COP26: “Incredible, inspiring and depressing”

COP26 Blog2

I was fortunate to have a SOAS pass for the COP26 in Glasgow this week. The experience was incredible, inspiring and depressing. Once through the UN and NHS bureaucracy and the physical security rings of the Scottish Event Campus, there was an intense throng of ministers, corporates, activists and academics. The list of delegates ran to over 1000 pages.

COP is about party negotiations, but it is also about lobbying, representation and making broader narratives. There is a lot at stake in Climate Change debate and policy. Saudi Arabia, for example, was busy promoting a plan for hydrogen manufacturing and global distribution networks to maintain its place at the heart of the world’s energy supply.

The phrase of the conference was ‘net zero’, an idea promoted by COP and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to bring carbon emissions to ‘net-zero’ by 2050 to keep the warming to within 1.5 °C of pre-industrial levels. Step back from the enormity of the action required, and ‘net zero’ may also be seen as the promotion of a technological fix to a problem that is social, cultural and related to the failures of governance. The rhetoric disguises the inbuilt inequality, a point repeatedly made by Diego Pacheco, Rector of the University of the Cordillera and Head of the Bolivian delegation, who also spoke on behalf of other Lower Middle-Income Countries.

The Climate Change Minister for Pakistan, Malik Amina Aslam, was in Glasgow to promote the country’s Nature-based solutions. He was bullish and spoke about the work of the Imran Khan government had undertaken in relation to climate action and the restoration of ‘nature’. Responsible for less than 1% of global emissions the minister claimed, Pakistan was not part of the problem but had decided to be part of the solution. He said, “We are not just talking, but walking the talk on climate change”. As he was speaking, I was reminded of Mustafa Khan’s recent PhD from SOAS on the construction of lignite-fired power stations in Sindh.

At the SOAS pre-COP event, I recall speakers describing how Japan continues to export coal-fired power stations to lower-income countries and how Ghana invested in hydro-electricity in the 1970s as a sustainable national priority, but now the water has dried up, perhaps due to climate change, there is little alternative to generating electricity from fossil fuels. In the smaller rooms of COP26, and on the fringes, activists and campaigners in climate change spaces grew increasingly frustrated as the conference went on because no fundamental changes had been negotiated. These instances pointed to the seemingly widening gaps between what countries/parties need to do, what they say they will do, and what they actually do.

At the start of the conference, Narendra Modi pledged to increase non-fossil energy capacity, to generate 50 percent of energy from renewable sources, and reduce projected carbon emissions by 1 billion tonnes by 2030. The headline claim was however to achieve net-zero carbon by 2070, following China 2060 and USA 2050: 49, 39 and 29 years into the future.

The pledges raise many questions, not least of which is how they square with current energy use, the continued adoption and promotion of technologies and forms of manufacture that ‘lock-in’ carbon consumption, and the future of the now infamous ‘green coal’ that India burns so much of. There is also the big question of how decarbonisation at this rate will serve the simultaneous push for economic and industrial growth – illustrating, to me at least, the profound tension between internal-facing political priorities and international projections of national will. For some countries, the adoption of ‘renewable’ energy technology is about energy transition, for others, like India at this historic moment, ‘renewable’ energy is a way of generating more energy alongside carbon technologies. This fundamental point is often overlooked.

By the end of the conference, Alok Sharma, President of COP26 and former ‘infrastructure envoy’ to India was fighting with emotion as he apologised for changing a clause on fossil fuels following heavy-weight interventions from India and China, as the wording of the agreement went from ‘phase out’ to ‘phase down’ coal.

Edward Simpson is the Director of the SOAS South Asia Institute, Head of Anthropology and Sociology, and Professor of Social Anthropology at SOAS. His primary research interest is in how abstract ideas are made into concrete/real things, particularly in relation to infrastructures, climate change, humanitarianism and sustainability politics. 

Explore the COP26 series, read Dr Giuseppina Siciliano’s blog ‘COP26: A “just” decision-making process is needed for a “just” transition’.

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