Analysis

OPINION - COP26: Will global powers 'walk the talk' over cutting fossil fuels?

International collaboration to achieve net zero is paramount, and there have been promising changes. Yet the summit has understandably been called disappointing, given that there are still gaps left in the battle against global warming

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey   | 26.11.2021
OPINION - COP26: Will global powers 'walk the talk' over cutting fossil fuels?

The author is a researcher and journalist focusing on conflict and geopolitics in the Middle East and North Africa, primarily related to the Gulf region.

ISTANBUL 

At the end of the two-week Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, a deal was finally struck. It entailed urgent emission cuts, reductions to coal-the worst fossil fuel for greenhouse gases, and pledges for more financial support for developing countries to help them adapt to climate change, with the goal of keeping global warming below the critical 1.5°C level. Despite concerns that the deal has not gone far enough, COP26 President Alok Sharma claimed that the "historic" deal "keeps 1.5°C within reach”, hoping it will contain the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Among the primary objectives of COP26 was to secure net zero by 2050, in a pivotal effort to keep global temperature below the 1.5°C threshold, and protect communities from the impact of climate change. If 2°C warming is exceeded and not restricted to 1.5°C, it will result in extreme drought and water scarcity, species and biodiversity loss and extinction, threaten worldwide food security and possibly trigger unprecedented global migration.

Commitments to cut back on fossil fuels

While many of the world’s leading producers and consumers of fossil fuels like the United States, China and India have benefited economically from their usage, such wealth could instead support more vulnerable parts of the world. Indeed, despite the deal being finalized at Glasgow, the agreement has not ensured enough infrastructure or repairs for areas impacted by climate change, such as flood victims. Crucially, commitments to cut back on fossil fuels have been undermined.

Many critics of the summit’s failures have pointed the finger at China and India. Both countries intervened to alter the wording of the Glasgow pact, which now entails the “phasing down” of coal rather than the “phasing out” of the fossil fuel, as initially planned. Furthermore, China is the world’s largest emitter of carbon, while India is the world’s third-largest carbon emitter.

India is one of the worst culprits for consuming fossil fuels. At the end of 2020, nearly 70 percent of India’s electricity came from coal, revealing the importance of the harmful fossil fuel in empowering India’s economy, making up around 11,6 percent of global coal consumption. However, India announced it would attempt to reach net zero by 2070. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the pledge, the first time India has set a net zero target, at the Glasgow summit.

Too little too late

However, India’s targets may be seen as too little too late. It announced it would move to 50 percent fossil fuels by 2030, while its target to reach net zero is two decades beyond that of the Western world. However, Modi attempted to speak on behalf of developing nations at the summit and asked Western countries to provide more technological and financial support to poorer countries, to help them achieve net zero. While Western countries should indeed shoulder the responsibility for supporting developing countries, given their own profiteering from fossil fuels, India’s desire to maintain a crucial part of its economy is clearly hindering efforts.

Meanwhile, China has announced plans for carbon neutrality by 2060, ten years after the US and European Union’s targets. Beijing has often presented a pro-active approach to tackling climate change. In a series of previous pledges President Xi Jinping said in a video address to the UN general assembly on 22 September 2020 that China would aim to become “carbon neutral” before 2060. It announced before 2030 to curtail its CO2 emissions peak before 2030.

China has made some promising steps towards diversifying away from fossil fuels. One of its more laudable moves is its initiative to make Electric Vehicles (EVs) automobiles constitute around 40% of automobile sales by 2030. Furthermore, China leads in the production of batteries to power electric vehicles and store renewable energy on power grids, which could develop as it shifts towards greater EV usage China also hosts around one out of every three solar panels and wind turbines in the world.

Yet many of China’s projects are arguably for its own domestic benefit, as it still finances and profits from overseas coal projects. China also refused to join an agreement with nearly 100 other countries to limit methane - another harmful greenhouse gas, and instead plans to pursue a "national plan" to control methane.

Oil-rich countries and green economy

Finally, another obstacle could be the role of some states in the Middle East, particularly in the Gulf region. As an oil-rich country, Saudi Arabia is among the greatest consumers and producers of fossil fuels, as oil constitutes a substantial part of its economy, and therefore its political stability. Even though Riyadh said it will move towards net zero by 2060, per its Vision 2030 to diversify its economy away from oil, the kingdom is the fourth largest consumer of oil in the world, and this reality is underpinned by accusations that it sought to block constructive talks at COP26.

International collaboration to achieve net zero is paramount, and there have been promising changes, such as the US and China agreeing to boost climate change cooperation over the next decade. Yet the summit has understandably been called disappointing, given that there are still gaps left in the battle against global warming. While the world’s powers continue to prioritize profit from more harmful energy sources, this will be a major obstacle. Ultimately, the decisions largely rest in the hands of developed countries that have so far benefited from fossil fuels, and it is up to these powers to drastically cut emissions to make global net zero a reality.

*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.​​​​​​​

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