To fully appreciate what the COP26 conference achieved, let us start by listing the notable accomplishments described in the Pact and in the press releases. This is intended as comic relief from your average work day.
COP26 agreed to accelerate unabated efforts towards reducing coal power. At India’s insistence, there was no agreement on the timing of the phase-down, and the reference to “unabated” means that the countries prepared to pay a fortune to capture and store GHG emissions from coal combustion can go on burning it indefinitely.
COP26 agreed to move towards ending inefficient fossil fuel subsidies. As the majority of fossil fuel subsidies involve the imposition of price controls by the major OPEC producers on the prices of refined oil products charged to their citizens, it will be interesting to see how fast gasoline prices rise in Saudi Arabia. Unsurprisingly, there was no reference to eliminating hopelessly inefficient (from an economic perspective) subsidies to wind and solar energy. Renewables subsidies exceed by an order of magnitude any subsidies received by fossil fuel producers.
COP26 agreed to recognize the need for a just transition. One wonders who was arguing for an “unjust” transition. In fact, “just transition” is code for endorsing the need for governments, having subsidized non-fossil fuel alternatives and driven coal miners and other hydrocarbons producers out of business, to then subsidize the unemployed workers so that they can move to lower-paying jobs.
COP26 completed the technical negotiations on the so-called Paris Agreement Rulebook, which fixes the transparency and reporting requirements for all Parties to track progress against their emission reduction targets. The Rulebook also set out the rules governing the functioning of international carbon markets. This actually may be important, as it lays out a new set of reporting and “accountability” (to the UN) procedures that countries must follow, to reign in the high risks of fraud and miscounting involved in international carbon trading markets.
Parties agreed to a process by which to seek agreement on long-term climate finance beyond 2025. Here lies the most spectacular disparity between what climate campaigners were seeking and what was achieved in the conference. Before and during COP26, various developing country sources published demands that developed countries increase climate aid to at least $750 billion per year or, in the case of Africa, at least $1.3 trillion per year. Instead, they got an agreement to a “process” for talking about the subject. What a let down! As a large number of the developing countries where emissions are growing the fastest have made their emissions reduction spending conditional on receiving immense funding. This single and highly predictable failure means that the attainment of the global emissions reduction goals is impossible.
The conference agreed to “establish a dialogue between parties, stakeholders and relevant organizations to support efforts to avert, minimize and address loss and damage associated with climate change”. This is the most puzzling and bizarre item in the Pact. The “loss and damage” reference is code for the demands of the developing countries that the developed countries pay billions (if not trillions) of dollars in compensation and reparations for the allegedly adverse effects that climate change is having on the developing countries. One can only imagine the difficulties in arranging a “dialogue” between those governments that would be called upon to pay and those that would be privileged to receive the funds. How much more improbable (farcical?) would it be to include in these discussions thousands of “stakeholders and relevant organizations” (read: environmental groups plus Greta Thunberg and her friends)?
There were two other categories of action associated with COP26. The first concerned processes that have already been initiated to some extent but to which the attendees at COP26 attempted to lend additional impetus. The second were agreements reached by sub-groups of countries outside of the COP26 formal proceedings, but related to climate change policy.
Of the processes already underway but welcomed in the text of the Pact, perhaps most important for publicity purposes was the Santiago Network. In 2019, several countries agreed to set up a technical assistance program, known as the Santiago Network, to help countries with “loss and damage”. The program was established in name only, without staff or funding. The inclusion of wording endorsing the Santiago Network in the text of the Pact is being viewed by UN officials as of great significance. They are all fans of Shakespeare’s “sound and fury signifying nothing.”
Somewhat related was the decision of the conference to establish the “Glasgow Dialogue between Parties”, an official-sounding term required for all such agreements. The proposed meeting would be among “relevant organizations and stakeholders to discuss the arrangements for the funding of activities to avert, minimize and address loss and damage associated with the adverse impacts of climate change”. The developing countries wanted a “facility” (i.e. cash), but the developed countries balked at that, so developing countries had to settle for a “dialogue” which they will use to press for real financial commitments at next year’s COP 27 in Egypt.
On the “margins” of COP26, a number of agreements were announced by a subset of members. The most important of these were the following.
The Statement on International Public Support for the Clean Energy Transition. This statement was issued by 28 organizations including the United States and Canada. In it they committed to take several actions including to “end new direct public support for the international unabated fossil fuel energy sector by the end of 2022 (WOW THAT IS LIKE TOMORROW) except
in limited and clearly defined circumstances that are consistent with a 1.5 degree C. warming limit and the goals of the Paris Agreement” and to encourage other governments and public financial institutions to make similar commitments.
The launch of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance. Eleven national and subnational governments announced the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance to seek a managed and just transition away from oil and gas production. This group, which includes Quebec as a member and California as an associate member, are composed of jurisdictions that today have relatively little oil and gas production, a fact that no doubt makes the alliance more palatable to its citizens.
The Global Methane Pledge. More than one hundred countries signed the U.S. and Europe-led Global Methane Pledge and agreed to collectively reduce methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030. Methane has a half-life in the atmosphere of only about six years – and has been declining in the OECD for years.
The Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use. Most of the Parties present at COP26, including the United States and Canada, signed this declaration. In it, they reaffirmed their commitments to “sustainable land use and to the conservation, protection, sustainable management and restoration of forests and other terrestrial ecosystems”. They also committed to goals to reverse forest loss and degradation, while ensuring robust policies and systems are in place to accelerate the transition to an economy that advances forest sustainable land use, biodiversity and climate goals.” In our youth, you may remember high school students having a make-believe United Nations in an effort to study world politics. The only difference to COP 26 is that the students knew it was make believe.
The Conferences of the Parties relating to climate change seem remarkably similar to the theatre of the absurd productions. They are increasingly unrelated to the reality of what is happening in energy markets and what the world’s consumers want. They repeatedly set goals and targets that are unattainable based on technologies that largely do not yet exist. From 1992 to 2021 they seemingly have started and ended in the same place, only to move on to next year’s COP lush vacation with basically the same agenda.
What happens at the conferences of the Parties, sadly, is used to justify the quite real damages being inflicted through unwise policies that harm energy consumers and cost taxpayers in the OECD countries trillions of dollars. As is evident from COP26, the theatre of COP has become more tragedy than absurdity.