COP26 Diary

Rituraj Phukan

Nov 12, 2021

I’ve had the honor of attending COP26, the 26th United Nations Climate Change conference, in Glasgow, Scotland. To get to the conference, I travelled for 36 hours from my hometown Nagaon-- by road to Guwahati, then on a three-hour flight to Mumbai, then on to Glasgow via London. Here are my notes to date!



October 31: Opening Remarks


The conference opened with a moment of silence for the lives lost during the pandemic. Chilean Minister of the Environment Carolina Schmidt, who served as the President of COP25 in 2019, said "science is non-negotiable, and climate change requires multi-sectoral, transformative change." She stressed that all stakeholders have important roles to play in climate action.


COP26 President Alok Sharma said that COP26 “is our last, best hope to keep 1.5 degrees Celsius in reach,” a reference to the oft-cited goal of preventing global temperatures from increasing by more than 1.5 C. Patricia Espinosa, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), highlighted three priorities: increasing the ambition of climate goals among everyone, particularly G20 countries; achieving financial targets;  and strengthening climate adaptation efforts while including all stakeholders and observers.


Several speakers called on developed countries to dramatically reduce emissions and increase support to developing countries in terms of finance, technology transfers, and capacity-building.


Opening remarks from countries in the Global South stressed climate finance as crucial for the full implementation of the Paris Agreement, saying they needed assistance for sustainable recoveries. Speakers also argued that nature-based solutions should only be pursued when Indigenous peoples grant free, prior, and informed consent. 


Youth representatives demanded that leadership “give youth a seat at the decision-making table” and advocated for the finalization of the Paris Rulebook


Raj stands in front of a sign that says "Welcome to COP26." The sign consists of big, 3-D letters perched on shelves that are built into planter boxes, so that the words appear amid a lush array of plants.Welcome to COP26! Here I'm in the "Green Zone," the conference area open to the general public.



November 1: World Leaders Summit Begins


The World Leaders Summit started with an opening ceremony titled “Earth to COP.”   


British Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned about the “anger and impatience” of youth. He argued that we need to pursue attainable solutions and that developed countries share a collective responsibility to fund climate action in developing countries.


U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said that nations’ recent climate action announcements are not enough to keep us below 1.5 C of warming. He warned that countries must revisit their plans every year, not every five years, until 1.5 C is assured.


Prince Charles said that trillions, not billions, of dollars are needed to create a sustainable future.


Sir David Attenborough, the People’s Advocate for COP26, said that the stability of the climate system that enabled the development of human civilization is breaking. He urged world leaders to turn this tragedy into a triumph by reducing global atmospheric concentrations of CO2.


Among the most powerful voices was Barbadian Prime Minister Mia Mottley, who spoke to the gap that exists between the mitigation and adaptation finances available to developed countries and those available to developing countries, describing this gap as “immoral and unjust.” She called for an annual increase in International Monetary Fund Special Drawing Rights of $500 billion per year, for 20 years, to finance the transition, underscoring that a 2 C future is a “death sentence” for the people of vulnerable countries.


Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced that Spain is allocating $30 million to the Adaptation Fund, a UNFCCC fund that finances climate adaptation in developing countries, in 2022. He also said that Spain is committed to increasing its climate finance by 50% by 2025, to 1.35 billion euros per year. 


U.S. President Joe Biden declared his intention to quadruple U.S. climate finance by 2024 and to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.


French President Emmanuel Macron called for linking climate, biodiversity, and trade agendas, arguing that trade agreements should reflect climate commitments.


In the 2015 Paris Agreement, developed countries had committed to securing $100 billion per year in climate funding for developing countries by 2020, to support those countries’ resilience, adaptation, and energy transitions. However, this commitment has not yet been met. Today, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that developed countries will achieve the $100 billion target by 2023. She increased Germany’s commitment to 6 billion euros per year by 2025 and stressed the need for carbon pricing.


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced four targets-- increasing non-fossil fuel energy capacity to 500 Gigawatts by 2030, getting 50% of energy from renewable sources by 2030, reducing carbon emissions by 1 billion metric tons by 2030, and achieving net-zero emissions by 2070. He called for $1 trillion of climate finance for all developing countries as soon as possible and proposed setting up a tracking system for climate finance.



November 2: Commitments and Pledges


I joined an early-morning protest by municipal workers demanding better wages and working conditions. I carried a sign that said “Climate Justice is Social Justice.”


The World Leaders Summit continued with announcements and commitments. 


Japanese Prime Minister ​​Fumio Kishida announced an additional climate finance contribution of up to $10 billion in the next five years. 


Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre announced the doubling of its climate finance contributions to $1.6 billion by 2026.


Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado Quesada said that if world leaders were CEOs, they would all be fired for failing to deliver results. 


Other leaders called for rapid work on the Paris Agreement Rulebook.


The Leaders Event on Forest and Land Use followed. The main venue was lit up in green, with sounds of chirping birds and rustling leaves.


Prime Minister Johnson announced that at least 110 countries, representing 85% of the planet’s forests, had signed the COP26 Glasgow Leaders Declaration on Forests and Land Use, committing to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030. China, Russia and Brazil, whose leaders were absent, also joined the promise, with the presidents of Russia and Brazil sending pre-recorded messages. 


Leaders promised to strengthen ecosystem conservation and restoration programs, to empower indigenous peoples and local communities, and to redesign agricultural policies to reduce hunger and benefit nature. 


U.S. President Biden officially announced the Global Methane Pledge, which aims to reduce methane emissions by at least 30% by 2030. Over 100 countries, representing 70% of the global economy, signed the pledge.


35 world leaders announced the launch of the Glasgow Breakthrough Agenda, a commitment among countries and businesses to work together to scale up the development and deployment of clean technologies. Participating countries and regions include the U.S., India, and the EU.



November 3: Financial Goals and Indigenous People’s Rights


I spoke at the “Voices of Original Peoples” event organized by Listening to the Earth. My contribution was an invocation to Mother Nature with a brief talk and a poem in Assamese written by my colleague Abinash Handique.


I joined the Indigenous People’s Protest, which focused on issues of climate justice for affected communities.


In terms of official COP26 programming, finance was the theme for the day. The previously agreed-upon commitment to secure $100 billion per year in climate funding for developing countries was officially delayed from 2020 to 2023. 


A group of bankers, insurers, and investors announced the formation of the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, a group aimed at putting climate issues at the center of financial work.


COP26 President Sharma delivered the only good news of the day: 90% of the world’s economic activity is now covered in a net-zero target, compared to 30% at the beginning of 2020. Countries have also committed to funnel $12 billion into forest-related climate finance between 2021 and 2025.


BBC News aired an interview with me during their prime-time coverage of the conference! 


Raj being interviewed by BBC news in an outdoor setting. Raj stands on the left, in the middle of speaking. On the right, there is an interviewer standing in profile. The interviewer's head is partially obscured by part of a camera in the far-right foreground. Both Raj and the interviewer are wearing suits. They appear to be standing on some sort of cement bridge. Behind them, a crane and some buildings are visible. The sky is blue with a few clouds.My interview with BBC News.



November 4: Energy


 I appeared on live TV for a panel broadcast from Hawaii.


The COP26 programming today focused on energy. U.N. Secretary-General Guterres said we must “consign coal to history.” Over 20 countries committed to both phasing out existing coal plants and refusing to build new ones. But China, India, and the U.S. --the three countries that burn the most coal-- have so far failed to sign on.


COP26 President Sharma announced the new Global Clean Power Transition Statement, a commitment to end coal investments, scale up clean power, make a just transition, and phase out coal by the 2030s in major economies, and in the 2040s elsewhere.


Damilola Ogunbiyi, the Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All, reminded us that the energy sector accounts for 2/3 of all greenhouse gas emissions. She cited the UNEP Emissions Gap Report, which indicates that we are on a path towards a dangerous 2.7-degree Celsius global temperature increase by the end of the century.


The International Energy Agency launched a new report forecasting that global warming could be limited to 1.8 C if all COP26 pledges to date were fulfilled. 



November 5: Projected Carbon Emissions and Youth Empowerment


Today was Youth and Public Empowerment Day. Fridays for Future led a march from Kelvingrove to George Square, where I heard Greta Thunberg and several other climate activists speak. There was an emphasis on social justice, support for affected communities, and immediate action. The young people present were very passionate and visibly anxious about the future. There were calls for an end to capitalism and an equitable distribution of wealth. 


The UNFCCC released an updated assessment of future emissions that said annual global emissions are on course to rise by 14% by 2030, while they need to fall by 45% if we are to keep to 1.5 C this century.


The UNFCCC didn’t translate these numbers into a predicted temperature rise, but given that it previously forecasted a rise of 16% by 2030 and said this would lead to warming of 2.7 C, it seems safe to say that the needle hasn’t moved all that much.


A new report by German non-profit Climate Analytics titled “Why gas is the new coal” found that emissions from gas rose by 42% between 2010 and 2019. Gas will be responsible for 70% of projected increases in emissions by 2030. 



November 6: Climate Justice March and Global Assembly


I walked all the way to Kelvingrove park in a drizzle to join a march for climate justice. 100,000 people braved the rain and cold to attend. There were many red flags and socialist slogans. Police were everywhere.


I then went to Glasgow University’s campus to attend and speak at the Global Assembly 2021. In my speech, I discussed education, empowerment, and climate justice. The assembly had several speakers from different countries, including Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus from Bangladesh. 


• • •


The first week of COP26 has been a whirlwind of major promises from politicians, engaging conversations with climate leaders, and heartening examples of popular mobilization. Of course, we’ll find out in the coming years which of their commitments leaders follow through on. For now, I’m exhausted, inspired, and excited to see what Week 2 holds!


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