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27 October 2021updated 02 Nov 2021 10:17am

The price of the planet: who will step up at Cop26?

As world leaders gather in Glasgow, richer nations must agree who pays the bill for climate action.

By Philippa Nuttall

Around 100 kilometres south-east of Berlin, in what was formerly East Germany, lies the region of Lausitz. Once a coal heartland, it has changed substantially in the three decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its mines and power plants have shut; its young people have moved away; the population has shrunk; and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party has gained ground. (“Coal gone, steel gone, culture gone” was the AfD’s 2021 election campaign slogan in the Ruhr region, another mining area.) The new German coalition government led by Olaf Scholz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) is expected to commit to quitting coal by 2030: it is not hard to see why locals are disaffected.

The climate crisis became a central issue in this year’s German election after flooding devastated areas near the Dutch and Belgian borders in July. The “flood of the century” killed almost 200 people and destroyed villages. Research published weeks later by the World Weather Attribution initiative concluded that the climate crisis had made such events up to nine times more likely in the region. The subject of how best to tackle global heating – and, crucially, who pays for the transition to a greener economy – has risked becoming a clash of cultures, characterised in the German media as a conflict between communitarian miners and cosmopolitan young activists.

Yet even in Lausitz there are grounds for optimism: coal-dependent regions of Germany will receive €14bn in federal government aid to facilitate the shift to other industries. In northern Cottbus, a village was bulldozed as recently as 2006 to make way for a lignite mine; the pit is now shut, and being flooded to create a leisure lake bordered by holiday homes. At Grünheide, close to Lausitz’s western border, building work on Tesla’s new “Gigafactory”, where batteries and electric cars for the European market will be made, is almost complete. The site is expected to hire both university-educated engineers from Berlin and skilled mechanical workers from Lausitz. (As the former SPD leader and chancellor candidate Martin Schulz has noted, the realities of modern mining defy stereotypes about men with shovels and blackened faces; today, it is more often conducted using sophisticated machinery.)

Lausitz benefits from its proximity to a booming capital with a growing tech sector, and funding from an economically successful government. In other parts of the world, the costs of a changing climate are much harder to meet. Bangladesh, for example – low-lying, with a high population density and rickety infrastructure – is uniquely vulnerable. By 2050, one in seven people who live there may be displaced by climate change; it is predicted that rising sea levels alone will force up to 18 million people to move. The country is increasingly deluged with torrential rainfall; worst affected this summer were the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps, home to 1.2 million Rohingya people who have fled neighbouring Myanmar (and who were already living with high Covid-19 infection rates). Devastating floods in July and August cost thousands their homes and belongings, forcing them to relocate.

[See also: The battle over burning: why Drax is being accused of “greenwashing”]

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Since 2015 Bangladesh has received $368.6m from the international Green Climate Fund, which was set up in 2010 to help the poorest nations deal with climate change. But the country needs “more robust long-term planning and funding to get sustained results”, says Maheen Chowdhury, who works for Save the Children in Cox’s Bazar. This would include creating more environmentally friendly jobs to ensure that a younger generation stays and helps to boost prosperity, rather than seeking work elsewhere. “Bangladesh is not contributing to climate change – we are not industrialised,” Chowdhury said. “Developed countries need to reduce further harm, and recognise the people who are most at risk.”

The UN Climate Change Conference (Cop26) starts on 31 October in Glasgow. Its success – or failure – rests on its ability to answer two questions. Who suffers the impact of the climate crisis? And who will pay for it?

“Cash”, along with “coal, cars and trees”, is one of Boris Johnson’s declared main goals as host of the international climate summit. At Cop15 in Copenhagen, developed countries promised $100bn a year for poorer nations by 2020 via the Green Climate fund – but fell short by $20bn. Negotiations ahead of Glasgow have sought to put this right (the US, for example, has promised to double its contributions). But a climate finance delivery plan published by the Cop presidency at the end of October revealed that a shortfall would likely remain until 2023, and the Global South needs far more to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Campaigners and governments – including that of Bangladesh – are pushing for rich countries to commit to funding for “loss and damage” to vulnerable countries that have little or no historic responsibility for the climate crisis. “$100bn is less than the UK is spending on the HS2 rail link,” said Mohamed Adow, director of the Nairobi-based think tank Power Shift Africa.

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Even if world leaders in Glasgow suddenly decide to exchange what climate activists Greta Thunberg calls “blah, blah, blah” for urgent action, the world would not stop warming tomorrow. And if countries stick to their present plans to cut emissions, children born in the past year will, on average, experience seven times as many heatwaves as their grandparents, according to research by Vrije University in Brussels. What seems likely to happen at Cop26 is a greater show of international solidarity, and some indications that more funding could be an option at a later date.

In addition to the ecological emergency, there are clear financial benefits to going much further. The climate crisis is creating an enormous economic burden and could trigger far greater losses than anything wrought by, for instance, Covid-19. The reinsurance company Swiss Re estimates that global GDP could fall by as much as 14 per cent if global temperatures rise by 2°C to 2.6°C by 2050, which is considered likely under present policies. (The pandemic caused global GDP to fall by around 3.5 per cent in 2020.)

The only way to stymie this trend is to cut emissions as fast as possible. The world is still falling short of the legally binding 2015 Paris Agreement, a commitment to cap global warming at 1.5°C above pre industrial levels. The UK’s biggest challenge in Glasgow will be convincing countries to update their emissions reduction plans in order to achieve that goal. And for that, Johnson and his negotiators are going to need all their powers of persuasion.

Alok Sharma, the UK’s lead Cop26 negotiator, has spent the past year visiting world leaders and attempting to get them on-side. After years of tortuous negotiations over Brexit (some of which are still ongoing), the Prime Minister’s hope is that by hosting the summit Britain will demonstrate its strength as a nation outside the EU, leading and brokering deals.

But Covid-19 has complicated matters. The UK has been criticised for its delay in confirming that representatives from poorer countries with low vaccination rates will be able to attend the summit, and activists called for the event to be postponed. Sharma has stuck to his line that countries can only tackle the climate emergency through face-to-face negotiations, promising the “most inclusive Cop ever”. At the end of September, the UK committed, belatedly, to covering the quarantine costs of delegates coming from the handful of developing countries still on the Covid-19 red list.

[See also: Why we shouldn’t panic – just yet – about China increasing coal production]

By mid-October, sources in Johnson’s team were pessimistic about the prospects for success in Glasgow. The challenges of orchestrating agreements between 200 countries, including some of the world’s biggest polluters such as China and Saudi Arabia, are immense. Officials and ministers told the New Statesman that failure seemed more likely than success. One put the chance of a good outcome – in other words, keeping the promise of 1.5°C – at 40 per cent.

But many close to the negotiations say they feel Sharma – who has been vilified by some for flying around the world in an endeavour to save the summit – and Johnson have done a decent job. This month the UK has announced an ambitious domestic net zero strategy, and has not shied away from calling on others, in particular the US, to “step up”. However, some doubt remains about Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s decision to cut development aid, and the impact of that on Sharma’s negotiations with other countries.

Joe Biden, Narendra Modi, Justin Trudeau and Angela Merkel (making her last political outing) have agreed to attend. And slowly but surely, countries are increasing their emissions-reduction commitments. Johnson has faced a particular struggle in convincing Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, to take the climate agenda seriously. The two nations are old allies and friends (as well as rivals in sport) but climate action remains an area of tension. In early October one member of Johnson’s team was privately critical, telling the New Statesman that Morrison was reluctant to come to Glasgow because he didn’t want to quarantine for two weeks on his return. But Johnson won the argument: Morrison will attend, and on 26 October Australia announced its plan for net zero by 2050 (though, notably, not any proposal to limit the use of fossil fuels).

Vladimir Putin has confirmed he will not fly to Scotland – a decision that surprised no one given his long-standing aversion to germs (the Russian president has spent much of the pandemic in self isolation). A bigger potential blow is the predicted absence of China’s Xi Jinping. Beijing’s plans for increased climate action remain unknown. “Anyone who says China has a plan is either Xi Jinping or lying,” says one source close to the negotiations. British officials are keen to play down the significance of his abstention – “it’s not a show-stopper”, one told the New Statesman – but the world needs significant movement from the planet’s biggest polluter. What China does next is vital for the future of humanity.

On the evening of 18 August 2021, a family in western Canada were informed by police that three of the four roads leading to their house were engulfed in flames. Carla Hardy, 68, and her husband Steve, 69, were forced to evacuate their home of 23 years, which lies deep in the countryside around 300 kilometres north-east of Vancouver. They had been on high alert for weeks. The world had watched in amazement and horror as a heat dome created temperatures of nearly 50°C in British Columbia, a region known for its temperate climate.

“With the smoke it was very dark – it looked like Armageddon,” says Carla Hardy. “You didn’t know if you’d be going back or not.” A change in the wind spared their home, and they were able to return five days later. Others weren’t so lucky. “This is ranch country,” says Hardy. “A lot of cows that were roaming were burned and lost. Ranchers had to go out constantly and if they found any that were burned, they had to shoot them to put them out of their misery. And they suffered a lot of losses. It makes me wonder whether we should pack it up and go somewhere else – but we don’t know where.”

Early estimates of the cost of this year’s fire season in British Columbia alone hover around C$500m. A report released in January 2021 found that “severe weather events” had cost Canadian insurance companies C$2.4bn in 2020, making it the fourth most expensive year since 1983. During his 2021 general election campaign, Justin Trudeau pledged C$2bn for clean energy job creation and “just transition” legislation. But in Canada there are an estimated 450,000 jobs linked to the oil and gas industry, and many people believe Trudeau’s pledge falls well short. “It is not an insignificant amount of money,” says Catherine Abreu, the executive director of the NGO Destination Zero, and an adviser to the government’s net zero advisory body. “But it is far less than what will likely be required to undertake the kind of economic transformation we need.”

South-west of Pretoria in South Africa, water shortages are a problem. Darren Louis Geyser, 28, moved to the small town of Jagersfontein in 2020 after his grandfather died, to take over the running of the family furniture and electrical appliances shop. He was aware of the chronic water shortage there when he made his decision, but temperatures are continuing to rise and droughts are growing more frequent. “It’s a constant struggle,” says Geyser, describing the logistics of having the tanks on his property regularly filled with water for washing and cleaning. “Drinking water must be brought from the nearest city by jug.”

Geyser chooses to stay for family reasons, and says he feels responsible for his housekeeper and the staff he employs in his shop. Life isn’t easy, he admits – there are fewer clients, as many young people have moved away – but he counts himself better off than many. Far less fortunate are the thousands of people who live in the nearby township, whose only source of water is three 5,000-litre tanks. In 2018, the level of water in the local dam was “critical” and even health services were suspended as a result, leading to violent protests.

There has been a 57 per cent increase in recorded weather-related disasters over the past two decades in South Africa, according to its Institute for Security Studies. In the first five months of 2021, all nine of South Africa’s provinces experienced floods, on top of devastating fires in the Western Cape. The International Disaster Database has shown that this trend has been steadily increasing since the early 1980s: 90 weather-related disasters have been recorded in South Africa since then, affecting around 22 million people at a cost of R95bn in associated economic losses. But the country appears to be waking up to the need for action. In September South Africa committed to more ambitious targets ahead of Cop26, putting its emissions on track to decline from 2025, a decade earlier than originally planned.

Under the leadership of Joe Biden, America is also becoming much more ambitious, though it is struggling to agree how to finance its national energy transition. Biden’s climate agenda – a pledge of over $11bn annually to help poorer countries, a $1trn infrastructure bill, and a $3.5trn reconciliation bill, which includes incentives for clean energy, electric vehicles and energy efficiency – is yet to pass Congress, and movement is likely to be slow. These figures add up to a lot of money, but the cost of inaction is far greater, says Mark Paul, an assistant professor of economics and environmental studies at New College of Florida. He points to 2018, a year of wildfires and winter storms, when “extreme weather events resulted in the destruction of more than 1.5 per cent of [US] GDP, essentially eliminating more than 60 per cent of economic growth that year”.

The finer details of how the world achieves net-zero emissions by 2050 will not be finalised in Glasgow. But it is an opportunity for leaders of the highest emitting countries to reassure their citizens, as well as people in the most vulnerable nations, that they are serious about change, and prepared to finance it.

“Paris promised. Glasgow must deliver,” Sharma said in October. Cop26 will not result in a triumph on the scale of Cop21’s Paris Agreement, but nor is it likely to be a total failure. In 2015 leaders had a target figure around which to unite; now they are dealing with the harder and messier task of how to deliver it. What is needed in Glasgow is “a sense of urgency and a commitment to align science and politics”, says one source close to the UK negotiations.

The Climate Change Conferences are, however, unpredictable – as is China. No one expected Xi Jinping to announce, just over a year ago, that his country planned to reduce its emissions to net zero by 2060. His expected absence from proceedings will be unhelpful, but he will be represented by an experienced climate negotiator who is respected globally. The US, the world’s second biggest polluter, is coming largely empty-handed, with Biden’s plans stuck in Congress, but a year ago it was led by a climate sceptic who had withdrawn from the Paris Agreement: progress of a kind. Putin won’t be in Glasgow, and the Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet – but his language on this subject has changed. Increasingly, the former climate-denier is acknowledging the science.

[See also: The power trap: Why the energy crisis is a crisis of politics]

Earlier this month, the UN chief António Guterres voiced fears that time is running out. “The carbon pollution of a handful of countries has brought humanity to its knees,” he told an online press conference. “I hope we are still on time to avoid a failure in Glasgow, but time is running short. Things are getting more difficult and that is why I’m very, very worried. I’m afraid things might go wrong.”

In its race to net zero, the world is attempting the biggest social and economic shift ever undertaken. But there is no alternative. The costs of allowing global heating to increase are incalculable. Cop26 won’t be the moment when leaders solve the climate crisis, but it needs to be the moment they show the world they are ready to start trying.

Additional reporting by Jeremy Cliffe, Tim Ross, Emily Tamkin and Megan Gibson

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This article appears in the 27 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Our Fragile Future