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The glass is half-full, not half-empty

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Jens Thurau
November 14, 2021

COP26 has produced resolutions that would have barely been thinkable just a few years ago. But the pressure to take energetic action to stop global warming was extreme, says Jens Thurau.

One protester pouring fake oil onto the face of another at a demonstration in Glasgow
Pressure on rich nations to take action and phase out fossil fuels has been steadily growingImage: Yves Herman/REUTERS

Was that a good or bad climate conference that we just saw in Glasgow? Opinions on it are as varied as the conference itself was chaotic and opaque. Never before, say scientists, has the gap between the measures necessary to stem climate change and the slow steps taken by states been as big as it is now. And the pressure on them to take action is also greater than it has ever been. The global climate-protection movement Fridays for Future, for one, made its presence powerfully felt in Glasgow.

Coal phaseout on the agenda for first time

The final statement from the conference, in a first for any UN climate meeting, expressly mentions the necessity of rapidly phasing out fossil-fuel energy sources, even if the way this was formulated was continually watered down at the behest of wealthy and newly industrializing nations.

Jens Thurau
Jens Thurau was in Glasgow for DW

Poor countries have been promised that financial aid from the richer Global North to help them adapt to the effects of climate change will be doubled within just a few years. After months of obstinately frosty relations, the US and China, the two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases worldwide, pulled themselves together to issue a joint statement, promising to double their efforts.

The goal of preventing the Earth from warming more than 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) above pre-industrial levels before the end of the century is now the measure of all things; no one talks anymore about the 2-degree goal that was previously the focus of debates on climate policy. That is an almost breathtaking advance in view of the resolutions made at earlier climate meetings.

Two realities

But not in view of the realities facing us. Scientists say the decade leading up to 2030 will be all-decisive in the fight against global warming. The British hosts of the conference reacted to this prognosis by pushing through a whole array of initiatives by individual nations during the days in Glasgow: To limit emissions of the greenhouse gas methane, to protect forests in poor countries, to end subsidies for fossil fuels — all before 2030.

However, upon closer inspection, all these initiatives prove to be as voluntary and unbinding as ever — as are the resolutions announced by the climate conference.

Reliability and trust

All climate conferences are about reliability and trust. The resolutions can barely be enforced by legal means; their objective is always to generate positive momentum and something like joint support from all the some 90 UN member states. And they aim to produce pressure in the rich nations, whose citizens regard climate change with growing concern.

But trust is in short supply. During the pandemic, the poor countries of the Global South have seen exactly with what dizzying sums the industrialized nations have been propping up their economies. That makes it even harder for them to swallow that the rich North tends to the miserly when it comes to the long-promised financial aid to help them adapt to climate change.

The coal phaseout and reality

And even though phasing out fossil fuels has been made a resolution at the climate conference, a look at the situation on the ground in countries like China, South Africa, Poland and even Germany shows just how much clout the coal lobby still has. China is now promising to become climate-neutral by 2060 — a timeframe that is laughable in view of the warnings by experts.

But a real alternative to the yearly arduous and nerve-racking climate meetings is simply not in sight. It is only at them that all UN member states talk with one another on the topic. And perhaps the common line that they all are looking for could be summed up thusly: In as many countries as possible, the fight against greenhouse gases must take on a similar status to that of the concern for economic growth.

Growth and sustainability have long ceased to be contradictory; it is a question only of will. And of action, as with abandoning fossil energy — and abandoning it quickly at that. At least the Glasgow conference agreed on that.

Germany, too, is facing increasing pressure to speed up its phaseout of coal-fired energy, which the former government planned to complete by 2038. Doing anything else would now mean breaking the pledges made in Glasgow.

And poor countries will not put up with the yearly conferences for much longer if they do not receive noticeably more money. For all of these reasons, if I have to decide whether the glass of international climate protection is half-full or half-empty after Glasgow, I would say: Half-full. 

This article has been translated from German.

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau