The New Humanitarian | Why COP26 leaves humanitarians wanting more


Ahead of this weekend’s final agreement at the UN climate summit, delegates filed onto the podium in Glasgow for family photos while wine bottles were uncorked. But this latest global pact is not the game-changing and celebratory moment many had hoped for. 

“I don’t think the outcome of COP26 has many things for humanitarians to celebrate,” Gernot Laganda, the World Food Programme’s climate and disaster risk reduction chief, told The New Humanitarian, summing up the mood in an emergency aid sector that came to Glasgow with the clear message it can’t handle the fallout of the climate crisis alone.

Saturday’s deal nudged forward on emissions targets, and on blaming and shaming the fossil fuels most responsible for global warming, but it largely failed to deliver on the finance issues so critical to nations already suffering the disastrous effects of climate change.

Adaptation funding – money from richer nations (who emit more) to help poorer ones (who emit less) cope with the effects of climate change – was delayed yet again; while the conversation on compensation, known as “loss and damage”, remained in dialogue mode.

“It is aggravating,” Eric Njuguna, a youth climate activist from Kenya, where over two million people are already experiencing hunger due to drought, told The New Humanitarian. “At a time that the science is clear of what needs to be done and the window is closing, there is no sense of urgency. They don’t treat the climate crisis as an emergency. It is aggravating comparing what happens here at COP26 versus what is happening in Kenya.”

Two years after the Madrid summit concluded without much progress on implementation, negotiators in Glasgow were tasked with finalising rules to ensure that climate action meets the ambitions of the Paris accords, securing pledges for a new 10-year, carbon-cutting cycle.

A multitude of scientific warning bells were rung in the run-up to the two-week session, while a string of climate-related disasters this year – not only in countries long-used to droughts and floods, but also in wealthier nations until recently spared the worst effects of climate change – underlined the imperative nature of the discussions.

But many participants came away from COP26 feeling that while a number of issues may have gained greater recognition – and some even a place in the final document for the first time – too many compromises were made in order to strike the deal.

So how much did Glasgow move the needle forward on the key issues?

Some headway on mitigation

Ahead of COP26, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report and the World Meteorological Organization’s report on the State of the Global Climate 2020 spelt out in no uncertain terms the catastrophic trajectory the Earth is on.

The WMO report said the planet was already on average 1.1 to 1.2 degrees Celsius warmer than in the 1880s, and this was expected to reach the +1.5 degree mark in the next couple of decades. A separate estimate from the World Resources Institute projected a temperature rise of 2.4 degrees by 2100 based on the emissions-cutting pledges filed pre-COP with the UNFCCC, the UN body responsible for organising the climate talks. 

A report by the International Energy Agency that took into account pledges announced during the first week of the global event by heads of state seeking to boost their COP credentials presented a rosier estimate, saying rises could be limited to 1.8 degrees.

Those pledges included revised net zero targets by India and Russia as well as agreements on stopping deforestation, cutting methane emissions, quitting coal, and halting investments in oil and gas projects. However, like China’s net zero commitment just before COP, the Indian and Russian pledges were way past the mid-century mark on peaking emissions set by Paris. 

Reining in the biggest polluters has proven difficult. China and the United States, responsible for nearly half of all global CO2 emissions, did sign a surprise agreement last week vowing to work together to do better, but it was light on specifics.

And although the final Glasgow agreement set a first by introducing language on reducing fossil fuel subsidies and coal production, this was watered down several times, before India – supported by China and the United States – succeeded in having “phasing out” replaced with “phasing down” for coal.

In spite of strong opposition from Switzerland, Mexico, and several small island states, this was begrudgingly accepted to allow the final document to pass. Countries were, nonetheless, “requested” to return in November 2022 to the next COP in Egypt with strengthened plans on fossil fuels and their broader mitigation efforts.

For many observers, the direction of travel on mitigating climate change – if not the speed – was encouraging.

While the Paris Agreement set the goal of keeping the increase in global average temperatures at “well below 2 degrees C” above pre-industrial levels and to try to limit it to 1.5 degrees C, the new text agreed in Glasgow weighs down more heavily on pursuing “efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees C”. References to scientific reports were also included to emphasise the widening climate crisis, while a footnote to a chart showing the expected rise in emissions further underscored the message that states are not showing enough ambition. 

Way short on adaptation

Glasgow saw greater recognition than at previous COPs of the need to increase resilience and defend against climate-related disasters – for example by planting drought-resistant crops, building flood defenses, or planting trees in urban spaces.

However, the pact failed to spell out the 50-50 split between mitigation and adaptation funding that vulnerable countries have been calling for, and which has been echoed by UN Secretary-General António Guterres and other leading figures in the aid sector. Currently, adaptation represents only a quarter of total climate contributions by richer nations.

Ahead of COP26, finance to help developing countries cope with climate change – set in 2009 at the COP in Copenhagen at $100 billion – was shown by the OECD to be lagging at under $80 billion. As negotiating teams prepared to head to Glasgow, rich countries pledged to meet the $100 billion target by 2023.

The final agreement here “urged” developed countries to deliver the annual contribution of $100 billion by 2025 and to double their adaptation funding to the poorer countries over the same timeframe.

For countries already severely affected by climate change, those sums – and a commitment in Glasgow to launch a two-year effort to set a more ambitious “global goal on adaptation” – are still too little too late. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) said the countries would need $140-300 billion per year by 2030 and $280-500 billion annually by 2050.

Access to the limited funding that is currently available has also been problematic: The UN’s Green Climate Fund – set up in 2010 to help poorer nations cut emissions and adapt to climate change – has been dogged by bureaucracy and a flood of assistance requests, leaving countries having to wait for years to get projects going. 

“We have work to do,” said Maarten van Aalst, Climate Centre director at the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). “It is not only a matter of the quantity of finance, but also the quality of finance that we need to get right,” he told The New Humanitarian, explaining how almost no adaptation finance reaches conflict victims whose situations are made worse by climate change. 

On the brighter side, the Adaptation Fund, managed by the Global Environment Facility, a public-private partnership, received a record $356 million of new funding from national and regional governments during COP26, nearly triple a previous record set nearly 10 years ago. The fund finances programmes through national entities in dozens of the hardest-hit countries, serving some 28 million people.

Climate humanitarianism?

The emergency aid sector, which is already struggling to respond to current needs, has been warning that every increment of temperature rise means millions more people will be affected, especially if more resources aren’t made available for adaptation and disaster risk reduction.

COP26 was a turning point for humanitarian organisations in terms of advocating for stronger, comprehensive climate action, particularly on finance, and the summit was accompanied by growing calls for the sector to regear and retool in the face of the climate crisis.

Read more → It’s time to pivot from war aid to climate aid

Hans Joerg Strohmeyer, policy development chief at the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, said 12 of the 15 countries most affected by climate change are receiving humanitarian assistance. Stromeyer and other policy specialists from international aid organisations told journalists that even at the current temperature rise of 1.1 degrees, the groups are near “collapse” due to the increasing number and scale of climate-related disasters.

Médecins Sans Frontières attended its first COP and joined other humanitarian groups in warning that without more robust climate assistance the dire emergencies where they provide assistance will get much, much worse.

“What we have is humanitarian aid as a response mechanism, and this is totally stretched internationally with the number of protracted crises underfunded,” Melchior Lengsfeld, executive director of Swiss NGO Helvetas, told The New Humanitarian.

Nowhere on loss and damage

Long an issue at international climate conferences, so-called loss and damage, which amounts to reparations from richer countries to poorer ones for the impacts of climate change, finally got a mention in the document approved on Saturday night. But for now the section is an empty shell without any commitment from wealthy countries to actual compensation. 

“At its core, loss and damage is a humanitarian conversation – because it is loss of human life and damage to people’s livelihoods that these countries are confronted with,” said WFP’s Laganda. 

Developing countries, particularly those most vulnerable to climate impacts, want a funding mechanism to be set up to manage claims, possibly funded by new taxes on fossil fuels. Scotland made a first, albeit symbolic, £2 million contribution to such a fund, motioning that others could follow suit. However, the fund was rejected by wealthy opponents, namely the United States, which remains wary about any legal, precedent-setting move.

Instead, the so-called Santiago network, a technical assistance programme launched in 2019 that would provide advice and support to countries to avoid future disasters, was incorporated in the agreement.

Baby steps on representation

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic derailed plans to hold the Glasgow summit on time in November 2020, representatives of affected communities in poorer countries worried that their voices wouldn’t be heard, and several groups that did make it to the Scottish city disputed the UK presidency’s claim that the event was the “most inclusive COP ever”. 

Beyond having to jump the extraordinary hurdles of closed borders, reduced flight schedules, visa problems, and COVID-19 restrictions, many who did make it here could only join in from the streets or in near-empty conference halls where they had to compete with major delegations giving their own press conferences. Some smaller country delegations were able to offer entry passes to youth, Indigenous, women’s, and other representative groups from their own nations.

Although they received some more funding and greater recognition for the role their communities play in mitigation, Indigenous representatives remained frustrated that they didn’t have better representation in the negotiations and still weren’t properly consulted on formulating policy and practical solutions. 

The pact did include a line that “urged” greater involvement of Indigenous peoples and local communities “in designing and implementing climate action”, and recognised the “important role” they played in climate action. But rights groups warned that new rules on carbon markets – allowing rich countries to offset their emissions in developing countries – failed to guarantee that lands wouldn’t be taken away from communities that rely on them for their survival.

Edited by Andrew Gully.


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