COP26: Pledges don’t Equal Policy


Saad Masood

Solutions to offset carbon footprint are flawed in the sense that doing good in one place does not balance out the harm in another

1st November 2021: Demonstrators gather by the River Clyde holding placards with the phrase “No More Blah Blah” and indigenous leaders march the centre of Glasgow in traditional garb. 6th November 2021: Activists on the King George V bridge block the main route connecting Glasgow city centre to the south side of the city. Using chain padlocks attached to their necks and each other, they form a representative line of resistance. Police arrest 21 people, including 15 scientists as per the conveners of the protest, Scientist Rebellion.
7th November 2021: A “Squid Game” themed protest breaks out near the site of COP26, demanding an end to the use of coal and fossil fuels. 11th November 2021: Around 1 pm, on a dinghy floating across the River Clyde, Tim Hewlett – an astrophysicist and co-founder of activist group Scientist Rebellion – holds up a banner that reads “Tell the truth or we will lose everything.”
All these are scenes that accompanied the recently concluded COP26, or to give its full name – 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties. Six years ago, the conclusion of the Paris Agreement was met with applause, cheers and hope for the future. This time around, when the gavel finally fell – after a marathon additional session – the mood was quite subdued, deflated even. The biggest reason? Pledges – no matter how well-intended – don’t equal policy. What is that adage? The road to hell is paved with good intentions! Consider.
The biggest item on the agenda was to ensure that the world sees an average temperature rise of only 1.5°C. The expectation in COP26 was that countries will come prepared with domestic policies as to how this could be accomplished at a national level which then would reflect in policy at an international level. In fact, this was one of the tenets established at the end of the Paris Agreement six years ago so that countries could have enough time between then and now to chart a local course towards warming levels of 1.5°C. That expectation fell flat in Glasgow when country after country seemed to be nowhere close to meeting that target! United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) forecasted that in the absence of action the globe was likely to see an average temperature rise of up to 2.7°C above preindustrial levels!
Subsequently, the committee did what committees do best, work up the theory to affect the reality! There was a raft of promises that, in theory, would bring down the average temperature rise across the planet. Two grabbed the headlines. One, toothless deforestation promises to help places such as the Amazon rain forest, which currently stands to lose 27 per cent of trees by 2030. There has been no detail on how this will be achieved for many deserved locations and how the international community will bear the cost for such an aspirational endeavour. Two, vague and far-flung net-zero commitments haven’t been written into law and don’t have firm plans to back them. For example, Saudi Arabia and Russia, both heavily reliant on fossil fuels, have indicated that they don’t intend to change any time soon and instead have flaunted investment in carbon capture technologies to improve carbon absorption to lead to a net-zero future. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride!
Continuing the theme of being ambiguous, there was last-minute drama when India and China forced a compromise in the final language of the COP26 accord, which changed the commitment of getting rid of coal from ‘phase out’ to ‘phase down’!
In sync with nations, corporations also made net-zero pledges that may not be as good as they sound. There are two aspects to it: the scope of emissions and the unreliable nature of carbon offset. First, the standard framework to measure emissions, called the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, defines three broad categories of emissions associated with business operations. Scope 1 covers direct emissions from owned or controlled sources. Scope 2 covers indirect emissions like the generation of purchased electricity, steam, heating and cooling consumed by a company. Scope 3 includes all other indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain. The irony is that almost all organisations that have pledged a net-zero future have excluded – in some fashion – Scope 3 emissions! For example, Walmart doesn’t include Scope 3 gases in its pledge even if it makes up 95 per cent of its emissions! A varying degree of examples can be found with other business conglomerates as well.
Second, solutions – especially those that are nature-based – to offset carbon footprint are flawed in the sense that doing good in one place doesn’t balance out the harm in another place. This is because each habitat is unique and irreplaceable. Additionally, the regulation and quantification of the carbon offset solutions and policies are difficult at best. Recently, an investigation by Greenpeace revealed that Shell’s two most prominent offsetting projects did not provide any clear and related benefit to the climate.
It seems that governments, nations and corporations are all in a bind when it comes to environmentally friendly policies or lack thereof. That is why there is a clear schism between words and actions. To make this endeavour more effective, countries will at least have to put their money where their mouths are and bridge the gap between pledges and policy! This wasn’t amiss on the COP26 President Alok Sharma when he brought the gavel down on a watered-down Glasgow Climate Pact with a teary-eyed sign-off, “I am deeply sorry.”