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Environment

COP26: The Glasgow Road

Nov 01, 2021
  • Tang Xinhua

    Deputy Director, Center for Climate Change and Ecological Security Studies, CICIR

COP26.jpg

There have been protests to demand climate change action around the world in the lead up to COP26, such as this one in Dusseldorf, Germany (GETTY IMAGES)

The 26th session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is held in Glasgow, United Kingdom, from Oct. 31 to Nov. 12, 2021. COP26 is crucial for determining whether the global climate governance process under the UN framework can fully move toward the governance path of the Paris agreement, and whether the international community can effectively curb the climate catastrophe in the accelerating evolution of the global climate crisis. It is also an important opportunity for the global community to build a fair and reasonable global environmental governance system with win-win cooperation. COP26 is full of opportunities and challenges, and the success of the Glasgow Road will require a fair, equitable and balanced approach to six important relationships in the current global climate governance agenda. 

The 1.5 C goal vs. 2 C

The Paris Agreement aims to hold the global average temperature increase to below 2 C, preferably to 1.5 C. Tracing the arduous history of the Paris agreement negotiations, it can be seen that the 2 C goal is the current temperature control goal that is generally recognized, pragmatic and balanced in the international community, and also leaves a fair and just development space for the majority of developing countries to achieve the goal of carbon neutrality. However, at present, some developed countries are overly ambitious and try to raise the global temperature control goal to 1.5 C. The total global greenhouse gas emissions are limited to the 55 billion tons level by 2030 under the 2 C goal, while it is only 40 billion tons under the 1.5 C goal.

At the 76th session of the UN General Assembly in September, U.S. President Joe Biden mentioned that to achieve the 1.5 C global warming limit, each country would need to present its maximum action target at COP26. To enhance the strategic synergy of the 1.5 C goal, President Biden convened the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate on Sept. 17, and the presidential statement of the meeting also mentioned the important goal of COP26 to limit warming to 1.5 C. Thus, it can be seen that the 1.5 C goal will be the primary hot topic of COP26. This would seriously disrupt the normal agenda of the Paris agreement rulebook negotiations and undermine the nationally owned contributions  of the Paris agreement, a basic bottom-up approach to climate governance. It would also further compress the timeline for developing countries to achieve carbon neutrality and may even lead to the failure of COP26.

To deal with the climate crisis, it is most important to first maintain the integrity and stable operation of the Paris agreement, a hard-won and universally agreed global governance framework, and on this basis work toward the 2 C goal before moving toward the 1.5 C goal in two phases. In addition, the principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities  should be upheld, according to which developed countries should take the lead in raising their NDCs with the 1.5 C goal, and developing countries should raise their NDCs according to their own national conditions and capabilities. To accelerate the move from 2 C to 1.5 C, developed countries should also provide developing countries with corresponding financial and technological support to help them move faster to 1.5 C. Therefore, the two-phase approach to advance the temperature control goal based on the CBDR principle within the framework of the Paris agreement is a practical and pragmatic way to address the current climate crisis. 

Methane and greenhouse emissions

Methane (CH4) is a greenhouse gas with a significant impact. According to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, methane has a strong heat sorption capacity and its warming effect is 84 times that of CO2 in 20 years. Global methane emissions currently account for about 16 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions and contribute 25 percent to global warming caused by global greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, methane has become one of the greenhouse gases of key concern to the international community, and cutting methane emissions has become an important emissions reduction strategy in the new round of the world’s endeavor to control coal mining and utilization.

On Sept 17, President Biden convened the MEF, where the U.S. and the European Union jointly made the global methane pledge to reduce global methane emissions by at least 30 percent by 2030 compared with 2020 levels. The initiative was supported and joined by MEF members, including the EU, Argentina, Indonesia, Italy, Mexico and the UK. Subsequently, the U.S. and the European Union jointly proposed the Global Methane Pledge, which focuses on coal mining, natural gas, agriculture, livestock and other methane-emitting industries and accurately quantifies and monitors global methane emissions reductions through the development of real-time methane emissions monitoring tools. The U.S. and Europe will officially launch the initiative at COP26. The initiative will put new pressure on developing countries, to reduce emissions, mainly in the coal, natural gas, agriculture and livestock industries.

Methane is only one category of greenhouse gases, and the Paris agreement converts greenhouse gas emissions into carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) for overall emissions reduction accounting, and NDC reduction goals are implemented in accordance with CO2e. The Global Methane Pledge by the U.S. and European Union will bring great disturbance to both global GHG emissions reductions and new NDC goals. The goal of 30 percent reduction in methane emissions by 2030 will be much higher than the current reduction intensity of the carbon-neutral goals by 2050 and 2060, which is not only detrimental to the global carbon neutral goals but also to the full implementation of the Paris agreement. Therefore, methane emissions control must be based on the Paris agreement as the basic framework for overall greenhouse gas emissions accounting. 

Carbon tariffs and green trade barriers

On Dec 2019, the European Union launched the European Green Deal, which proposes a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism to reduce so-called carbon leakage. To strengthen the EU’s comparable or equivalent measures with other countries, the EU is strongly promoting the integration of CBAM into the new international trade rules. On July 14, the European Union adopted a package of proposals to push CBAM to set a carbon price on imports of targeted selective products. CBAM is expected to introduce new CO2 reduction measures on a transitional basis in 2023 and to complete the measures by 2026. The EU has pushed CBAM continuously into the WTO framework to enable foreign companies to participate in the EU emissions trading system. Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s published 2021 Trade Agenda also mentions the creation of a carbon border adjustment tax and better policy coordination among allies and partner countries. On Sept. 30, the U.S.-EU Trade and Technology Council was launched, with plans to include trade-related climate and environmental issues in the Global Trade Challenges Working Group. The EU and the U.S. plan to jointly promote a carbon tariff coalition to lead a new global trade regime.

This green trade mechanism is nominally designed to reduce emissions, but in essence shifts the burden of emissions reductions from developed countries to developing countries at large. The supply chain emissions of multinational companies in the United States and EU countries account for nearly one-fifth of global emissions, and according to UNCTAD’s analysis, developing countries’ exports in targeted carbon-intensive sectors would be reduced by 1.4 percent if the CBAM were implemented at $44 per ton of embedded CO2 emissions, and by 2.4 percent if it were implemented at $88 per ton. If the new trade rules are constructed according to the carbon tariff mechanism, it will not only increase green trade barriers and constrain the trade and economic competitiveness of developing countries but it will also shift the historical emissions responsibility from developed countries to developing countries. Such trade and economic rules, constructed in the name of green development, seriously violate the principle of fairness and undermine the global trade order. 

Climate justice and historical responsibility

Addressing so-called environmental and climate justice issues is a central tenet of President Biden’s climate plan. In his executive order, he tasked the Department of Justice with establishing an Office on Climate Justice. At the level of international climate governance, climate justice can be used to launch a moral offensive against high-emitting countries. U.S. climate envoy, John Kerry, warned that China must cut emissions sooner if the planet is to avoid climate “chaos.” This shows that the United States is shaping up as the moral high ground for climate justice.

In general terms, climate justice should include ensuring the right of survival, the right to development and human security interests. Addressing the issue of historical emissions responsibility is the cornerstone and starting point for achieving climate justice. The greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere by industrialization are mainly contributed by developed countries, and such historical emissions bring opportunities for developed countries’ first-mover advantages. The bundling of carbon tariffs and trade policies to get rid of the historical emissions responsibility by financial and trade means is an unjust move by some developed countries against climate justice.

At present, the space for global greenhouse gas emissions is close to the threshold, and developed countries are trying to pressure developing countries to increase their responsibility to reduce emissions in order to fight for the space for emissions. This way of depriving developing countries of the right to development through political tools is not in line with the common human values of fairness and justice on one hand, and hinders the development rights and opportunities of developing countries on the other. 

Climate crisis and climate security

On Aug. 9, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its Sixth Assessment Report on Climate Change 2021, which shows that global temperatures are now 1.1 C warmer than before industrialization and may rise by more than 1.5 C in the next 20 years. The average molar fraction of CO2 has already exceeded 410 ppm, and if CO2 concentrations continue their increase as in the past, they will reach or exceed 414 ppm (278 ppm at pre-industrial levels) by 2021, fast approaching a climate tipping point.

The IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report concludes that once the critical point is breached, the frequency and intensity of climate disasters will increase dramatically, which will upset the ecological balance, endanger the survival of plants and animals, destroy biodiversity and have a complex and far-reaching impact on the cycle of the earth’s water, energy, carbon and other elements.

The core driving effect of the climate crisis on international security is becoming increasingly prominent, and the construction of a new international security architecture with climate security as a pillar is becoming the focus of international political games. The U.S. has led the Leaders Climate Summit in climate security cooperation, and the summit specifically established the topic of climate security. The U.S. State Department is mobilizing resources from the government, the private sector and NGOs to actively engage in geopolitical hot spots on the topic of climate security. Kerry stated at the Munich Security Conference that the U.S. will coordinate policy in multilateral mechanisms such as the G7, G20, CCLAMLR and the Arctic Council. He said that to reshape the framework for international security cooperation at the UN level, the U.S. has proposed a security cooperation framework centered on the “responsibility to prepare and prevent” — or R2P2.

How to deal with the accelerating gray rhino of the climate crisis? If the U.S. continues the logic of the U.S.-Western game of thrones under the banner of unilateralism and exclusive multilateralism to maintain so-called climate justice and climate security as the moral banner, and maintain the hegemonic system as the strategic goal, then the consensus on climate cooperation formed by the international community for many years will be seriously impacted and the cornerstone of the climate governance framework will be threatened. This will make it impossible to contain the accelerated systemic risks of the climate crisis and will induce new international security risks.

Therefore, to overcome the climate crisis and a major global crisis, the international community needs to promote global security, peace and sustainable development with a common, integrated, cooperative and sustainable approach to global security, and find ways to deal with it through interaction between humanity and nature. 

Relations between humanity and nature

How to deal with the relationship between humanity and nature is an epochal proposition for humankind to achieve sustainable development in the 21st century. Western concepts and ideas put more emphasis on the protection of the objective natural world and indirectly suppress the development space of developing countries through hegemony and political means. This mode of governance fails to balance the relationship between humanity and nature, fails to balance the development interests of developed and developing countries and fails to break through the original development path. It cannot fundamentally solve the contradictory relationship between humanity and nature.

To break the long-term contradiction, it is necessary to think in the direction of modernization featuring harmony between humanity and nature. Chinese civilization advocates the unity of heaven and humanity and harmony between humanity and nature. China proposes harmony between humanity and nature as best the approach to climate issues. It advocates respect for nature, adapting to nature, protecting nature and building a global community of life characterized by harmony between humanity and nature. The modern eco-civilization based on harmony between humanity and nature is the way of survival — the way for humankind to effectively cope with the climate crisis and achieve climate security in the 21st century. It is also the fundamental way to solve issues such as energy use, the green economy, ecological security and global climate governance. It will certainly promote global security, peace and sustainable development, and accelerate the move of human society from the era of industrial civilization to the era of ecological civilization.

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