Negotiating the climate

Glasgow, too, promised a lot but delivered little more than platitudes

Negotiating the climate

The 26th iteration of the Conference of Parties (COP) to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was held over the past two weeks in Glasgow. The primary purpose of the conference was to take stock of global commitments in light of the Paris Agreement (2015), which calls for restricting global temperature rise to 2 degree Celsius with the enhanced ambition of limiting it to 1.5 degree Celsius. Needless to say, as has usually been the case with such events, Glasgow, too, promised a lot but delivered little more than platitudes.


Global temperatures have risen around 1.1 degree Celsius on average compared to the pre-industrial era (circa 1850). That is when our reliance on fossil fuels began in earnest. Think of the world as a self-regulating system that utilises the energy from the sun. Such a system can quickly go out of sync if the natural processes are altered or disturbed. Over the past 200 years, burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas has resulted in the emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and methane. These gases have enveloped the planet in such a way that the heat from the sun is being trapped inside thus, raising the global temperatures.

As for the link between human agency and climate change, the science has never been clearer. The most recent IPCC assessment (the 5th such report) says that the human impact on the changing climate is “unequivocal”. Such terminology is rare for such documents where scientists usually speak in cautious tones. However, inaction by governments has led scientists to be more vociferous in their statements. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, according to the IPCC assessment, are higher now than at any time in at least 2 million years, highlighting the anthropogenic nature of the crisis. The continued rise of greenhouse gas emissions poses a massive risk to the global ecological system. In fact, scientists are increasingly confident that due to past greenhouse gas emissions changes to the oceans, glaciers, ice sheet, and sea level are essentially locked-in. This means that even if emissions stop today, the impacts will continue to be felt long into the future.

Historically, it is the United States, which has been responsible for global warming along with the likes of the European Union, UK, Canada and Australia. However, over the past two decades, developing countries such as China and India have also significantly contributed to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In fact, nearly half of the emissions have happened after 1992 when the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was first promulgated during the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. This does not augur well for a world that is already seeing droughts, heat waves, flooding, wild fires and sea level rise affecting large parts of the planet.

It is in this context that the cities that play host to climate negotiations have been sites of public protests. Over the past two weeks, Glasgow saw climate activists coming together to denounce the negotiations, which they see as being hijacked by vested interests. Greta Thunberg, the young climate activist who founded the Fridays for Future movement after missing school on Friday to highlight the climate crisis, has called the negotiations an exercise in “blah blah blah”. As if to bolster her sentiments, even as the negotiations at Glasgow continued and world leaders promised to take necessary actions, research showed that despite pronouncements to the contrary, we have set ourselves on a course to 2.4-degree Celsius temperature rise by the year 2100. This will be catastrophic for communities across the world, including Pakistan. Climate models reveal that we will cross the 1.5-degree Celsius mark of global warming (since preindustrial era) in about 10 years. The bonhomie that surrounded the Paris Agreement is gone. All that remains is scepticism about not only our collective future, but also about the annual climate meetings that purport to address the crisis.

As I write this, the draft agreement from COP26 (released to the public on November 10) “calls upon Parties to accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels”. If this draft holds, it would be the first time in the history of climate talks that an official outcome of climate talks would mention “coal” or “fossil fuel”. In fact, there is no mention of fossil fuels in the Paris Climate Agreement. “Keep it in the text” was the refrain outside the negotiating halls in Glasgow as climate activists urged policy makers to stick to their promises.

Geo-political and economic interests continue to take precedence over timely climate action. If the aim of the climate talks was to make promises and debate them ad nauseam year after year, then we are definitely doing it well. However, if the aim was to bring palpable change in the way we perceive developmental priorities in light of the climate crisis, then we are failing miserably, year after year, COP after COP.

While the largest polluters (USA, China, India) and economic blocs such as the European Union have set “net zero” goals, they seem to have been developed in a vacuum. The goals as they stand not only do not speak to each other, they also do not account for the promises made under the Paris Agreement. Net zero calls for an eventual elimination of fossil fuel use accompanied by carbon capture through nature-based solutions and technological innovation (which still has to be realised). What such framing does is allow countries to continue their reliance on fossil fuels for the next 20-30 years.

We need a different approach to climate action. When the UNFCCC was first promulgated, the science around climate change as well as the potential impacts and associated timelines were quite ambiguous. Given what we now know about the nature and scope of the climate crisis and its impacts, the climate negotiation vis-à-vis the COP process needs to be altered. It still caters to the economically powerful and as such nullifies the interests and needs of the most vulnerable communities, especially in the global south.

In the run up to COP26, The Economist published a special edition on the Glasgow conference calling it a would-be “disappointment” that will “nonetheless be crucial”. In other words, it highlighted the deficiencies of the process only to suggest that we stick with it because no better alternative exists. Climate activists will no doubt vehemently disagree with this sentiment. A broken system only favours the privileged while doing nothing to ensure that climate justice concerns get due importance in decision-making. As Greta Thunberg calls out world leaders on their “blah, blah, blah” in the face of catastrophic climate change, they will do well to reconsider their approach to addressing the climate crisis.

The author is governance and policy director at WWF-Pakistan. He tweets @imran2u. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the official position or policy of WWF-Pakistan.

Negotiating the climate