COP26 – Are we selling a fictional agreement?

Anđela Kostić
Anđela is a Junior Fellow at CIRSD. She attained her Master’s Degree in Global Affairs and Policy at the Graduate School of International Studies, Yonsei University

In the past decade, environmental degradation has led to a serious rise in natural disasters, from earthquakes to fires, flooding, droughts, extreme weather conditions, even higher risk of pandemics. Such changes in our natural environment not only impede reaching sustainability goals, but also gravely impact our sole existence. The discussion on climate change has come tremendously far since 1995, when the first Conference of the Parties (COP) was held in Berlin. From there on out, COP has been held every single year, bringing together world leaders to discuss the pressing issues of climate change and how to overcome them. Although we have been moving in the right direction, our actions have fallen short time and again.

COP26 – This year’s outcomes

A month ago, the outcomes of COP26, held in Glasgow, were finally announced. The goals of the Glasgow Climate Pact are as follows:

  1. Secure global net zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach
  2. Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats
  3. Mobilise finance
  4. Work together to deliver

There is a clear reiteration of the goals set during the 2015 Conference in Paris, the most important difference being the acknowledgement that keeping the global warming between 1.5 and 2 degrees is lethal for the Planet and that the states need to strive for the 1.5 mark. Nevertheless, this echo of proclaimed targets inevitably raises the question of why we are still far from fulfilling these goals?

Issues with wording

One of the major setbacks of the Paris Agreement, which represented a watershed in combating climate crisis at the time, was its language. A thorough examination of the text of the Agreement shows a number of ‘should’, ‘may’ ‘encourage to’, ‘pursue effort’ etc., alluding to suggestions, rather than unavoidable obligations. Such a format not only leaves room for interpretation, but more importantly diminishes the accountability of any signatory state. Accordingly, some of the biggest polluters, such as China and the US, seemed to have justified their lack of curbing gas emissions by claiming that they have been making efforts to lower them, however, not to the degree outlined in the Agreement. The language used in the Glasgow Climate Pact draft appears to be more authoritative. There is an emphasis on words such as ‘urges’, ‘resolves’, ‘requires’, ‘notes with serious concern’, ‘urgent need to’, ‘requests’ etc., all of which potentially create a stronger sense of obligation and urgency. Nevertheless, even this language lacks decisiveness, as Ambassador Aubrey Webson rightly stated. What is needed are abiding laws that will unconditionally hold the signatory states accountable for their actions, otherwise, the fate of those whose existence is at stake will depend on weak promises.

Mobilizing Finances

The biggest emphasis of this year’s Conference in Glasgow was finance mobilization, a pivotal point in moving forward. Namely, the war between economic growth and environmental preservation has been presented to the general public as a zero-sum game, where the gains of the former necessarily cause the losses for the latter, and vice versa. The misconception that sacrificing the environment is mandatory for achieving economic prosperity seems to be the trademark of the capitalist world we live in. No one ever offers a third choice: a healthier environment and economic growth. Understanding that this alternative option exists and that climate policies are not a ‘necessary evil’, but rather our only chance for survival, is important for the budget allocation, as the aforementioned argument would then finally become obsolete. Hence, mobilising finances more efficiently and effectively might make or break this battle. In this sense, the goal for stronger cooperation on a global level intertwines with finance mobilization. Both least developed and developing countries have expressed their concerns over the lack of funding coming from the developed world. While developed countries need to create better strategies to expand their climate funds and transfer their technology, developing countries and LDCs need to make these assets more accessible and easily available. Additionally, pressure needs to be put on the latter, to ensure avoiding corruption and proper governance of the assets. Thus, there is not only exigency for greater cooperation on a global level, but also on a national level, between governments and national organizations, as well as between governments and their people. ‘No man left behind’ policy is a must. The prime example of why this is important can be observed in the current context of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. It is evident that the politicization of vaccine distribution in its earlier stages has not only led to widening the gap between the North and the South, but also prolonged the fight with the virus, as new variants keep surging. Hence, failing to work together and include every single state can only lead to a collapse on a global scale.

North – South Cooperation

With regard to North-South relations, what also needs to be addressed is the support the governments of developed countries give to businesses known for using polluting technology and exploitation. While the rich North claims to be fighting climate change, many of their companies are not only still operating using dirty technology but are also expanding to the poor South. Such expansion allows them to evade tightening environmental regulations in their country of origin and gain higher profit due to lower salary rates in the developing world. Moreover, this is consciously backed by the Southern Governments, who are going out of their way to create laws that allow such businesses to thrive on their territory. In 2013, a factory in Bangladesh, that manufactured items for famous brands such as Gucci, Versace, Prada, Mango, Primark, Walmart etc. collapsed, leaving many killed and injured. The lack of safety regulations in the country itself, as well as the desire of companies to pay less for the working force, led to a tragic outcome. In the aftermath, while some of the famous brands were on board with signing an agreement, whose main goal was to tighten the worker safety and protection laws in Bangladesh, some tried to avoid any responsibility and refused to sign it. However, due to the growing external pressure from the international community, the majority of the companies involved pledged to work on improving labour safety in Bangladesh. In Serbia, people have been currently protesting against the new expropriation law, which would make it easier for the state to obtain privately owned land and use it for ‘general public interest’. The Government has plans to assign some of the most fertile land to one of the biggest mining corporations, Rio Tinto, and let it operate there. Even though experts have warned that this would have disastrous effects on the land and water in the region, the ruling party seems to be unfazed, stating that this project is good for the economy. In addition, the company itself, has been trying to assure the Serbian public that they will be following all the environmental regulations set by the EU, despite having a previous record of destroying natural habitats and the environment. Although the fight is far from over, the protests have proven to be effective as the law is now being withdrawn. Continuous activism as well as prolonged exposure to climate concerns, conducted by impactful individuals and the general public on a global scale, have led many of the industry giants, such as Coca-Cola for example, to rethink their business strategies and reshape them, to better fit the eco-friendly sustainable community we are trying to build. The company is aiming to lower their carbon footprint by making the bottles more degradable, reduce water use, and reduce the consumption of energy. Moreover, many clothing brands seem to have hopped on the initiative to create and label their apparel as partly or fully made of recyclable and eco-friendly materials. Despite the fact that such a policy has most likely been adopted due to the current popular trends in the fashion industry, where such actions are considered ‘cool’ and ‘alternative’, its positive impacts on the environment should not be overlooked. We can only hope that these trends will weave into our society and become an integral part of our future routine.

All the above examples indicate why contradictory actions from both the North and the South need to be scrutinized and why the governments need to be held accountable. Combating climate change is not about pledging to do better, while covertly supporting projects that are hazardous to the environment and the people, especially those in the developing world. It is about collective effort and minimizing the gap. The only acceptable cooperation between the North and the South is the one that boosts environmental regeneration, combats climate change, and works on sustainability. Although labour exploitation and the use of dirty technology is still present in the industry, the public has become much more critical of such behaviour and if the international community continues to join forces when such issues arise, we could certainly be witnessing more positive outcomes for our communities and the environment. Even though the Glasgow Climate Pact calls for high levels of global cooperation, the lack of clauses calling for the countries to be held responsible for such operations might prove to be the downfall of this year’s agreement.

Trustworthiness of World Leaders

As if the covert actions were not enough, some of the world leaders, who pledged to do their best in order to combat this crisis, broke the promise multiple times by openly backing non-environmentally friendly projects. At the top of the list is Brazil – a home to the largest rainforest in the world – Amazon. Although the country is a signatory state to this year’s agreement, as it has been in the previous ones as well, the current president continues to publicly push for weakening of the protection policies that could potentially cripple the habitat of one of the most important producers of oxygen and largest carbon sinks in the world. His support of agricultural businesses and destruction of the forest is, yet again, justified and done in the name of economic prosperity. Further deforestation of Amazon would most certainly increase the risk of natural disasters, as well as significantly lower the quality of life and accelerate the speed of climate change. Another major concern, when it comes to honouring the agreement, is China. As the biggest polluter in the world, China continues to have insufficient policies and keeps favouring further dates when it comes to the net zero target, showing struggles to break away from the vicious cycle of capitalism. Such decisions put a strain on other countries, as they would have to reach the net zero target much earlier than 2050 in order to curb climate change on a global scale. Nonetheless, these two countries are not the only ones breaking the pact, as the overall index of fighting climate change and following the agreed targets globally stands at highly insufficient, as stated in the Climate Action Tracker.

One of the most surprising moments of this year’s COP26, was the China-US joint declaration to up climate cooperation and reach the 1.5-degree warming target. However, not even a month after the agreement, the two countries seem to be in turmoil, as the US declared a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, which are to be held in Beijing, and China swiftly responded that such measures would lead to unfavourable countermeasures. Thus, led by past and current experiences, even though 197 countries signed the Glasgow Climate Pact of 2021, it is too early to claim that the conference brought fruitful results. Actions speak louder than words, and the world is yet to witness a positive change in the behaviour of governments, corporate heads, and individuals, who continue to break promises.

Where to go from here?

Notwithstanding the fact that significant points were brought up during this year’s COP26, and the resolutions, in theory, put forth impeccable solutions to this omnipresent issue, the widening gap between the North and the South, capitalist tendencies, continuous political turbulences, and most importantly, insufficient measures that would ensure state accountability, all lead to the conclusion that rather than moving forward with concrete actions, we keep making fictional agreements that lead to nowhere. Although the general public seems to be waking up and is, now, more than ever, actively pleading for a change all across the globe, the governments and the corporate world need to reject the capitalist mindset and stop using economic prosperity as an excuse for continuous destruction of the environment. Climate change is real, and if we do not come together and act immediately, there will be no more chances to reverse it. 

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