Reposted from a comment I made to Linkedin post on reflections from COP26.
China has advertised its progress transitioning away from coal, particularly in its energy sector. Part of this is due to domestic political reasons: a decade ago, the Chinese government in Beijing faced enormous demonstrations from ordinary Chinese opposed to the cost in pollution of its rapid development. It has since proven it has the will and means to electrify its energy sector, and has earned praise for its development of world-class wind and solar technologies, and battery production. Critics have called out its quiet development of coal projects outside of China, particularly in Africa, which its defenders have claimed to be due to anti-Chinese biases in the West. But China’s support for India’s public call to soften the agreement’s language on coal — from “phasing out” to “phasing down” — looks especially craven. While India can reasonably argue that rapidly phasing out coal threatens its development, and welfare of hundreds of millions of its citizens, China’s support for coal is mainly a case of the self-interest of few who benefit economically against the many who will be harmed by global warming and airborne particulate matter. It is clear that both China and India, whose support is essential to achieve global net-zero emissions, will go their own way on coal; and the rest of the world is left to hope that their governments develop the courage to act on their own, but not in their own time.
It’s good to see the Americans come back with words and actions, but it’s difficult not to be cynical. The previous administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement was foolish beyond measure, particularly because it stumbled in front of clean-tech R&D that most Americans embrace. But it was clear to everyone that the present administration’s freedom of action was hampered by the demands of one senator from West Virginia, who is friendly with fossil fuel interests. It is important to keep one’s eye on the future in this business, but American commitment to its pledges, and the government’s ability to motivate developments with funding, and cuts to fossil fuel and inefficient land-use subsidies, depends on midterm elections in 2022 and the next presidential one in 2024.
It was a happy surprise to find the US among 110 countries representing some 85 percent of world forests to sign the “COP26 Glasgow Leaders Declaration on Forests and Land Use”, a commitment to end or reverse deforestation by 2030. On its face, this is good news. But it will require vigilant oversight of the responsible parties — especially forest managers and biofuel consumers — to ensure that the declaration has a net positive effect for the climate, biodiversity protection, and future human and non-human needs. (Incidentally, I happen to be writing this from Cali, Colombia, so can’t miss mentioning that the Colombian government has pledged to protect 30 percent of its forests by next year, and to restore some 200 million hectares of forest by 2030 with support from the United States. Deals such as these are critically important to preserve hotspots of biodiversity like Colombia, where poverty and weak institutions raise risks to forests.) Additionally, the development banks (i.e., the World Bank, the African Development Bank, the Asian Development Bank, etc.) made a joint statement committing to “nature positive investment”. This is important because historically they have been accused by critics of being too focused on human economic well being (GDP growth), and insufficiently on planetary health.
Image: A random courtyard in Cali, Colombia.