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COP26 - Full Of Notable Speeches But Short On Outcomes

By Syed Atiq ul Hassan, Sydney, Australia

Carbon dioxide (CO2), generally known as a greenhouse gas, is important for life on earth but the excessive emission of carbon into the atmosphere leads to global warming, which in turn has far-reaching consequences for the natural environment . Since the beginning of industrialization, when vast stores of carbon-rich fossil fuels such as coal, gas and oil began to be used in industrial processes, the planet’s temperature has been dangerously rising. This has resulted in more frequent and severe natural disasters around the world. Many small island states and coastal cities are now on the verge of calamity and could potentially be wiped out by rising sea levels, tsunamis and hurricanes.

In general, all countries are responsible for this man-made disaster. However, the biggest culprit are countries that account for high levels of global carbon emissions such China (28%), the USA (15%), India (7%), Russia (5%), and Japan (3%), followed by Germany, Iran, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Canada, Mexico, South Africa, Brazil, Turkey, Australia, the UK, Poland, Italy, and France – all countries that produce 1% to 3% of the world’s carbon emissions. The remaining countries contribute 21% of the globe’s carbon emissions. Of course, because the significant rise in carbon emissions began with the industrial revolution two hundred and fifty years ago, many countries such as the UK have a higher historical level of carbon emissions than the amount they produce today. The entire scenario has created a crisis for human beings and all living things on the planet.

In 1995, feeling the universal need for action to confront this crisis, the first Conference of the Parties (COP) was organized by the United Nations in Berlin aiming to handle the global issue of climate change. Since then, a COP meeting has been held every two years.

The 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, was held from October 31 to November 13 in Glasgow, Scotland. The conference was attended by delegates from 200 countries. The leaders of important countries including the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy, Brazil, Canada, Australia, and India, attended along with climate change campaigners and representatives of smaller states. Representatives from states already feeling the effects of climate change spoke passionately on the urgent action needed to save our planet.

The guest of honour, Sir David Frederick Attenborough, people's advocate and producer of hundreds of documentaries on nature and climate change, stunned the audience with his remarkably alarming address. He said that through nature, the earth has given us unspeakable beauty, food, air, water, hot and cold weather, deserts, beautiful beaches and deep-sea treasures, towering mountains covered with ice, and long rivers for drinking water. What we have returned to the earth is pollution, rising temperatures, and an outpouring of carbon dioxide. “Today, the land we live on is asking us: ‘What's wrong with me,’” Attenborough said. “‘High mountains covered with snow and clear seashores shining like mirrors, but what did you humans do to me? Do you humans have the right to live longer on earth? No, you have no right and I (earth) will take away this right from you if you do not protect me and my (land) in the name of your self-interested development.’” Attenborough went on to tell the conference, "Our burning of fossil fuels, our destruction of nature, our approach to the industry, construction, and learning, are releasing carbon into the atmosphere at an unprecedented pace and scale."

Sir David also raised the issue of inequality, saying people in developing countries "who've done the least to cause this problem are being the hardest hit" while the powerful and developed countries enjoy life at the cost of destruction to the planet.

The main purpose of COP26 was to bring all the countries of the world to an agreement that all countries would take steps to reduce carbon emissions in order to limit the rise in global temperatures. This was much the same goal as in the previous 25 meetings. World leaders spoke, and stories of global climate change and the devastation caused by carbon emissions were told, and global plans to prevent carbon emissions were called for, but no final agreement was reached until the last day of the conference. And still a few countries, including India, objected to the draft of the final agreement before a compromise was eventually reached.

The conference was inaugurated by UNFCCC Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa. She thanked the outgoing President, Chile's Environment Minister María Carolina Schmidt Zaldívar, before saying that although international efforts had been hampered due to the COVID-19 pandemic since COP25 was held two years ago, conference members now had an opportunity to announce a comprehensive policy to combat climate change and carbon emissions. The inaugural ceremony was followed by the speeches of heads of states present including Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Libya, Luxembourg, Jamaica, Greece, Bangladesh, Sweden, Palestine, Estonia, Fiji, Slovenia, Israel, the Czech Republic, Antigua and Barbuda, Thailand, Sudan, Nepal, Mauritania, Vietnam, Georgia, Lesotho, Belize, Poland, India, Austria, Netherlands, Kazakhstan, and Morocco. The second and third days of the conference were also attended by the heads of state of more than fifty small and important countries.

The representatives of coastal countries and islands whose existence is under imminent threat from climate change such as the Maldives, Bangladesh, Guyana, Tuvalu, Barbados, and Samoa also addressed the conference. These countries’ leaders emotionally raised their voices and appealed to the developed nations to save them, urging the world to listen before their countries were drowned under rising seas. The representatives of countries facing drought and fire due to rising temperatures also humbly appealed economically powerful countries to help them without any further delays.

Climate change campaigners said that for the vested interests of a small proportion of the world’s population we are destroying the earth on which we have lived and whose blessings we have enjoyed for thousands of years. Therefore, the nations who have benefited most from the use of fossils fuels have an obligation to take immediate action.

Countries and multinational companies have become wealthy by extracting coal, gas, and oil from the earth in the name of industry, science, and technology. They have improved the living standards of their people and made themselves rich at a terrible cost.

Until two hundred years ago, the earth's temperature used to rise by half a degree every hundred years, but now it has been rising by half a degree every twenty years. If the temperature continues to rise like this, by 2030 many island nations will be overtaken by rising seas as polar ice continues to melt. The ten largest countries in the world are located on the coast. These countries are at threat of hurricanes and tsunamis. Today, Samoa, the Maldives, Barbados, and many South American islands face existential danger.

When will we be able to ban coal and gas extraction from the earth? When will we be able to switch off coal and gas as fuel and instead turn to renewable sources of energy?

Today India, the United States, China, Japan, and Russia, the world's five largest emitters of carbon, are still not on the same page in terms of answering these questions.

Why can't the big carbon-emitting countries today set targets to bring carbon emmissions down to zero?

One of the aims of COP26 was to sign an agreement to phase out coal and keep temperature rises on earth below 1.5 degrees comparted to pre-industrial levels by 2050, but due to resistance from India and a few others, the agreement had to change and used comprised language instead of firm statements.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres made several suggestions to world leaders, saying "we need to create an international fund and work together to fund countries that run on carbon to electricity. Change your industry”. He said that there was no point in this conference if all the countries were not on the same agenda. He said that all economically powerful and rich countries must come forward with an open heart.

When the joint statement of the conference was in its final stages, India refused to sign a statement committing to phasing out coal power. India's industry is heavily dependent on coal; if India commits to eliminating coal it would have a severe economic impact on many large companies in India. India was effectively asking for more time to shift its industry to alternative sources of power. Alok Sharma, President of COP26, UK, rejected the points raised by India and said that there are countries, especially the Maldives, whose survival is at stake. Sacrifices from others would be necessary to save them.

In the final draft of the statement, India eventually agreed to language that agreed to “phase down” rather than “phase out” the use of coal. Many important countries were outraged by the change, saying it was "once again a pity that we, the representatives of the 200 countries, could not agree on a final agreement." The revised agreement was ratified, and the conference ended.

Many campaigners raising their voice against climate change and carbon emissions have called COP26 a shameful conference, saying it was a global showdown which many big and important countries have simply taken as an opportunity to meet and burn. The issue is still there and billions of people living in this world are heading for destruction. COP26 has not changed that difficult truth. (The writer, Syed Atiq ul Hassan, is a Sydney-based journalist, and a writer )

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