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Comment: COP26 pledges must now be turned into measurable actions

18 November 2021

Huge expectations were placed on the Glasgow climate summit. Was it a success, asks Graham Usher

Alamy

Members of a delegation representing indigenous communities speak during the COP26 climate-change conference in Glasgow, last Friday

Members of a delegation representing indigenous communities speak during the COP26 climate-change conference in Glasgow, last Friday

“THERE are two different roads,” St Basil the Great wrote, “one broad and easy, the other hard and narrow.” Looking at the two options, “the soul is confused and differs in its calculations,” he wrote. “It prefers pleasure when it is looking at the present; it chooses virtue when its eye is on eternity.”

This duality is at the heart of questions about how we respond to the climate emergency that the world faces. Huge expectations were placed on COP26. Was it a success?

It does feel a significant change from COP21 in Paris, six years ago. There is a sense that we are all in agreement that there is a crisis. We are seeing the real-life impact, especially on the poorest and most vulnerable communities, and there is a gathering momentum that we must act both as individuals and as a worldwide community. It’s as if the majority of the nations are now lined up in the same direction. We just need to get them moving at pace.

COP26 was in danger of not happening, even in recent months, owing to the pandemic. The welcome from the people of Glasgow was warm and generous, and the sheer graft of Alok Sharma MP, the COP26 president, and his team, was extraordinary. He deserves a huge amount of credit for the successes. I know that the things that did not succeed came as a personal blow to him.

 

I WENT to Glasgow wanting to listen to indigenous peoples, and I heard powerful testimonies of the impact of climatic changes on their communities, as well as the rich ancestral wisdom that they bring. Hearing a forest-dwelling person from Costa Rica speaking immediately after the President of the United States about deforestation was a powerful combination. Those sitting at the tables of power need to listen more to the voices of indigenous peoples, and then go even further: invite them to the table.

The same is true for young people, who brought much to COP26, expressing their hopes, anger, and concerns. The Young Christian Climate Network’s coffin-hulled boat had travelled in relay from the G7 summit in Cornwall, inspiring people to action along the way (News, 4 June). Greta Thunberg may have called the leaders talk “blah, blah, blah”, but it has been her voice, and other young voices, that have brought about a sea-change in the urgency about climate justice.

I went to Glasgow also with some clear hopes, even demands. I wanted to see proposals brought forward to keep global warming to below 1.5°C, an end to fossil- fuel subsidies, and, on the table, finance for those nations that cannot afford adaptation or the recovery from loss and damage.

Progress was made in each of these areas — but not enough. There were also important agreements about cutting methane emissions, ending the use of coal, and halting deforestation. The restoration of forests, peat, and wetland habitats will act as carbon sinks, and there was an increasing recognition of the value of nature-based solutions, which, in turn, will enhance biodiversity.

Coal wasn’t even allowed in the room at Paris, but, in Glasgow, there was agreement in the final document to “phase down” its use. India and China, annoyingly, weakened the first proposal to “phase it out”. If we have any hope in getting to within 1.5°C, we need, urgently, to consign coal to the history books.

Wealthier countries need to step up to their commitments to the adaptation fund to help poorer countries make the transition away from carbon-emitting energy. While much money was spoken about, including welcome commitments from the private sector, we are still not meeting our previous promises. The fund for loss and damage, to help economically poor nations to recover from adverse climate events, gained some traction, and is mentioned in the final agreement; but this is an area where much more global action is needed, so that the poorest people can recover, rebuild, and be more resilient.

Negotiations, of course, are precisely that. You get some wins, and you lose other arguments. Let’s not kid ourselves: when it comes to climate change, there is a deep inequality. Many of the lost arguments will favour the rich at the expense of the poor, and favour shareholders and bosses at the expense of workers, communities, and biodiversity.

 

THERE is now a strong commitment to 1.5°C, a move from “under two degrees” at Paris — but there is much work to do. Every fraction of a degree warmer has an adverse effect on millions more people. Countries must come back next year in Egypt with more ambitious targets.

Currently, the nationally determined contributions (NDCs) would lead to a disastrous 2.4°C average temperature rise. If the other pledges made in Glasgow are added in, including the ones about reducing methane emissions and reversing deforestation, and are kept, then warming could be kept to below 2°C. But there is a small word in that sentence that needs to be written in capitals: COULD. Pledges are all very well, but they can easily become failed or forgotten promises. They must be turned, urgently, into measurable actions.

In this year, in which the UK holds the presidency of COP, the Government has the opportunity to show global leadership and keep up the moral pressure, especially towards Australia, Brazil, China, and Russia. But we also need to ensure that our own house is in order. The whole world needs to do more for climate justice — more quickly, more generously, more together.

One indigenous person told me that their culture “walks backwards into the future”, thus always taking their learned wisdom with them. At Glasgow, the world glimpsed the possibility of a hopeful future, if we take the right road.

It is not the “pleasure now” road of St Basil’s commentary: it is the road that involves listening and learning, of seeking the wisdom already in our communities, so that we might live more simply, so that others might simply live. Young people demanded it. The indigenous people dreamed of it. Christians acknowledged that hurting God’s creation, and contributing to the suffering of God’s poorest people, is not the hopeful future that Jesus sees in loving God and our neighbour.

 

WHAT was striking, for me, is that all faith communities have creation care as one of their key tenets. When Pope Francis gathered together leaders of the world’s faiths at the Vatican on 4 October — the feast of St Francis of Assisi — to present their common appeal to Mr Sharma, there were probably 85 per cent of the world’s population represented. That’s a strong voice, and we’re raising it.

The dial has been moved in Glasgow. We need to turn the heat down yet further, and keep up the pressure to deliver the Glasgow Climate Pact. The UN secretary-general, António Guterres, said that the 1.5°C ambition is alive, but on life support. There is far more work to do: more campaigning, more praying, more living simpler lives. Now is not the time to differ. We know we need to choose virtue.


The Rt Revd Graham Usher is the Bishop of Norwich, and the C of E’s lead bishop on the environment.

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