Words can provide sharp traps, fettering language and caging definitions. They can also speak to freedom of action and
permissiveness. At COP26, that permissiveness was all the more present in the haggling ahead of what would become the
Glasgow Climate Pact.
COP26, or the UN Climate Change Conference UK 2021, had a mission
of “Uniting the world to tackle climate change.” The tackling, however, fell rather short, though countries, in the
main, were trying to sell the final understanding as a grand compromise of mature tidiness. COP26 president Alok Sharma called the outcome
“a fragile win”, the outcome of “hard work” and “great cooperation” from the parties.
The Pact is a flurry of words
, acknowledging, for instance “the importance of the best available science for effective climate action and
policymaking.” Alarm and utmost concern is expressed by the parties at the fact “that human activities have caused
around 1.1 °C of global warming to date and that impacts are already being felt in every region”. There is a stress on
“the urgency of enhancing ambition and acting in relation to mitigation adaptation and finance in this critical decade
to address gaps between current efforts and pathways in pursuit of the ultimate objective of the Convention and its
long-term global goal”.
The pact had gone through a few iterations, stirring interest, sparking hope, even inducing, at points, a giddy
optimism. The first draft
had called upon the Parties “to accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil-fuels”. Its appearance was considered
by The New Scientist to be “remarkable” for explicitly mentioning fossil fuels, while Ed King of the European Climate Foundation suggested
that it was “the first time fossil fuels have been called out in a draft UN climate decision text”.
But in the final statement, an exit for countries still keen to keep the heart of coal alive was carved. The parties
might well ensure that technologies and policies would be adopted “to transition towards low-emission energy systems”,
scale up the “deployment of clean power generation and energy efficiency measures” but this would also entail
“accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”.
As this was undertaken, “targeted support” would be directed towards “the poorest and most vulnerable in line with
national circumstances and recognizing the need for support towards a just transition”.
And there were those words slipped in with conspiratorial deftness: “phasing down”. Elastic, open, accommodating to the
emitters and the vendors. A world left to the beholder. The change of language had been encouraged by India, with the
support of other coal-dependent states. The Indian environment and climate minister, Bhupender Yadav, had been less than
impressed with the singling out of coal, given the previous text’s deafening silence on natural gas and oil.
The reasons for such omissions were clear enough: countries such as the United States continue to nourish their interest
in oil and gas investment. On November 17, the Biden administration will hold the largest offshore oil and gas lease sale
in US history, covering 80 million acres off the Gulf of Mexico. Again, President Joe Biden shows that anything his
predecessor, Donald Trump, did, he can do several times better.
After the conclusion of COP26, Yadav merrily declared
the summit a success for India, as “we articulated and put across the concerns and ideas of the developing world quite
succinctly and unequivocally.” His country had a lesson for the developed world, fattened by a certain lifestyle that
required modification to cope with the climate crisis.
It was the hook upon which the Modi government could fasten a new, lecturing mantra: LIFE, or Lifestyle for Environment,
one that valued “moderation over excess.” “Today,” stated Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the summit, “it’s needed that
all of us come together and take forward LIFE as a movement.” Presumably a phasing down movement.
Indian voices in the climate action sector did not shy away from approving the dilution of the language on coal. Their
targets were the misdeeds of the United States and the European Union, who had, according to
Aarti Khosla of Climate Trends, failed “to deliver on the promised $100 billion in climate finance”. Kamal Narayan, CEO
of the Integrated Health and Well Being Council, suggested
that the use of “phasing down” coal instead of “phasing out” should not be a source of concern, given “the kind of
commitment and leadership India has shown in building renewable energy infrastructure”.
While not quite music, the softening approach in the final text was melodious enough for former Australian resources
minister Matt Canavan to claim that the coal industry had been victorious in Scotland. Proudly visible before him in an interview
with the Today program was a screen with an unequivocal message: “Glasgow: A Huge Win for Coal.” An adventurous reading of the Glasgow
text was in order. The agreement had provided “wiggle room” for countries. “Given the fact that the agreement did not
say that coal needs to be phased down or taken out, it is a green light for us to build more coal mines.”
For a delightedly cynical Canavan, no country was really taking the agreement seriously, and the likes of India, China
and those in South-East Asia were insatiably hungry for coal, with a “demand” that “almost has no limit”. On Twitter, he reiterated the theme
with a call to rent the earth with urgent, patriotic enthusiasm. “Let’s get digging then and sell more of the best coal
in the world to others, and bring millions more people out of poverty.”
Pacific Island states were resigned, disappointed and despairing. Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama could only
entertain some frail optimism, praising
the “heroic effort” of the Pacific negotiators at COP26. “The 1.5-degree target leaves Glasgow battered, bruised, but
Other states were angrily baffled by the subversion evident in the final text. Mexico’s envoy, Camila Isabel Zepeda
Lizama, expressed anger
at her country being “sidelined” in a “non-transparent and non-inclusive process”. “We all have remaining concerns but
were told we could not reopen the text … while others can still ask to water down their promises.” A cabal of powers had
done its trick.
For activists, there was no death knell to coal, as the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, confidently claimed. “This is
no longer a climate conference,” lamented
climate change activist Greta Thunberg, the tenured voice of climate change catastrophism. “This is now a global
greenwashing festival.” And with greenwashing shall come the vanishing, but not before a few more, gasbagging efforts.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.