Some takeaways from COP26

3rd December 2021 By: Saliem Fakir

We are in what we may call slow burn and incremental shock of climate vulnerability – recent events tell a story of increased frequency of extreme weather patterns, yet the world struggles to engage in global collective action that is beyond pledges and symbolic gestures.

We cannot be oblivious to the reality that the scale of collective action that is required will take place in a period of intense geopolitical rivalry and is the backdrop to the recent climate peace-pipe deal between the administration of US President Joe Biden and the Chinese government – the deal is to promise to work together against the unambiguous US foreign policy doctrine of ‘compete, cooperate and confront’, which is directed at China.

Is all that happens at the Conference of the Parties (COPs) a pretense or for real?

The COPs and the Paris Agreement processes may be the only processes where political equanimity for developing countries remains an important space for engagement on the most important global issue for the foreseeable decades. But they are not the only space where climate issues are being dealt with – they are slowly creeping into the peace and security domain, as well as trade and geopolitical partnerships and technology innovation, driven largely to pursue strategic technology and security imperatives.

In truth, success at a COP makes you feel like it’s one step forward and two steps backwards.

The outcomes of the recent COP can be seen as good or bad, depending on which side of the fence one sits. For those who have been in the negotiation bubble for years, every word and nuance is a little victory. Such is the nature of the negotiations that the last-minute tussle over the phrases ‘phase out’ or ‘phase down’, which India and China insisted be the final wording for the Glasgow Climate Pact, lays the basis for the next COP, to be hosted in the land of the pyramids, Egypt – in the desert resort of Sharm-El-Sheik – next year.

The phrase ‘phase down’ implies there will be no radical exit from coal for the next decade or so – not until China, India, South Africa and others feel comfortable enough that, after the exit, their economies will not be subject to what Daniela Gabor and Isabella Weber describe as “carbon shock therapy”. This is a reference to economic policy that prescribes radical economic reforms, such as the liberalisation of markets and privatisation witnessed in Eastern Europe and Russia soon after the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

The authors draw similarities between radical phase-out options and market-orientated solutions to climate change and warn of a unjust transition and a bloodbath for poorer economies.

China, in particular, avoided a Russian-style shock therapy and collapse by taking a more gradualist and calculated approach.

South Africa came out shining (after years of lacklustre climate diplomacy) by securing a political agreement with four advanced economies and the European Union around the Just Energy Transition Transaction. This notable achievement, which was led by State-owned electricity utility Eskom, is now a whole government initiative, bar Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, who suggested at the recent Africa Energy Conference that Africa should push back against the antifossil fuel brigade.

Mantashe’s words will resonate with some because the world is still filled with hypocrisy. He would have no leg to stand on if those countries that are leading the campaign against coal – not just making pledges but taking real action – leave some room for coal, even though they have closed the tap on coal, continue to shower subsidies for the fossil fuel industry and have no phase-out plan for gas. Pushing other countries off the cliff while they themselves have benefited enormously from exploiting the world’s carbon budget without the rest of the world really having recourse to measures to adjust to the transition is going to pit sovereign economic risk against dealing with a climate crisis.

Is change happening? The tally of emissions pledges through the Nationally Determined Contributions and outside the Paris Agreement is perhaps more telling of the real state of play. Prior to the recent COP, the United Nations did a stock take and said we are not doing enough and that our global emissions profile is heading in the wrong direction – a 2.7 ºC trajectory.

Taking into account forest pledges, methane targets and beyond-coal commitments, the post-COP26 picture is a 2.4 ºC trajectory. In reality, this could mean nothing, as high emitters have to reduce emissions by 40% by 2030 to stay on course.

A scenario with an inevitable globally fractured system looks painfully unrealistic, as every country puts economy before climate and the post-Covid-19 period makes that abundantly clear. The world is in climate change and belated mitigation plans that require a considerable phase-out of fossil fuel – rapidly – over the next decade could be too little, too late.

The global adaptation goal agreed at Glasgow does set the scene for COP27, which Egypt will host in late 2022. But Africa needs to see climate as a whole-economy engagement, not just a narrow sliver around the question of climate vulnerability and risk, and must not lose sight of the inherent economic opportunity that comes from expanding electrification, especially if this is driven by cheaper energy solutions.

The argument being made here is that issues around adaptation and resilience on the continent can be dealt with not as climate issues per se but through economic transformation – you must build resilient economies to get to climate resilience; it should not be the other way round. Africa will sell itself short if it just anchors all of this question of climate vulnerability simply as an environmental debate, when it is an opportune time to use the climate lens and risk as a way to ask: What should our economies look like before we reach the end of the century?