Leaders depart and COP26 climate summit turns focus to money
GLASGOW, Scotland - With world leaders flying home, the COP26 is now about who pays.
Negotiators at the U.N. climate conference started Wednesday to hammer out the details of a deal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, address a growing climate crisis and support a global transition toward cleaner technologies.
On a day devoted to financing the high price of fighting emissions, a consortium of philanthropic foundations and international development banks announced a $10.5 billion fund to help emerging economies make the switch from fossil fuels to wind, solar and other renewable energy sources.
Leaders on Wednesday also touted a pledge by some of globe's biggest bankers, investors and insurers, who together control $130 trillion in assets, to use their money to reach net zero emission targets by the middle of the century.
Despite the eye-popping pledge to marshal trillions not billions of dollars, environmental groups said the announcement was less meaningful than it sounded because it did not commit the financial giants to stop investing in fossil fuels anytime soon.
"These commitments live and die on how they treat fossil fuels. It's the elephant in the room that they seem to conveniently ignore," said Justin Guay, a climate expert formerly at the Sierra Club. "Dealing with fossil fuels is not optional; it's mandatory."
Critics said the continued failure by rich nations to deliver on their funding promises to developing countries was a more worrisome indicator of the direction of the gathering.
The first days of the conference, known as COP26, were a star-studded affair, with prime ministers mixing with princes and movie stars. Leaders made bold pledges to reduce methane emissions and end deforestation in the next decade.
Now comes the less glamorous coda: at least 10 days of fine-wrought talks among experts who know what a ton of carbon dioxide looks like and how to weigh the air.
Despite the myriad disappointments and mishaps in early days of the conference - lackluster emissions reduction commitments from countries, the glaring absence of leaders from China and Russia, long lines and technical difficulties at the conference itself -- COP26 president Alok Sharma adopted a cheery outlook on the first day of formal negotiations.
"I'm very pleased by the can-do attitude shown by leaders," Sharma, a British government minister, told journalists Wednesday, adding that negotiators were already "picking up on that call for a greater acceleration" toward meeting climate goals.
Sharma pointed to India's recent pledge to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2070, which means that 90 percent of the global economy is now covered by the target - up from 30 percent when he assumed the COP presidency.
Sharma acknowledged that the additional pledges will not bring the world within reach of its ambitious goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But over the next week and a half, he hoped countries could develop a strategy for getting on the right path.
The British hosts of the talks made Wednesday "finance day," a moment they hoped governments and companies would step up with fresh pledges to fund efforts to fight warming and adapt to climate change. So far, the picture has been mixed.
Rich nations had promised at the 2015 Paris climate accords to channel $100 billion a year by 2020 to help developing nations adapt to climate change. But when the bill came due, they fell short, sparking anger among poorer countries that had made painful climate commitments of their own.
Donor countries sought Wednesday to sand away the frustration, saying that after accounting for funding that has now been budgeted until 2025, developing countries will get what they had been promised, even if this year donors may fall several billion dollars short.
"There's no reason for developing countries to be fundamentally upset about the figures," Jochen Flasbarth, Germany's state secretary for the environment, told reporters Wednesday.
Also on Wednesday, the Kremlin defended Russia's actions on climate change in the face of harsh criticism by President Joe Biden, who chided President Vladimir Putin - who was a no show at the conference - for inaction.
"Literally, the tundra is burning. He has serious, serious climate problems, and he is mum on willingness to do anything," Biden said Tuesday.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters it was not just the Siberian wilderness in flames. California's forests also burning as a consequence of global warming.
Peskov said when the two leaders meet again, "I think President Putin will have an excellent opportunity to tell President Biden about what we're doing on climate."
It was another busy day for protesters. Extinction Rebellion activists held a "greenwash march" in front of JP Morgan bank, where they let off green smoke flares. Another group of anti-poverty campaigners tried to float an 26-foot long inflatable Loch Less Debt Monster along the River Clyde, which runs by the event conference center. But "Nessie" was seized by police and taken away.
"This is almost a sad reflection of what's going on inside of COP," Heidi Chow, the executive director of the Jubilee Debt Campaign, told the Scotsman. "Debt has not been able to get onto the agenda as developing countries are demanding. Debt in the global South will prevent countries from tacking the climate crisis."
Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager, tweeted out a petition for climate leaders to "end the climate betrayal during COP26." Over 1.5 million people have signed it.
On finance, policymakers acknowledge that without the rich world living up to its funding promises, pushing the developing world to set even more ambitious climate goals is a hard sell. Leaders of developing nations argue that richer countries got their wealth through industrialization that set the world on its current climate path. If poorer countries are to grow wealthier in a greener way, they need others to show some solidarity.
Politicians have turned to the private sector to help bolster funding for green efforts.The up-to $130 trillion effort announced by the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, led by former Bank of England governor Mark Carney, said its more than 450 members had joined the pledge in the biggest-ever commitment of private capital to stopping climate change. Under the pledge, the projects and companies tied to loans given by banks and other financial institutions would by 2050 be "net zero," meaning they would in aggregate not add to carbon emissions.
Many environmental groups have panned the initiative as insufficient, in part because it does not include a commitment from the banks and financial firms to stop financing production of coal plants and other intensive producers of carbon.
Still, leaders including Rishi Sunak, Britain's finance minister; David Malpass, president of the World Bank; and the finance ministers of several developing countries cheered the announcement in Glasgow as an important step.
"As big as the public-sector effort is across all our countries, the $100 trillion-plus price tag to address climate change globally is far bigger," Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said Wednesday in Glasgow at an event devoted to climate finance. "The private sector is ready to supply the financing to set us on a course to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
Asked whether it was fair that global financial institutions that were once major investors in the fossil fuel industries will now be profiting off of the world's transition to a green economy, Patricia Espinosa, head of the U.N. climate office, said it was necessary.
"There is no doubt that we need to have a complete transformation of the economy and that includes of course the private sector," said Espinosa, a Mexican diplomat.
The day's announcements from corporations and financiers were further signs of the progress the world has made on climate, Sharma said. A veteran of London's financial world, he knew how long the idea of green investments had been considered fringe. People should welcome the fact that companies now see climate action as vital to their bottom lines, he said.
"The force of the private sector is plain to see," he said. "The task is to ensure the finance flows where it is needed most."
While national leaders were in town, rushing about in brisk squadrons within the crowded conference confines, negotiators largely cooled their heels, partly because coronavirus considerations limited the spaces where they could gather for discussions. Now, though, it's the bean counters' time to shine. They will spend most of the next 10 days locked away and hammering out the finer points of an agreement that leaders are expected to sign at the end.
Their work is less lofty than the grand speeches delivered by their leaders. Some of the talks are held in tents. Delegations spy on each other. Lawyers haggle over the finer points of the timing of progress reports that measure whether countries are living up to their commitments.
The stakes are high.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the conference host, told Parliament Wednesday, "far more must be done."
"Whether we can summon the collective wisdom and will to save ourselves from an avoidable disaster, still hangs in the balance."