Natural Disasters

COP 26: What happened and why should I care? | by Feron Jayawardene | Nov, 2021

The climate change conference underdelivered but kept hopes alive to save millions of people from natural disasters

Feron Jayawardene

After 24 hours of going into overtime, the president of the COP 26 summit, Alok Sharma, was still huddling. This time it was with the Indian and Chinese delegations who had turned the screws after 11 hours of debating. After some shuttling here and there with his large notebook clipped in his hands, he came back to the president’s chair.

A disappointing look overtook his face before raising his gavel to confirm the final draft of the summit. Holding off tears, he said, “I apologise for the way this process has been unfolded. I’m deeply sorry.”

The final draft of the summit which all 197 countries in the UN were about to sign read that countries would “phase out” the use of unabated coal, until the Indian delegation, coupled with the Chinese, changed the word to “phase down.”

In reply to the disgruntled EU and its US counterparts, the Indian climate minister Bhupender Yadav asked, “how can developing countries promise to phase out coal and fossil fuel subsidies when we still have to deal with our development?”

Thus, the 26th climate summit, held in Glasgow, drew to a close last Saturday. The final day shenanigans perfectly captured the disposition of the 13-day conference where many activists, scientists, politicians, and delegations were left to ponder the fine margins between developing and saving the world.

Still, the significance of this summit and its objectives comes at a time where humanity is on the brink of a major disaster that’s bound to happen within this century.

At present, the world is warming by high levels which in turn causes extreme weather changes. The summer of 2021 saw record temperatures, fires, floods killing hundreds in the northwestern Americas, choking swaths of Siberia, inundating cities in Germany and drowning subway commuters in China. At least Four Nations experienced their warmest October days on record (Iran 46C/ Morocco 43.5C/ China 38.9C/ South Korea 32.3C).

Since the industrial revolution, the world has heated up by about 1.1 degrees Celsius. The heating doesn’t stop due to emissions from fossil fuels used by humans — like coal, oil, and gas. If this heating keeps on rising, the extreme weather conditions and threat to human lives will worsen.

Hence, during the Paris climate summit in 2015, scientists and world leaders decided the safest achievable goal for temperature change is to be 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Putting this into the context of the human body, the difference between a healthy temperature and a high fever can be less than 1 degrees Celsius. The Earth, too, has such fine margins. Reducing heating by 1 degree Celsius could save millions of humans, plants, and animals from disastrous consequences;

If temperatures reach 2C (Celsius), 420 million more people would be frequently exposed to extreme heatwaves and heat-related deaths would be twice as fast. 18% of insect species, 16% of plants, and 8% of vertebrates are projected to lose half of their habitats, at least double the proportion of 1.5C. For the oceans, 2 degrees Celsius rather than 1.5 degrees Celsius would mean increased acidification, oxygen depletion and more dead zones. This would raise the pressure on fisheries and give corals a vanishingly small chance of survival. Ice-free Arctic summers will be 10 times more likely which will expose up to 2.5 square kilometres of permanent frost to melting. By the end of this century, sea levels are likely to rise at least 10 centimetres more than they would at 1.5 degrees Celsius, leaving 10.4 million more people vulnerable.

If temperatures reach 3C, the average drought rises to 10 months, up from 2 months at 1.5C, while the areas burned by wildfires will be doubled worldwide. Ice-free Arctic summers would be certain while the risk of marine heatwave is likely to be 41 times higher than it was in the preindustrial age.

At 4C, global excess deaths due to heat are likely to increase six times faster than they would at 1.5C. Add another half a degree and two-thirds of plants, insects, and invertebrates are likely to lose more than half their climate range. Forests, wetlands, and other nature abundant regions of the planet would be unrecognisable including coastal regions.

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The agreed 1.5C mark is vital for survival. The Paris Agreement united almost all the world’s nations — for the first time — in a single agreement on cutting the greenhouse gas emissions which cause global warming. Almost all nations agreed to “pursue efforts” to limit global temperature rises to 1.5C, and to keep them “well below” 2.0 above pre-industrial times.

Despite countries making these efforts, recent reports have warned that the world is on track for disastrous heating of more than 2.4C. The report revealed that temperature rises will top 2.7C by the end of this century based on the short-term goals countries have set out. That would far exceed both the 2C upper limit the Paris accord set and the much safer 1.5C limit aimed for at the Cop26 talks.

“At that level, widespread extreme weather — sea-level rises, drought, floods, heatwaves, and fiercer storms — would cause devastation across the globe,” the report warned.

The COP26 summit happened at this critical point and backdrop. Almost 200 countries came together in Glasgow, in the biggest international summit the UK has ever hosted. Negotiations, run by the UN, focused on securing the final parts of the Paris Agreement, setting national targets for reducing emissions by 2030 and reaching net zero.

At the end of the summit, all countries signed the Glasgow Climate Pact.

The Glasgow Climate Pact is the first-ever climate deal to explicitly plan to reduce coal, the worst fossil fuel for greenhouse gases. The deal also presses for more urgent emission cuts and promises more money for developing countries — to help them adapt to climate impacts.

More than 100 world leaders also promised to end and reverse deforestation by 2030, in the COP26 climate summit’s first major deal. Leaders representing over 85% of the world’s forests committed to halt and reverse deforestation and land degradation by 2030. £8.75 billion ($12bn) of public funds will be committed to protect and restore forests, alongside £5.3 billion ($7.2 billion) of private investment.

A commitment to phase out coal that was included in earlier negotiation drafts led to a dramatic finish after India and China led opposition to it. In the end, countries agreed to “phase down” rather than “phase out” coal, amid expressions of disappointment by some. Coal is responsible for about 40% of annual CO2 emissions, making it central in efforts to keep within the 1.5C target. To meet this goal, agreed in Paris in 2015, global emissions need to be reduced by 45% by 2030 and to nearly zero by mid-century.

Countries will again meet next year to pledge further major carbon cuts to reach the 1.5C goal. Current pledges, if fulfilled, will only limit global warming to about 2.4C.

However, not all promises were fulfilled. A pledge by developed nations to provide $100bn (£75bn) per year to emerging economies, made in 2009, was supposed to have been delivered by 2020. However, the date was missed. It was designed to help developing nations adapt to climate effects and make the transition to clean energy. In an effort to calm delegates, Mr Sharma said around $500bn would be mobilised by 2025.

All in all, the agreements and deals made by the 196 nations in Glasgow nudged the world a little closer towards the path to keeping global temperature rises below 1.5C and avoiding the worst of the climate crisis’s impacts. But in absolute terms, there is still a mountain to climb.

Studies found out that the new pledges announced on methane, coal, transport, and deforestation could nudge the world 9% closer to a pathway that keeps heating to 1.5C.

This also means the world is 91% far from securing a safe climate heating zone.

Many activists, scientists and politicians were left disappointed after the summit. They wanted more. The UN Secretary-General António Guterres said the world must “go into emergency mode” on climate change, as the agreement does not go far enough. “I know you are disappointed, but the path of progress is not always a straight line,” he said.

Alok Sharma, the president was holding back his tears while apologising. “I’m deeply sorry, I also understand the deep disappointment. But I think as you all have noted, it is also vital that we protect this package,” he said.

Meanwhile, Greta Thunberg sang, “You can shove your climate crisis up your arse” with her extinction rebellion and Greenpeace activists outside the summit premises. After the summit ended, she tweeted, “The #COP26 is over. Here’s a brief summary: Blah, blah, blah.”

Glasgow will keep hope alive — but the real-world impact of COP26 won’t be known for several years.

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