COP26: What you’d expect when oil companies are in and environmentalists are out

The annual get-together of the world’s governments, where in most years they express concern about global warming and announce they will continue to talk about it, was not quite the usual washout this year, as small progress was made, at least theoretically. But even if this year’s promises come to fruition, the new round of pledges fall well short of what is needed.

The 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, otherwise known as COP26, concluded its two weeks in Glasgow with congratulations all around for themselves by government participants, as is traditionally the case. If you were to judge by the participants’ pronouncement, you’d think the environment is on the verge of being saved.

For example, the official communiqué issued by the conference loftily declared, “COP26 has today concluded in Glasgow with nearly 200 countries agreeing the Glasgow Climate Pact to keep 1.5C alive and finalise the outstanding elements of the Paris Agreement.” To be fair, there was more acknowledgment that more work needs to be done than is customary, as the communiqué also said, “The Glasgow Climate Pact, combined with increased ambition and action from countries, means that 1.5C remains in sight, but it will only be delivered with concerted and immediate global efforts.”

Glasgow at night (photo by Jcdro16)

But are those very much necessary “concerted and immediate global efforts” going to be undertaken? Ah, details. Another sentence in the communiqué declared, “All countries agreed to revisit and strengthen their current emissions targets to 2030, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), in 2022. This will be combined with a yearly political roundtable to consider a global progress report and a Leaders summit in 2023.” We haven’t, alas, dispensed with the “we were happy to talk and we will be happy to talk some more” folderol that has been traditionally offered in lieu of sufficient action.

Consider the most recent conference results. COP25, two years ago in Madrid, ended with a statement that the conference “Notes with concern the state of the global climate system” but limited its action to announcing two more years of roundtables; COP24, which featured the host Polish government promoting coal, ended in an agreement to create a rulebook with no real enforcement mechanism to meet greenhouse-gas emission goals that also have no enforcement mechanism; and COP23 in Bonn ended with a promise that people will get together and talk some more.

They’re “concerned” but not concerned enough to do much about it

It is only proper to acknowledge when progress, however meager, is made, although the bar set by recent conferences is woefully low. Congratulations don’t seem to be in order here. The one tangible accomplishment is that many of the governments representing the world’s biggest contributors to global warming did agree to strengthen their goals to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The bad news is that the new commitments remain well short of meeting stated goals. The worse news is that the commitments still have no enforcement mechanisms. Peer pressure appears to remain the preferred methodology, which thus far has not imbued the world’s environmentalists with confidence. For sound reasons.

For example, an effort to have the COP26 negotiators agree to a “phase out” of coal was watered down to a “phase down,” a vague formulation with no specific meaning, and financial transfers from industrialized countries to underdeveloped countries most at risk (which are often the least culpable) have been below what has been promised and well less than what would be sufficient to mitigate damages. Mary Robinson, the former United Nations commissioner for human rights, wrote, “This represents a failure of leadership and a failure of diplomacy. World leaders must be held accountable for the climate disaster playing out on their watch. It is time to call out those who have obstructed the negotiations in Glasgow, and those who continue to downplay the climate emergency.”

Marchers for climate justice in Tanzania.

That would be difficult to argue against, although moral arguments have had limited effect thus far. Unfortunately, the final text from COP26 is full of the “concerns” and “notes” that past conferences have featured. For example, the final text states that it “Expresses alarm and utmost concern that human activities have caused around 1.1 °C of warming to date, that impacts are already being felt in every region, and that carbon budgets consistent with achieving the Paris Agreement temperature goal are now small and being rapidly depleted.” Furthermore, the text “Urges Parties that have not yet communicated new or updated nationally determined contributions to do so as soon as possible” and “Acknowledges the importance of coherent action to respond to the scale of needs caused by the adverse impacts of climate change.”

That will show the atmosphere!

The context here is that the world’s governments agreed at the Paris Climate Summit in 2015 to hold the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-Industrial Age average, a change from the previous commitment of 2 degrees, although no corresponding pledges were made to reach either goal. Following COP25 two years ago (COP26 was postponed a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic), the pledges then in existence by the world’s governments, were they honored in full, would have allowed global warming to reach 3 degrees, a catastrophic result. This was the conference in which the world’s governments were to have committed themselves to reach the Paris Climate Summit goal.

Temperature goal remains on paper, not in real world

What was actually achieved with the latest round of promises? Climate Action Tracker reports that 123 countries and the European Union submitted new NDC (nationally determined contributions) targets, although a dozen did not strengthen their commitments, a list that includes Australia, Brazil and Russia, each among the world’s biggest contributors of greenhouse gases. An analysis by the Tracker, a collaboration between Climate Analytics and NewClimate Institute, has found that were there to be full implementation of submitted and binding long-term targets and 2030 targets, the world’s temperature would increase by 1.7 to 2.6 degrees Celsius from the pre-Industrial Age average. That is well above the 1.5-degree goal.

Full implementation of just the goals set for 2030 would be enough for the world’s temperature to rise by 1.9 to 3 degrees. Worse, what the Tracker calls “real world action based on current polices” would result in a temperature increase of 2 to 3.7 degrees. The report concludes, “It is clear there is a massive credibility, action and commitment gap that casts a long and dark shadow of doubt over the net zero goals put forward by more than 140 countries, covering 90% of global emissions.” Furthermore:

“Under current policies, we estimate end-of-century warming to be 2.7°C. While this temperature estimate has fallen since our September 2020 assessment, major new policy developments are not the driving factor. We need to see a profound effort in all sectors, in this decade, to decarbonise the world to be in line with 1.5°C. Targets for 2030 remain totally inadequate: the current 2030 targets (without long-term pledges) put us on track for a 2.4°C temperature increase by the end of the century.”

The climate science news site Carbon Brief is not more optimistic. Although dismissing critics who say nothing happened at COP26, Carbon Brief nonetheless said that “current policies will lead to a best-estimate of around 2.6C to 2.7C warming by 2100 (with an uncertainty range of 2C to 3.6C)” and if both conditional and NDCs are met for 2030, the projected warming by 2100 would be 2.4C (1.8C to 3.3C). In the best-case scenario if all long-term net-zero promises are kept, global warming would be held to around 1.8C (1.4C to 2.6C) by 2100, though temperatures would likely peak at close to 2 degrees in mid-21st century before declining.

The above estimates are not set in stone and could prove to be underestimates, Carbon Brief wrote:

“These warming numbers come with some important caveats. First, uncertainties — due to climate sensitivity and carbon cycle feedbacks — are quite large. For example, while current policies are expected to result in around 2.6C to 2.7C warming, the Earth could, in fact, end up with anywhere between 2C to 3.6C or so, depending on how the climate system responds to emissions. These uncertainties are cause for caution and increase the urgency of emissions reductions.”

Despite rhetoric, oil companies welcome but environmentalists aren’t

Corporate influence is never far away when governments attempt to reach policy decisions, and COP26 was no exception. A look at the list of corporate sponsors on the COP26 official website shows at least two natural gas companies and assorted other corporations that would not seem to be appropriate for an environmental summit. Oil companies were also well represented.

DeSmog reports that, although oil companies were not allowed formal roles at COP26, oil majors and state oil companies participated in large numbers as part of business and trade groups or national delegations. “The official participant list is full of executives and employees from the largest publicly traded oil companies in the world, including Royal Dutch Shell and BP,” DeSmog reports. The investigative and research news site adds:

“The presence of oil interests does not stop at the employees and executives from national oil companies and government ministries. Even though the COP26 organizers banned oil companies from sending their own delegations, prominent publicly traded oil majors have found other ways to attend the climate negotiations as well. According to DeSmog’s tally, at least three dozen oil executives gained access to the talks thanks to business and trade associations — and those are only the ones who publicly listed their oil company affiliations. For instance, Royal Dutch Shell sent at least six employees under multiple designations.”

What DeSmog reports is only the tip of the iceberg. Corporate Europe Observatory’s Corporate Accountability campaign reports that more than 100 fossil fuel companies and 30 trade associations were represented at COP26, with so many attending that if the fossil fuel lobby were a country delegation, it would have been the largest. “At least 503 fossil fuel lobbyists, affiliated with some of the world’s biggest polluting oil and gas giants, have been granted access to COP26, flooding the Glasgow conference with corporate influence,” Corporate Accountability reported. Corporate Europe Observatory researcher Pascoe Sabido said:

“COP26 is being sold as the place to raise ambition, but it’s crawling with fossil fuel lobbyists whose only ambition is to stay in business. The likes of Shell and BP are inside these talks despite openly admitting to upping their production of fossil gas. If we’re serious about raising ambition, then fossil fuel lobbyists should be shut out of the talks and out of our national capitals.”

That access is in contrast to environmentalists, who had no such ability to influence negotiations. Mitzi Jonelle Tan, spokesperson for Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines, told Democracy Now!:

“It’s funny and ironic, actually, that on the COP26 website, they said they were aiming this to be the most inclusive COP ever, and I think this might have been the most exclusive one. Aside from having all those difficulties and obstacles to actually get to Glasgow, when we get there, COVID was used as an excuse to not let observers come into the important negotiations, yet the fossil fuel industry, the fossil fuel lobbyists, with over 500 delegates, which is more than any other country, was always welcome, was always given the platform, was always given space. And so you can really see that, once again, the U.N. climate summit just prioritized the voices of the privileged and not those that are most affected by the climate crisis.”

Net zero is net unrealism

What efforts that have been made by Global North governments have generally been expressed as goals toward achieving “net zero.” Net zero represents a stabilization in the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; that is, the amount of greenhouse gases thrown into the atmosphere is balanced by the amount of greenhouse gases that are removed from the atmosphere. The year 2050 is the most common date for countries to say they will achieve net zero, although some countries have pledged to reach that one or two decades later. Of the three largest contributors to greenhouse gases, the European Union and United States have 2050 pledges and China’s goal is “before 2060.”

Are these goals achievable, and, if so, will they be sufficient? This is an important question as the EU, the U.S. and China together account for 46 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions — more than 16 times the contributions of the 100 least-contributing countries. Climate Action Tracker rates EU and U.S. efforts as “insufficient” and China’s efforts as “highly insufficient.” This rating system “evaluates a broad spectrum of government targets and actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Agreement temperature limit.”

No country is rated as compatible with the Paris Agreement, and only eight countries are rated as “almost sufficient.” Britain is the lone industrial country to receive this designation; the others are Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco, Nepal, Nigeria and The Gambia. (The worst category, “critically insufficient,” includes Iran, Russia and Turkey.)

Most of the world is far from achieving net zero. But would doing so truly avoid global catastrophe? Perhaps not. Net zero aspirations are based on the hope that forests and farmlands will pull enough carbon dioxide out of the air to offset the remaining greenhouse-gas production that would still be occurring. Two environmental research scientists, Doreen Stabinsky at the College of the Atlantic and Kate Dooley of the University of Melbourne, throw cold water on this escape hatch. Simply put, too much is being asked of nature.

“Since the world does not yet have technologies capable of removing carbon dioxide from air at any climate-relevant scale, that means relying on nature for carbon dioxide removal,” the two write. The idea that machines will be able to pull huge amounts of carbon dioxide out of the air remains in the realm of fantasy. Carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for hundreds to thousands of years; CO2 must be removed through some means, natural or technological, to have any hope of achieving net zero. As to the potential for the natural world to remove 5 gigatons per year of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, as some optimistic forecasts hope for, Dr Stabinsky and Dr. Dooley write:

“Reaching the point at which nature can remove 5 gigatons of carbon dioxide each year would take time. And there’s another problem: High levels of removal might last for only a decade or so. When growing trees and restoring ecosystems, the storage potential develops to a peak over decades. While this continues, it reduces over time as ecosystems become saturated, meaning large-scale carbon dioxide removal by natural ecosystems is a one-off opportunity to restore lost carbon stocks. Carbon stored in the terrestrial biosphere — in forests and other ecosystems — doesn’t stay there forever, either. Trees and plants die, sometimes as a result of climate-related wildfires, droughts and warming, and fields are tilled and release carbon.”

If you can’t remove it, you shouldn’t produce it

The two scientists write that ecosystem restoration has the potential to reduce global average temperature by approximately 0.12 degrees C, but such a decline would not occur in time to offset the warming expected within the next two decades. Net zero strategies that rely on temporary removals to balance permanent emissions will fail. There is no alternative to drastically reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. The unreality of net zero pledges put forth by oil companies is laid bare by Dr. Stabinsky and Dr. Dooley:

“ActionAid reviewed the oil major Shell’s net-zero strategy and found that it includes offsetting 120 million tons of carbon dioxide per year through planting forests, estimated to require around 29.5 million acres (12 million hectares) of land. That’s roughly 45,000 square miles. Oxfam reviewed the net-zero pledges for Shell and three other oil and gas producers — BP, TotalEnergies and ENI — and concluded that ‘their plans alone could require an area of land twice the size of the U.K. If the oil and gas sector as a whole adopted similar net zero targets, it could end up requiring land that is nearly half the size of the United States, or one-third of the world’s farmland.’ These numbers provide insight into how these companies, and perhaps many others, view net-zero.”

Not realistic, to put it mildly, given that reforestation at such scales would require removal of a significant portion of the world’s farms. And on top of that, there is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes net zero. Governments can set their own metrics — yet another area of no real accountability — and we also have to think about methane, which although found in far lesser amounts in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide is nonetheless a far more potent contributor to global warming on a molecule-to-molecule basis. Jeff Mackler, writing in CounterPunch, put this together:

“U.N. Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has called for a clearer definition of net zero. ‘There is a deficit of credibility and a surplus of confusion over emissions reductions and net zero targets,’ he said, ‘with different meanings and different metrics.’ Indeed, each polluting nation employs its own ‘metrics,’ including positive and hyped deductions for the ‘natural capacity’ of its land mass to absorb carbon dioxide while omitting from its calculations negative factors like deforestation, not to mention the myriad of escaping methane from appliances, fracking and always leaking supermarket refrigeration facilities around the world. Methane’s global warming intensity exceeds CO2 by a factor of 80! Biden’s methane reduction pledge flies in the face of the fact that the U.S. stands first in the world in natural gas fracking, the chief poisonous polluting [byproduct] of which is methane.”

The chimera of carbon trading to achieve an illusory net zero

Unfortunately, the above does not exhaust the list of issues with net zero. Some national net zero goals will be met, in part, through “carbon trading.” One of the agreements reached at COP26 was a deal that permits countries to buy offset credits representing emission cuts by others, which will then be used by the buyers to “achieve” climate targets.

A tax on such offsets, intended to fund climate adaptation in poorer nations and advocated by them, will not be included. According to a Reuters report, “The deal suggests developing nations capitulated to rich nations demands, including the United States, which had objected [to] the levy.” That the carbon trading scheme is being hailed by Brazil’s extreme Right, anti-environment government, is more than enough to question it. The Reuters report said, “The deal was ‘a Brazilian victory’ and the country is gearing up to become a ‘big exporter’ of carbon credits, its environment ministry said on social media. … ‘It should spur investment and the development of projects that could deliver significant emissions reductions,’ Brazil’s chief negotiator Leonardo Cleaver de Athayde told Reuters.”

Terminus of Kangerlugssuup Sermerssua glacier in west Greenland (photo by Denis Felikson, via NASA)

The carbon trading deal, codifying Article 6 of the Paris Agreement after six years of negotiation, does have mechanisms to largely eliminate the double counting that countries like Brazil had previously wanted but does not appear to completely eliminate such practices. But even without double counting, using markets will make it less likely that net zero will be reached in reality rather than only on paper. A report by the Center for International Environmental Law notes, “[C]ountries that aim to meet a significant portion of their [2030 emissions targets] through such offsets — and about half of all countries that submitted [2030 emissions targets] by 2018 indicated an intent to participate in the markets — are less likely to pursue deep decarbonization swiftly than those that focus on domestic cuts. And those countries with a financial interest in exceeding their self-determined contributions, to sell ‘excess’ reductions, are less likely to set ambitious targets.”

To put it in stronger terms, Sebastien Duyck, a senior attorney at the Center, said, “Net zero is a scam. It is used as a smokescreen to avoid actual transition away from fossil fuels and carry on business as usual by relying on unproven carbon capture technologies and offsets. … Article 6 creates a way for public and private investors to weaponize the Paris agreement for the sake of profits at the cost of local communities and indigenous people’s rights.”

So why are fossil fuels subsidized to astonishing amounts? These subsidies are not trivial: A 2015 paper by four economists published by, of all places, the International Monetary Fund estimated the amount of subsidies thrown at the fossil fuel industry as US$5.6 trillion per year. Trillions! That total includes environmental costs in addition to direct corporate subsidies and below-cost consumer pricing. Some — only some — of the damage from these massive subsidies are premature deaths through local air pollution; exacerbating congestion and other adverse side effects of vehicle use; crowding out potentially productive public spending on health, education and infrastructure; discouraging needed investments in energy efficiency, renewables and energy infrastructure; and increasing the vulnerability of countries to volatile international energy prices.

Capitalism is not only cooking the planet to the point where portions of our planet will become uninhabitable and massive disruption to agriculture is certain, but the leading causes of the problem are lavishly subsidized. Who could dream up such a death-wish scenario? Yet here we are. As long as we live under capitalism, incentives will be for more growth, more energy usage, more waste, more accumulation, more inequality, and that inequality will make the struggle for environmental justice and to reverse global warming ever more strenuous. It is simply impossible to decouple the world economic system from the looming environmental catastrophe. The two go together.

Are we up to creating the massive global movement that is the only mechanism that can save the world? If not, our descendants are not likely to believe short-term profits for a few now will be a fair exchange for an unlivable planet for the many then.