The COP26 climate change conference starting today in Glasgow has been labelled as “the world’s best last chance to get runaway climate change under control”. The chances of success are balanced. Mixed signals have been sent by the largest emitters of greenhouse gases: China, the US and India.
The four goals delegates to COP26 will aim to achieve are ambitious, especially given the slow progress made on climate change initiatives since the Paris Agreement of 2015. The most challenging is that of “securing global net-zero emissions by mid-century and keeping 1.5 degrees (temperature rise) within reach”.
The World Economic Forum argues that for COP26 to ensure we enter a decisive decade in a way that protects people, the planet and prosperity, it must address the key issues of finance, energy, mobility, heavy industry and heavy-duty transport.
These issues involve high costs, especially for poorer developing countries that face other daunting social and economic challenges. It is encouraging that countries like the US, Australia, Canada and Japan are committing themselves financially to enable poorer countries to agree on crucial issues such as carbon markets and transparency.
Substituting fossil fuel energy with green energy will be expensive. Decarbonising electricity generation, transport and heavy industry require driving down the green premium – the added cost of choosing a clean technology over one that emits a more greenhouse gases.
When former US president Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris climate accord in 2017, there was a feeling that any effort to reverse the adverse effects of climate change was bound to fail. And although President Joe Biden has reversed his predecessor’s decision, he faces tough opposition from some US lawmakers whose states are critically dependent on the extraction of fossil fuel.
China is committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2060, which would reduce global warming by 0.2°C to 0.3°C by 2100. But it continues to build coal-fired power plants. Chinese President Xi, like Russian President Putin, has decided to skip COP26. Yet, despite growing Chinese scepticism about US legislative gridlock on climate policy initiatives, experts say there is unofficial collaboration between the US and China to deliver the substantive new climate commitments needed to inspire other countries to follow.
India, the third-biggest greenhouse gas emitter after China and the US, has rejected calls to announce a net-zero carbon emissions target. This has strengthened the argument of sceptics who believe some countries only attend such conferences to clear their consciences.
Participants have a diverse interests, preferences and mandates. No country will agree to do more on climate change than it believes it can do at home. Put simply, domestic politics drives international negotiations and slows progress.
But it is encouraging that over 100 countries and the EU have already pledged to reach net-zero emissions.
Small countries like Malta have a minimal role in combatting global climate change. But our size should not prevent us from fostering a culture of respect for the environment, too long a low priority for our policymakers.
Some studies show that Malta will be among the Mediterranean countries most badly hit by a rise in temperature. Tourism, one of the most productive forces of our economy, would suffer if summer temperatures became too uncomfortable for visitors.
All countries know what needs to happen to prevent the worst effects of climate change. Leaders must ensure that the conference’s critical goals can be achieved by the end of this decade to promote prosperity for future generations.