The United Nations (UN) Climate Change Summit (COP26) wrapped up in Glasgow, Scotland, on 12th November 2021. At times, it is difficult to keep cynicism at bay, especially for a sceptical global public, large sections of which have lost faith in the ability of leaders to exercise moral leadership. If ever moral leadership was required, it is now, especially at a time when the very survival of the planet depends on it. Did world leaders pass the litmus test of moral leadership in Glasgow? The answer is both yes and no.
Multilateral negotiations are never easy. It is often difficult for many countries to gain national consensus on major issues. If we expand this to a global stage, where people of multiple cultures come together to negotiate, one can understand the difficulty involved in coming to an agreement, particularly where it is vital to preserve national interests and positions. However, to their credit world leaders were able to sign off on a new climate change agreement.
Readers will recall that we are in a fight against time to reduce greenhouse gas emissions which are mainly responsible for a warmer planet. Failure to cut emissions will result in more catastrophic climate events, such as storms and sea level rise, specifically devastating for Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Therefore, the agreement reached in Glasgow must be measured against these realities.
The Glasgow Climate Pact touches on several important areas such as climate adaptation finance, climate mitigation, technology transfer and loss and damage. Leaders noted that developing countries were not receiving sufficient climate finance for adaptation and, among other things, urged developed countries to scale up their provision of climate finance and technology transfer. Particularly on technology transfer, there are emerging technologies such as carbon capture which aim to trap and store greenhouse emissions, with the possibility of turning those emissions into energy. The reality is that these kinds of technologies largely reside in developed countries and without firm commitments to transfer technology from richer to poorer countries, SIDS and many others will be left behind.
Twelve years ago, wealthier countries pledged to provide $100 billion in climate finance to help vulnerable nations reduce their carbon emissions with renewable energy and cleaner transportation among other projects. The financing was also earmarked to help local communities with adaptation projects to protect themselves from climate impacts such as storms and sea level rise. Unfortunately, richer nations have fallen short of the $100 billion goal. In the Glasgow Climate Pact, leaders noted with “deep regret,” that this goal has not been met and urged developed countries to fully deliver on their promise.
Notwithstanding the noble intentions of the Glasgow Climate Pact, the fact remains that countries still are not cutting their carbon emissions fast enough. Several major polluting countries, some of them large developing countries still reliant on coal and fossil fuels, do not plan to achieve zero emissions until somewhere between 2050 and 2070. Writing for NPR, a non-profit media organisation in America, Lauren Sommer assesses that nations’ pledges will not reduce emissions sufficiently fast to prevent the planet from warming above 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100. Instead, according to the International Energy Agency, the world would be on track for 1.8 degrees Celsius of warming, a development which is likely to wreak havoc on the planet.
Part of moral leadership is being able to keep one’s word. Failure to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees would represent a broken promise since world leaders would have agreed at the Paris Climate Conference in 2015, to keep the world within the limit of 1.5 degrees by 2100.
We could easily argue that most of us will not be around by 2100. This could then be interpreted as a way to decrease the burden on us to care about what happens that far into the future. However, there is a Greek Proverb which says that “A society grows great when old men [and women] plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.” Another aspect of moral leadership is planting trees to shade others.
Climate justice will remain elusive as long as we fail to plant trees, whether literally or figuratively.
Joel K Richards is a Vincentian national living and working in Europe in the field of international trade and development.