November 8, 2021|Updated November 8, 2021 at 12:38 p.m. EST
GLASGOW, Scotland — The presidents and prime ministers are gone. The protesters have largely dispersed. The pomp and promises that marked the initial days of the COP26 climate conference are giving way to the difficult task of hammering out an agreement on what nations will actually do together to combat global warming — and how. Former president Barack Obama warned that more must be done to address climate change.
Here’s what to know
Negotiators from nearly 200 countries are haggling over an agreement that could shape how nations report progress on cutting greenhouse gas emissions, how global carbon markets function, and how the rich countries of the world deliver on promises to help more vulnerable nations.
Much of the action will take place out of view, but public panels and events will continue. Monday’s theme is “adaptation, loss and damage.”
“Meaningful progress has been made,” Obama warned, but “time really is running out.”
It seemed like a straightforward task: Washington Post reporters wanted to measure the gap between what countries acknowledge releasing into the air and the total emissions actually found in the atmosphere.
On the eve of the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, those unaccounted-for gases seemed highly important: If world leaders were underreporting emissions or not taking full responsibility for their effects on the planet, how could any global agreement to reduce greenhouse gases aim at the right target?
But when The Post set out to determine the size of the gap, it found that little about emissions data is straightforward or easy.
To start, many of the country reports to the United Nations were out-of-date, in different measurement units and formats or had numbers buried in hundreds of pages of text. Some types of emissions — notably man-made fluorinated gases and land-use sector gases such as carbon dioxide emissions contained in forest fire smoke — varied wildly from year to year, and countries’ spotty reporting made it difficult to estimate 2019 figures.
Small island nations have a lot to lose from climate change. Escalating tropical storms devastate oceanfront homes. Warmer oceans imperil fisheries. Rising seas have eroded coastlines and threaten to swallow up entire communities.
But of the 14 island nations of the Pacific, only four have sent heads of state to the COP26 negotiations in Glasgow. Most are on strict lockdown in an effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
Many other representatives from vulnerable countries are missing from what some activists have called “the most exclusive COP in history.” Global inequality in vaccine access meant that some participants couldn’t fly to the meeting. For others, it was simply too expensive to spend two weeks in a city where some hotel rooms are going for $1,000 a night.
On Monday afternoon, a crowd gathered around a set of speakers set in the middle of a conference center hallway, listening to speeches by activists who were unable to travel. People from the Philippines, Brazil and Mozambique spoke about surviving weather disasters and fearing for their futures. They also slammed the meeting’s organizers for not doing more to include people from vulnerable communities in the Global South.
“I want to tell the U.K. government and the [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] that they cannot ignore the voices of the South and make agreements with the North when many in southern communities are the most affected and vulnerable,” said Hemantha Withanage, chairperson of Friends of the Earth International in Sri Lanka.
Behind the speakers, young activists held up a banner that read: “Nothing about us without us.”
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Obama reserves some of harshest criticism for Republicans
Midway through his speech to the U.N. climate summit, former president Barack Obama took a shot at Republicans, saying many GOP lawmakers have rejected the overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming.
“One of our two major parties has decided not only to sit on the sidelines, but express active hostility toward climate science and make climate change a partisan issue,” Obama said.
He added for his international audience: “Perhaps some of you have similar a dynamic in your own countries, although, generally speaking, the United States seems to have a more vigorous opposition to climate than in many other places.”
He said Republicans who take climate change seriously are “a rare breed right now.”
Back in Washington, Democrats are scrambling to pass a massive social spending bill that includes a historic $555 billion investment in climate mitigation — without any Republican votes.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.) is one of the six who traveled from Washington to Glasgow, Scotland, for COP26. He told reporters Saturday that he planned to promote carbon capture, natural gas and nuclear energy to the rest of the world at COP26. “The reason Republicans are in favor of those type of solutions [is] because they actually work,” Crenshaw said.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told The Washington Post, however, that carbon capture is a false solution that will prolong the life of fossil fuels.
“We haven’t seen successful deployment of that at this point. … So really, it’s hard to take the things that they say very seriously,” Whitehouse said.
In previous years, Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who called climate change a hoax, went to a U.N. climate summit by himself. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is also in Glasgow this week with a separate bipartisan Senate delegation.
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Obama in Glasgow says there is still a lot of work to do, expresses disappointment in Russia and China
After casting himself as a “hype man” for the United States, Obama on Monday addressed COP26, the annual United Nations climate conference, whose delegates gave him a standing ovation twice.
In a 44-minute speech in Glasgow, Obama affirmed that “the U.S. is back” at the negotiating table after four years of “a lack of leadership.” He urged young people to be hopeful in the face of cynicism and despair, and he criticized China, Russia, the Republican Party and the administration of President Donald Trump for their relative inattention to an “existential” problem.
“Back in the United States, of course, some of our progress stalled when my successor decided to unilaterally pull out of the Paris agreement in his first year in office — I wasn’t real happy about that,” Obama told delegates from around the world at the Scottish Event Campus, along the River Clyde. “And yet, the determination of our state and local governments — along with the regulations and investment that my administration had already put in place — allowed our country to keep moving forward, despite hostility from the White House.”
Obama, introducing himself as a “private citizen,” admitted that the United States still has “a lot of work to do,” but praised President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill — passed Friday by the U.S. House of Representatives — and expressed confidence that the Build Back Better bill will follow in the coming weeks and “devote over half a trillion dollars to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by over a billion metric tons by the end of the decade.”
Obama directly addressed young people who have been agitating in the streets of Glasgow, encouraging them to “stay angry” but to go beyond tactics that inconvenience or alienate those who need persuading on the issue of climate change. He also name-checked certain countries to urge a united front.
“It was particularly discouraging to see the leaders of two of the world’s largest emitters, China and Russia, decline to even attend the proceedings, and their national plans so far reflect what appears to be a dangerous lack of urgency — a willingness to maintain the status quo — on the part of both those governments,” Obama said. “That’s a shame. We need advanced economies like the U.S. and Europe leading on this issue. … We also need China and India leading on this issue, we need Russia leading on this issue, just like we need Indonesia, South Africa and Brazil on this issue. We can’t afford anyone on the sidelines.”
He concluded his remarks by saying, “I’m ready for the long haul if you are, so let’s get to work.”
Earlier Monday, Obama met with representatives from the island nations of Fiji, Grenada and the Marshall Islands, and spoke of being “an island kid.” He also addressed a gathering of the High Ambition Coalition, whose members are pushing for more aggressive emission-reduction targets than those agreed to in Paris.
After his speech, the former president was scheduled for a roundtable with youth leaders outside of the conference. He also planned to attend meetings at COP26 on Tuesday.
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The spectacle of COP26: Inside with diplomats and carbon counters, outside with protesters and their manure
GLASGOW, Scotland — They say the last best chance to save the planet is happening here, in a bland cavernous conference center, where Indigenous leaders in feather headdresses brush past Prince Charles, and Wall Street money huddles with green hydrogen nerds.
Inside the global climate summit known as COP26? The vibe is coronavirus pandemic meets the annual meeting of the World Geophysical Society. There’s virtue signaling, greenwashing and speeches in sometimes half-empty halls.
Meanwhile, in the backrooms, the planet’s actuarial accountants were toting up how many more gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalents the world can emit before the polar ice caps melt.
GLASGOW, Scotland — The COP26 climate conference has cooked up its own breed of food critics. Forget the taste. It’s all about the carbon footprint.
And the menu in Glasgow is getting skewered for the apparent carbon trail some dishes have left behind.
How do people know? It’s right there where you order. Listed next to choices of meat, dairy and fish — and vegetarian and vegan options — is the carbon footprint figure of each meal.
Want a Scottish beef burger? It’s unclear what that will set you back calorie-wise. And who’s to say if you’ll get darting glares from vegans dining nearby. But the burger had been calculated to have a 3.9kgCo2e rating (more on the numbers in a second). That’s much higher than, say, the Scottish beetroot and broccoli salad (0.2) or braised turkey meatball pasta (0.9).
Even if the world stops burning fossil fuels tomorrow, even if countries spend trillions of dollars adapting, the catastrophic consequences of warming are already here. Homes will be lost. Farmland will be damaged. Lives and livelihoods will be destroyed. Many of the countries that contributed the least to climate change will suffer the most.
For decades, the world has given mostly lip service to these unavoidable and unequal impacts, collectively known as “loss and damage.” But improvements in climate science have increasingly made it possible to pinpoint the role of climate change in causing disasters. At COP26, representatives from hard-hit areas are demanding compensation for harms they can now directly link to wealthy countries’ emissions.
Wealthy countries have so far resisted any measures that would hold them accountable for harm experienced by more vulnerable nations.
Activists haven’t even been able to make loss and damage a “permanent agenda item” — something that nations agree to address at every U.N. summit. It remains to be seen whether they can force a meaningful discussion on the topic at Glasgow.
COP26 delegates linked to the fossil fuel industry represent a larger group than any single country at the climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland.
Almost 40,000 delegates registered for COP26 in Glasgow, making it the biggest COP in history. And while Brazil sent 479 delegates to Glasgow, the largest team of negotiators at the summit, the fossil fuel industry as a whole sent more, according to one watchdog group.
The advocacy group Global Witness, and others, analyzed a provisional delegate list published by the United Nations and found that 503 people linked to the fossil fuel industry have been accredited for COP26.
This is a larger group than the combined total of delegates from Puerto Rico, Myanmar, Haiti, the Philippines, Mozambique, the Bahamas, Bangladesh and Pakistan, the regions and countries worst impacted by climate change, the group said.
Murray Worthy, gas campaign leader at Global Witness, said the “presence of hundreds of those being paid to push the toxic interests of polluting fossil fuel companies will only increase the scepticism of climate activists who see these talks as more evidence of global leaders’ dithering and delaying.”
The group’s analysis of the attendees found that some of the delegates with links to fossil fuel interests were part of official country designations from Canada, Russia and Brazil.
The researchers found that over 100 fossil fuel companies were represented at COP, including Shell, Gazprom and BP, and 30 trade associations and membership organizations.
Some of those identified as fossil fuel lobbyists reject claims that their presence is obstructing talks, arguing that they are working on finding market-based ways to reduce emissions.
The United States sent 165 delegates, including former president Barack Obama, who was attending events on Monday.
Although COP26 will not reach the overarching goal to meet the most ambitious Paris goal — to “keep 1.5 alive,” as many leaders and protesters alike have said — there are signs that the global warming curve is beginning to bend in a positive direction.
On Thursday, the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) reported that new national emissions reduction pledges, combined with other commitments made last week, could give humanity an even chance of limiting warming to 1.8 degrees Celsius (3.2 degrees Fahrenheit), compared to preindustrial levels.
That level of temperature rise would still have catastrophic consequences, scientists say. But it is the first time global climate commitments have put the Paris target of holding warming “well below 2 degrees Celsius” within humanity’s reach.
That is, if the world actually follows through.
That’s what the second week of the U.N. climate conference must be about, said Corinne Le Quéré, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia. Whatever agreement negotiators reach will determine whether the IEA analysis represents a realistic scenario for the future, or just another fantasy about what could have been.
“Really, it’s about the level of detail they’re able to put behind the promises,” Le Quéré said. “It’s going to be, I’m afraid, a bit more boring.”
“But this what the COPs are really about,” she added, “sorting out the details.”
Beyond blanket assessments about whether COP26 is succeeding or failing lie thorny issues that have tripped up negotiators at these talks for years — and that they will have to overcome to shape an agreement all nations are willing to embrace.
The Paris accord set key thresholds of warming that world leaders agreed not to cross, most importantly the 1.5 Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) target. It also created a voluntary framework to translate those lofty goals into practical policies.
But the framework still has unfinished parts. The Paris agreement said country reports on climate must be more transparent. It established a detailed but incomplete set of rules to make sure that carbon markets function fairly. And it promised that rich nations pony up at least $100 billion annually in financing to help poorer countries cope with catastrophic impacts and build greener economies — a pledge that has not yet been fully met.
Firm language around financial support was missing from a list of priorities the COP presidency sent out to negotiators Sunday. Developing nations have long called on their wealthy counterparts to compensate hard-hit communities for what’s known as “loss and damage” — the lives, livelihoods, homes and infrastructure irreversibly harmed by climate effects. Yet the priorities document contains minimal references to the issue, and richer countries could block efforts to include it in the final agreement.
The delegates debating in private conference rooms along the River Clyde know their decisions will be scrutinized by the activists who have descended on Glasgow in recent days, as well as people around the world who have seen their lives and livelihoods upended as the planet warms.
The parallel universe that exists inside and outside of the climate summit has been well documented. Inside: Pronouncements and assurances that true progress is being made, that the world is inching toward a less-dark future. Outside: Accusations that leaders are again failing to act and are offering empty promises.
COP President Alok Sharma has noted how merely months ago, pledges to reach “net zero” in coming decades existed for only about 30 percent of the global economy. Today, that number is close to 90 percent. “By any measure, that is progress,” he said.
And yet on the same day, protesters marched through the streets of Glasgow carrying posters with activist Greta Thunberg’s three-word summary of the proceedings: “Blah, blah, blah.”
“As the negotiators huddle in smaller groups trying to thrash out agreement on technical issues and specific words, so the world outside the negotiating rooms will become more and more frustrated if they fear an agreement that doesn’t represent the urgency young people feel and match the anxiety that climate policy experts feel,” Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University, said in an email. “The next week will be tense, but has to be productive.”
Country pledges built on flawed data, Post investigation finds
Across the world, many countries undercounttheir greenhouse gas emissions in their reports to the United Nations, a Washington Post investigation has found. An examination of 196 country reports reveals a giant gap between what nations declare their emissions to be versus the greenhouse gases they are sending into the atmosphere. The gap ranges from at least 8.5 billion to as high as 13.3 billion tons a year of underreported emissions — big enough to move the needle on how much the Earth will warm.
The plan to save the world from the worst of climate change is built on data. But the data the world is relying on is inaccurate.
At the low end, the gap is larger than the yearly emissions of the United States. At the high end, it approaches the emissions of China and comprises 23 percent of humanity’s total contribution to the planet’s warming, The Post found.
The presidents and prime ministers have come and gone. Prince William, by all accounts, has left the building. The streets — which only days ago echoed with the chants of protesters, marching by the tens of thousands through a cold November rain to demand climate action — are now far quieter.
In coming days, negotiators from nearly 200 countries will haggle over every word in every line of an agreement that could shape how nations report progress on cutting greenhouse gas emissions, how global carbon markets function, and how the rich countries of the world deliver on promises to help more vulnerable nations.
Delegates face familiar but vexing problems about how the world can agree on policies to deal with widespread deforestation, climbing temperatures, rising seas and other dimensions of climate change. Central to all that is the allocation of hundreds of billions of dollars.
COP26 President Alok Sharma, striving to make Glasgow a success, urged delegates that it was “the time to shift the mode of work” and enter “a more political, high-level phase of the conference.”