it? Not possible until every Free Trade Agreement is abolished and every Free Trade organization is defected from. You can either have Free Trade heat death, or National Autarky global re-cooling.

    Climate Justice? Tell it to Beijing. Till then, cry me a skycarbon river.

  5. drumlin woodchuckles

    If it makes Chowdhury and Sundaram feel any better, climate suffering in the “rich” world will catch up to climate suffering in the “poor” world pretty soon now.

    And I don’t know where Sundaram lives, but I gather that Chowdhury lives in Australia. Which means that Chowdhury is part of the rich world and his university salary depends on Australia having the economy to support his university. And the Australian economy makes its money by shoveling coal for Satan ( selling coal to China).

    So Chowdhury is part of the problem at the structural level.

    1. witters

      “Chowdhury is part of the problem at the structural level” – if it is structural, then Chowdbury is not the problem. The problem is structural, not individual. Still, helps to blame someone…

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