Developing Countries May Sink Boris Johnson’s Net Zero Dreams

The portents are not good for Boris Johnson. COP-26 appears to be in as big a mess as his hair.

The news overnight from G20 leaders’ forum in Rome, has been a less than overwhelming endorsement of “Net Zero by 2050. In the official Communique the objective remains but the target date is becoming fuzzier:

In this endeavour, informed by the IPCC assessments, we will accelerate our actions across mitigation, adaptation and finance, acknowledging the key relevance of achieving global net zero greenhouse gas emissions or carbon neutrality by or around mid-century and the need to strengthen global efforts required to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement (see here).

Johnson has worked hard on the objective of “Net Zero by 2050” and commitments for higher Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), but already people are referring to the Glasgow climate summit as “FLOP-26”.

Usually the outcome of such summits is only decided at not even the eleventh hour, but the thirteenth hour, when sleep deprived delegates do what they can to reach an agreement before their hotel bookings expire and their private jets turn into pumpkins. This time they start with Halloween.

It is clear that any kind of positive outcome for Johnson will depend on substantial progress being made on three issues: delivery on the $100 billion commitment, recognition of the importance of historical (rather than current) emissions, and adaptation to climate change.

It will take some time before the negotiations take shape, after the formalities like the adoption of the agenda, the election of the chair, and so on. And before they get to Net Zero and NDCs, they must deal with the important question of finance.

The clear trade-off is that the developing countries will only agree to a mitigation deal if they benefit by a financial reward, while making little by way of mitigation commitments themselves. Fundamentally, this will not go very far without interests being satisfied. The dictates of ‘The Science’ will not be enough.

Sure enough, there has been the usual production of scary science suitable for a Halloween event, with the IPCC producing its latest Assessment Report in time to impact parties’ thinking, but it has quickly been exposed by dissident scientists in not one but two useful collations, by Judith Curry [Read here] and Clintel/ICSF [Read here], respectively. Their analyses show how the authors of the Summary for Policy Makers exaggerated the actual consensus findings of scientists which can be found in the body of the Report. This has the effect of exaggerating the threat and accentuating human causation.

Boris himself has been caught out attempting to minimise the cost of his own efforts, underestimating the cost of the many offshore windfarms he is banking on and assuming that 2050 will be much more windy than the present – and not just the recent past with its ‘wind drought’ that has contributed to Europe’s energy crisis. [Read here].

Johnson has sought to provide leadership, but his problem is other important leaders like Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin have given attending Glasgow a pass, and Joe Biden arrives with a huge credibility problem because Congress has not passed the enormous appropriations bill that might fund his plans to get anywhere close to a 50% reduction. He can make all kinds of promises, but everyone will doubt whether he can deliver on them — especially because the Paris Agreement rests on an Executive Order in the US, rather than being a treaty ratified by the Senate, and a future president might (again) withdraw the USA.

But the key is the response of developing countries. The developed countries (listed in Annexe 1 of the Convention) have already reduced, slightly, their collective emissions, partly by relocating emissions intensive industries to China. Thus, what China does with its current 27% of global emissions is seen to be of paramount importance — although India has an equivalent population but is running behind China on the development curve and, like much of Asia and Africa, is unlikely to forgo opportunities for development.

Indeed, in preparation for Glasgow, virtual meeting of ministers of the 24 members of the Like-Minded Developing Countries (LMDC) — which includes China, India, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam — accused rich nations of failing to address their historic responsibility for causing climate change and shifting the burden on developing economies. They issued a strong rebuke for the UK host for attempting to impose a Net Zero goal on them, which they considered to be ‘shifting the goal posts’ of the Paris Agreement. The Ministerial statement considered that ‘This new goal which is being advanced runs counter to the Paris Agreement and is anti-equity and against climate justice.’

The LMDCs are pressing two important items. The first is delivery on the promise by the developed countries of $100 billion per year in climate assistance first raised at Copenhagen and included in the Paris Agreement for delivery by 2020. This has fallen short by about $20 billion and the deadline has been extended to 2025, but the process has also lacked transparency, especially with the EU, which has also been accused of redirecting traditional development assistance rather than providing additional funds.

The developing countries are also pressing on the issue that accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reflects historical aggregate emissions, rather than annual emissions. They argue the global policy response should reflect the historical responsibilities of states for using the available atmospheric “budget”. They point out that China (the largest current emitter) and India (the fourth largest) have only recently begun to emit CO2 as they have industrialised, and that since 1750 the US is responsible for about 25% of all emissions and the EU for 22%.

Also on the agenda is the issue of climate adaptation. Green NGOs worked hard to confine priorities to mitigation, but the need for the development of resilience regardless of mitigation is apparent to the developing countries. In 2019 the African Group requested (unsuccessfully) a new agenda item on the Global Goal on Adaptation, which is enshrined in the Paris Agreement. Adaptation also features quite heavily on the draft COP Agenda.

It is clear that any kind of positive outcome for Johnson will depend on substantial progress being made on these issues. The ability of small, seemingly powerless states to influence outcomes should not be underestimated. The Alliance of Small Island States managed to scare delegates with visions of islands sinking beneath rising sea levels, to secure the aspirational 1.5°C goal in the Paris Agreement (even though there is strong scientific evidence that their coral atolls are, as Darwin observed, growing rather than shrinking in size) – and that goal now features prominently in the climate change discourse. (As I discussed in an earlier article for this Bulletin, that is a target of 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures, and we have already seen almost 1.2°C of that. [Read here]).

Finance for developing countries, recognition of cumulative emissions, and adaptation, are the three key issues being championed by the 24 states of the Like-Minded Developing Countries. As this includes the two most populous countries which are among the four largest emitters, they will have a significant influence on the outcome. This may cause the end of Boris Johnson’s dreams of glory at Glasgow.