We are approaching the halfway stage of COP26, but there is no interval in this show, with negotiations, pledges, and lots and lots of talking due to continue throughout the weekend.
Have we had a good cop or a bad cop? A race to the top or a talking shop? The notion that the whole thing is one big exercise in lip service was always going to be the main criticism. Greta Thunberg mocked world leaders with her ‘blah blah blah’ speech, which has now been picked up as a quasi slogan by her private army. And yes, there has been lots of ‘blah’ for them to point to. We have been told humanity is at a ‘minute to midnight’ by our Prime Minister, the kind of thing you’d expect to hear in a terrible blockbuster. There have also been some weird football analogies – apparently, we were 5-1 down against climate change, but after a quickfire double for humanity it is now 5-3. Ok then.
But the truth is, underneath the barrage of slogans, and the barrage of mockery about the slogans, progress is being made. Over 40 countries have agreed a phase out of coal-fired power, while over 100 signed up to a pledge on global methane reduction by 2030. On deforestation, even Brazil, a particularly guilty party, have joined the nations pledging an end to the practice by 2030. These are significant agreements to reach in five days.
Of course there are caveats. The coal deadline was later than Britain had hoped, and has had lower take up. Plus, the world’s largest emitter China remains absent from all the aforementioned agreements. Even the glitz and glamour of Glasgow has not proven enough of a lure for President Xi, who remains in China, apparently grumpy that he wasn’t allowed to join via video link. There is also the common criticism that none of these agreements are binding, and we have no way of knowing how many countries will actually do what they have promised.
But ultimately, no international agreement is really ‘binding’. How exactly are we supposed to enforce them, short of land invasions against detractors, or bombing foreign coal mines? This is all about soft power, influence and setting the pace. Countries care about their reputations and their allegiances, but without clear, shared targets, it is hard to have a standard to mark them by. These agreements at least enshrine some degree of accountability.
As for China – well they are bound to drag their feet, and convincing them to change their environmental practices will remain an existential challenge for humanity for years to come. But while the rest of us struggle to get our own houses in order, China will feel comfortable sitting back. They will also argue that while they do emit the most in absolute terms, per capita they are not currently anywhere near as bad as many Western nations. However, if the majority of the world really does push on and make good on these pledges, that will dial up the diplomatic pressure massively on China. Our action is a pre-requisite for their action.
So yes, there has been plenty of blah at COP. We get as bored as anyone listening to Biden’s 14th speech of the day about how worried we should all be. But the number of ambitious pledges made by a wide array of countries gives us reason to be hopeful, and the Government will be feeling cautiously optimistic about progress so far (when they aren’t too busy creating their own corruption scandals and then u-turning on them).
Half time in Glasgow. We won’t do a Boris and tell you what the score is, but humanity is faring well, and we need more of the same in the second half.