21 November, 2021

Good COP, bad COP

Globe hanging from the ceiling at COP26 in Glasgow

 It is three weeks since I boarded the ‘Rail to the CoP’ train in Brussels, and a week since I came back from Glasgow via London and a Eurostar to Brussels. For me, the optimism that I felt stepping off a train in Glasgow and seeing Greta Thunberg and her supporters has been replaced with that familiar feeling that progress is slow, and rarely moves at the pace required. On that first weekend I watched Patti Smith sing “The people have the power” from a Glasgow stage, but the reality is that Governments and Institutions have the real power, and rarely change direction in a hurry, even when it is badly needed. Former President Mary Robinson's emotional plea summed up how so many of us felt. 

My last memories of COP26 were on Saturday afternoon as I sat at the back of the huge Plenary Hall. A ‘stocktaking’ was about to start. To my left I could see Frans Timmermans the European Commission Vice-President working the room with some of his senior advisors close to hand. He was listening to voices from all around the world from the smaller island states to powerful players like Russia. To his right was John Kerry, US president Biden’s climate envoy. He too was touring the room, ignoring cameras, and listening carefully to the disparate voices and concerns that filtered through to him. This was geo-politics in action played out on a global stage. To even get access to the Plenary room was an achievement. Thousands of activists and campaigners were not allowed beyond the security fences, and even those who were restricted to certain rooms and spaces. Meanwhile the corporate branding was everywhere. From the Team Britain Formula E electric racing car to the ticker tape displays reminded you that firms like NatWest, Microsoft, Unilever, and Scottish Power were Principal Partners for the event. I noticed that #TogetherForOurPlanet was the official hashtag, but the campaigners outside the fences might disagree.

I have been to four COPS at this stage. COP15 in Copenhagen back in 2009 had us holding our breath for a ‘Hopenhagen’ moment, but it was not to be as Obama and China’s Wen Jinbao failed to bring the ambition we needed to the table. A year later at COP16 in Cancún I was head of a small delegation from Ireland and the talks process was on life support, but it survived and COP17 in Durban gave a new lease of life to the process that culminated in the Paris agreement at COP21 in Paris in 2015. Would the postponed COP26 in Glasgow be different? Philip Boucher-Hayes put his finger on it when he said that France had put years into preparing for the Paris COP. There was not much sign of that with the UK Government. The acid test was in India’s last-minute watering down of the core text on pushing for replacement of the phase-out of coal with a reference to ‘phase-down’. As my MEP colleagues for whom English is not their mother tongue said to me, “Is that even a word in English?” I am not sure if it is.

I some respects Nicola Sturgeon was a more compelling figure that the UK’s COP26 President Alok Sharma MP who ended up apologising for the watered-down text. Even though her stance on oil and gas is poor, she managed to convey the sense of urgency that is needed on the climate crisis. Speaking in Glasgow, a city which prospered on coal and steel, she knows that Scotland’s future prosperity will be built on wind and solar. She also understands that this change must be accelerated, not postponed. 

On the substance of the COP26 texts, Fossil Fuels, Loss and Damage, and Article 6 were the crunch issues

On fossil fuels, unabated coal, and inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels were at the heart of the debate. Although the end of the oil gas and coal age was signaled, the can continues to be kicked down the road, but the final text while clunky did indicate that fossil fuels days are numbered. It stated: “Accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, while providing targeted support to the poorest and most vulnerable.”

'Loss and Damage' featured in discussions, but it was clear that the US did not want to come to a decision on this and open a Pandora’s Box of historical blame. The word reparations came up in the corridors, and in news commentary, but it will be hugely challenging to make the Western World face up to their obligations to compensate the Developing World for damage caused by a problem that was not of their making.

The Article 6 mechanisms, set out the functioning of international carbon markets to support further global cooperation on emission reductions. A lot of work was completed in Glasgow to clear up the accounting rules for carbon credits before and after the Paris Agreement and some loopholes that allowed double accounting were closed. The elephant in the room: the give-away of free carbon credits to the largest polluters was not up for discussion.

I was pleased that references to ‘Mother Earth’ and ‘Climate Justice’ made it into the Glasgow Agreement, and here’s the text on this: “Noting the importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems, including in forests, the ocean and the cryosphere, and the protection of biodiversity, recognized by some cultures as Mother Earth, and also noting the importance for some of the concept of ‘climate justice’, when taking action to address climate change”

From a personal perspective it was great to meet civil society representatives from countries such as Bangladesh. It was also good to to catch up with Green colleagues such as Elizabeth May who became a Canadian MP shortly after I met her in Copenhagen in 2009. I also met Ross Greer MSP, another green who has been a strongly-opinioned member of the Scottish Parliament since 2016. I was also proud of the work of Green Ministers such as our own Eamon Ryan who chaired some of the negotiations over the last week. He had a great team assisting him in Glasgow, and strong support from our Civil Service.It was good too to catch up with my colleagues from the Dáil; Brian Leddin TD and Minister Malcolm Noonan.

However, these fruitful meetings were over-shadowed by conservative politicians who made so many weak and strung-out promises: for instance President Bolsonaro of Brazil said he will halt deforestation by 2030. This is too little, too late. The 2020s need to be the decade of transformative change, and the heavy lifting must be achieved in the next few years. Sometimes you didn't know whether to laugh or cry at the slow progress. Tuvalu is a low-lying island state and their stand at COP feature a group of polar bears wearing life-jackets and a penguin with a noose around it's neck, not a bad depiction of the climate crisis.

The Glasgow COP signaled that the world’s economies will shift towards a cleaner future, but it did not provide the urgency or the money that is needed. It also exposed the deep divisions between those in the room, and those excluded from process. When the COP caravan moves on to Egypt next year, these cracks may become larger and the divisions more pronounced between wealthy and poorer countries.