“Climate change is a very different ball game in poor and rich countries”

A number of civil society mobilizations have been announced ahead of COP26, including protests by health workers and health activists. We spoke to D Raghunandan from the Delhi Science Forum about the agenda and expectations of the summit

October 21, 2021 by Peoples Health Dispatch
Call for health workers to join actions at COP26 as part of Medact’s Health&Climate Justice campaign; photo: @Health4GND campaign

In a few weeks’ time, government officials from all over the world will meet in Glasgow for the 26th Conference of the Parties to the Paris Agreement (COP26), where they will discuss the progress and future plans to mitigate the effects of climate change. If there is no concrete action taken during and immediately after COP26, the effects of climate change will affect much more than the environment: in 2021 alone we have witnessed what kind of disruptions extreme weather events can cause to people’s lives, as well as to their physical and mental health. In that regard, how we respond to the climate crisis before us will have an enormous impact on everyone’s health in the years to come.

Health activists will join the civil society mobilizations announced in Glasgow, making sure to bring the health aspects of climate change to the forefront of the discussion through protests and People’s Health Hearings. To learn more about what we can expect from COP26, and why this time it is crucial to ensure the people’s voice is heard at the summit, we spoke to D Raghunandan from the Delhi Science Forum.

People’s Health Dispatch: Let’s start with an overview of the agenda of COP26: what is going to be discussed, and what kind of an impact these discussions might have on the world?

D Raghunandan: That’s a million-dollar question. COP26 is slated to arrive at a solid understanding of a way forward from the Paris Agreement in 2015/2016. 2020 was the year slated for updating the pledges made by different countries in 2015, to scale them up and so on, but then of course COVID-19 came and it was postponed to this year. We expect countries to come with very large-scale projections, update their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) in a way that could keep us closer to the Paris Agreement. The original target of the Paris Agreement was keeping the temperature rise well below 2 degrees Celsius or reaching 1.5 degrees Celsius. That is the goal. And that should be the outcome of several preliminary meetings and summits that have been held ahead of COP26: to put pressure on countries to ramp up, to raise their ambitions. Several countries have responded to this pressure and actually raised their stakes, but many have not, and that’s what we are going to confront in Glasgow this November.

PHD: So, in this context, why is COP26 an important space to watch? What kind of limitations should we expect to see?

DR: Well, there are two major things. One, of course, is to watch out for the outcome according to calculations done by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Their report was released less than a month ago, but it has been broadly ignored in the media compared to the shock and awe with which the 6th report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was received a few months ago. The UNFCCC report is interesting because it is an assessment of the totality of NDCs submitted, including their updated versions, and it shows that we are behind the target. The target was to reduce carbon emissions to 45% below 2010 levels by the year 2030, and UNFCCC shows us that even with all these NDCs coming in, we are actually at 16% more than in 2010.

Unless there is going to be a major push in Glasgow during the summit itself, the figures coming in to the summit are extremely disappointing. In fact, they are scary, because if this is where we are now with just 10 years to go for the 2030 limit, then the world is in serious trouble. We have already experienced the havoc that climate change causes with just one degree rise in temperature. We have seen extreme weather events all over the world this year: fires in Europe, forest fires in North America, floods in Germany. And of course, recurrent floods, landslides, cyclones, everything that is happening on the Indian subcontinent.

PHD: There have also been questions raised about some delegates not being able to participate at COP26, as they have been vaccinated with COVID-19 vaccines which are not recognized in the UK. Have these issues been resolved?

DR: Actually, the delegates are not facing any physical challenges to participation, because despite all the COVID-19 regulations and entries regarding vaccinations, the UK government has decided to allow all delegates and registered observers into to conference, but not into the inner gathering space unless they are fully vaccinated with approved vaccines or have undergone a 5-day quarantine period. In any case, all categories of delegates and observers are required to undergo daily tests. Without daily test results, they will not be allowed into the conference hall. That requirement is actually not too bad considering the variation of vaccines being administered. For example, the Sputnik V vaccine is not recognized in the UK, so delegates vaccinated with it would originally not have been eligible to come; now they can, provided they are prepared to go through four or five days of quarantine, in some cases.

PHD: What are the major concerns of the low- and middle-income countries (LMICs)? Are they close to any kind of common positions that they might want to push during this summit? 

DR: We need to separate the least developed countries (LDCs), Small Island States (SIS), and Africa from the large blanket category that we have of LMICs. This is because countries like Brazil, India, China are a very different category from countries like Papua New Guinea, the Caribbean islands, and so on. Because the latter face an existential threat from climate change. We will suffer badly, but as a whole, India as a country will survive. With great difficulty, but we’ll survive. In other places, a large number of people face submergence; countries in Africa face complete drought, a wipeout of agriculture, and forced emigration by people. It’s a very different ball game.

A kind of similarity exists between middle-income countries and developed countries: both can do much more than they have promised, but they choose not to. Yet, they are not only falling behind with what they can do, mind you, but even with what they are obliged to do. If you look at carbon budgets, for example, which is the sum total of emissions – so cumulative emissions, instead of annual flows – and are the most scientific way of looking at where we are, China alone is virtually slated to use up the entire remaining carbon budget till 2030. South Africa is way behind the curve; Brazil is, too, and it’s threatening to go even further. So I think the main challenge faced by LDCs and SIS right now is that both middle-income countries and developed countries are on their way to surpass what was agreed in terms of emissions.

The US is the worst offender in the category. Europe has pledged to cut emissions at around 58% below 1990 levels, and the UK has gone a step further pledging a 68% reduction. Compared to this, the US has pledged 26-28% reduction below 2005 levels. This is significant because they had actually increased their emissions by 17% between 1990 and 2005, so in effect the US is only pledging a 9-11% reduction in emissions compared to 1990 levels. This puts them at around 50% behind Europe and the UK. And a number of other large developed countries have followed suit: Japan, Australia, Canada, they have all followed the example the US have set. LDCs and Africa are faced with a massive threat to their very existence because of the actions of these countries, but unfortunately also because of the actions of middle income countries, who could do more to cut their emissions, although they are not obliged to do so because of their development status.

PHD: And we know that past discussions on the response to climate change have actually ended up in a shift of responsibility to the Global South, when historically it is the Global North that has caused most of the emissions. Is there space at COP26 to imagine a different approach?

DR: There is space, but the question is, will this be allowed to happen? Will there be an effort to find a real way out, and in terms of geopolitics, will the countries that usually dominate the agenda allow this to happen? There is bound to be a massive push by LDCs and SIS for this to happen, but so far the agenda has been set by developed countries, and it’s taking us all in the opposite direction. Let’s look at the example of the global climate change agenda before COP26: the point of the Paris Agreement was for all NDCs to target emission reduction by 2030, which was only 15 years away from the Paris agreement and 10 years from 2020, when we expected countries’ ambitions to increase. This was done intentionally, because they knew that if you set a target very far away, say 35 years down the road, many countries will use this as an excuse to fidget with their actions. They’ll say, 30 years is a lot, we’ll do something later. But maybe they won’t. And how are you going to monitor all those countries for such a long time? Long periods of time make it difficult to monitor actions taken, but also to achieve concrete things. Because after 30 years, you may always come back and say, Sorry, I wasn’t able to do it because there’s been such a long gap.

The big buzz around COP26 now is that the US and, unfortunately, the Secretary-General of the United Nations are pushing to set the target at achieving net zero emissions by the year 2050. This is a huge red herring being tossed in the middle of COP26, which should be looking for achievable targets in the next 10 years. If, instead of this, Net Zero takes over the stage, developed countries get another 20 years of distraction from the 2030 goals. On its own, Net Zero is a false target, because even the UNFCCC report says that achieving Net Zero emissions by 2050 should be a key target, but to achieve it, you need to respect all these milestones along the way – so you need to keep your efforts up in 2030, 2040, and 2050. You cannot keep doing whatever you want till 2040 and then suddenly hope to reach Net Zero ten years later, because by then you’ll have overshot the emission targets, the 1.5 degree increase, and so on. But many countries who have not increased their NDCs have committed to Net Zero by 2050 because it’s an easy commitment to make. Who’s going to hold your feet to the fire twenty years from now?

Unfortunately, this narrative might take over the discussion in Glasgow: everybody saying Net Zero by 2050, and then we’ll have a declaration – the Glasgow Declaration declaring to have net zero emissions by 2050, and everyone will go home happy. That’s the big danger to watch out for at COP26. We can expect that the big emitters, including China, Brazil, India, will collude with the developed countries. They’ll say, we won’t put pressure on you if you don’t pressure us; they’ll collude to push for the agenda they want, leaving the LDCs and SIS aside. So the only hope is that LDCs and SIS will apply enough pressure inside the forum, and NGOs and civil society do the same outside, so this agenda doesn’t come to pass.

PHD: Has the fossil fuel industry been given space to influence the agenda of COP26? Are there any precautions taken against this kind of influence?

DR: The fossil fuel industry has been present right from the beginning, both directly and indirectly. Directly, because the UN has always welcomed industry representatives, and that includes the fossil fuel industry. Right now, they’re claiming a major transition away from fossil fuels and towards green energy, solar, wind, and so on. They also claim they are trying to get more eco-friendly methods of extraction of existing fossil fuel. Indirectly, because there is also a big presence of countries who represent the interests of the fossil fuel industry. The Middle East, for example, Russia, Canada, Australia, with its coal, the US with its huge oil industry backing.

This is what the world has been fighting against from the beginning, a pushback by the fossil fuel industry. But now, I think, they’re at least facing a major shift of public opinion. Look at Australia and Canada, where public opinion is strongly against what the fossil fuel industry is saying. Governments in Europe are apparently turning their back on fossil fuels, although we have to say that coal has made a comeback in Europe. And it won’t be that easy to break with the fossil fuel industry even if you’re determined to, because you still need to secure a source of energy. An easy way out would be to switch from petroleum to natural gas. Natural gas is greener than petroleum, but clearly it’s also a fossil fuel, and it’s definitely not as green as solar or wind energy. But you can’t go full solar or wind unless you have the right technology, and the technology won’t be commercially available at scale for maybe another 10 years, so the fossil fuel lobby will continue to try to influence the conversation.

PHD: And finally, what is happening in terms of mobilization by the left and civil society around COP26? 

DR: There will be a large civil society presence around COP26. But one of the problems is that a large number of NGOs on the left, the left-green combinations, often take extreme positions which do not reconcile with the realities of the negotiations inside. Many climate activists, including Greta Thunberg, take the position that the only acceptable solution is to announce a complete cessation of the use of fossil fuels now. This is physically impossible for any country to do, however well-meaning they are. Such a position leaves very little for anyone to do except to say, Okay, we’ll stop all coal, oil and all natural gas from tomorrow – which is not realistic. So while civil society acts as a very important ginger group, a very important pressure point, they generally don’t generate alternative suggestions that can be implemented on the floor of the summit. For those, we’ll have to rely more on the Africa group, LDCs, and SIS.

What is likely to happen is there will formally be a large push towards more finances for compensation. But the problem with compensation is, first, that we’re still talking in abstract terms, we’re still referring to that mythical hundred billion dollars a year, which was supposed to come out of budgetary support, but it’s actually been coming through loans, etc. And for me, an even greater danger is that you may get agreement on money because the US and developed countries may prefer putting money on the table rather than actually reducing emissions. They could agree to the demands in terms of money and hide behind that, use that to bargain for less pressure for emission reductions. This kind of messaging is likely to take place both within and outside the summit floor, and it’s worth keeping our eyes and ears open.

PHD: Thank you so much. 

DR: Thank you.

Read more articles from the latest edition of the People’s Health Dispatch and subscribe to the newsletter here.