This is an audio transcript of the Rachman Review podcast episode: COP26 — success or failure?

Gideon Rachman
Hello and welcome to the Rachman Review. I’m Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator of the Financial Times. This week we’re looking at climate change and the gap between international efforts to tackle the problem and the reality of what’s happening on the ground. My guest this week is Simon Mundy, who covered the recent UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow for the FT. Simon is also the author of a recent book on climate change called Race for Tomorrow. So did COP26, the UN Climate Summit, give any cause for hope that the problem is being tackled?

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Gideon Rachman
Summit meetings like COP26 always produce lengthy communiques and reports, but sometimes a single televised moment is more eloquent than any number of official statements. And that’s what happened in Glasgow when Alok Sharma, the British minister who was president of the summit, apologised to delegates for the last minute compromises in the deal.

Alok Sharma
May I just say to all delegates, I apologise for the way this process has unfolded and I’m deeply sorry. I also understand the deep disappointment. But I think, as you have noted, it’s also vital that we protect this package.

Gideon Rachman
Sharma later said that his show of emotion partly reflected many days without much sleep. But he also said that he felt a clear sense of responsibility for the small island states, whose survival is threatened by unchecked climate change. And it’s not just outposts in the Pacific Ocean or the Caribbean whose futures are threatened. Wildfires have become a regular feature of life in Australia and in California.

[NEWS CLIPPING PLAYS]
If not now, when in the hell are we gonna do it? What more evidence do you need? Governor Newsom pleading for federal support after signing a $15 billion climate bill, including a $1.5 billion wildfire and force resilience package.

Gideon Rachman
Typhoons and hurricanes are also likely to become more regular as the effects of climate change kick in. The poorer regions of the world are most often in the front line.

[NEWS CLIPPING PLAYS]
Super Typhoon Haiyan raced across the Philippine islands, kicking waves up to 19 feet high, winds up to 195 miles per hour. Power lines shredded, leaving millions unable to communicate.

Gideon Rachman
When I spoke to Simon Mundy, I was curious to hear what, if any, connection he saw between the high diplomacy of the UN talks and the reality of climate change on the ground that he documents in his book. But we started by focusing on the outcome of the Glasgow meeting itself. The UN process has been going on for almost 30 years. There have been other major climate summits in the past. The Paris conference of 2015 was deemed to be a big success. The Copenhagen summit of 2009 was widely seen as a failure. So I asked Simon Mundy where Glasgow fell on the spectrum between Paris and Copenhagen. Was it more of a success or a failure?

Simon Mundy
Well, it depends what you’re comparing it with, right? If you compare it with previous COPs, it’s probably one of the more productive ones. There was progress on various things that people were hoping for. There was a big pledge on cutting methane emissions, deforestation in the final text, we had movement on various things that people were hoping for, including basic rules, forever carbon markets, increase in funding for climate adaptation in developing countries. So by those metrics, compared with the last cop two years ago in Madrid, for example, you would say it was relatively successful. But obviously if you compare it with the action that’s actually needed to get us off the trajectory that we are currently on heading for catastrophic levels of climate change, enormous numbers of lives and livelihoods lost, then it’s a failure as everyone expects that we’d fall well short of the kind of action that would avert that thing that we are still headed for. And so the question for me is why no one attending that COP really seemed to think that any other outcome was possible. You know, there were varying degrees of inadequate response that were possible. And within that range, we probably came out towards the more positive end of the range. But the fact is, it leaves us way off track for anything that we would consider a really satisfactory outcome. And I’m still trying to understand personally why that is.

Gideon Rachman
We’ll come back to that at the end. But just to hit the, why you think it’s inadequate, I mean, in a slightly sort of desperate phrase, and I think the UN secretary-general, people at the UN were saying, well, keeping 1.5 alive, which was the phrase, you know, limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. I think they said it’s still just about possible. It’s on life support. Didn’t sound terribly encouraging, even put that way, but it sounds a bit like whistling in the dark.

Simon Mundy
Yeah, I mean, I think if an unprecedented miracle happens, there may be something conceivable way that the temperature only rises by 1.5 degrees C, which, by the way, is a lot. With every nought point one degree of warming, you get more and more lives lost. Towns destroyed. We’re already well over one degree. 1.5 makes it a hell of a lot worse. And if all of the pledges that have currently been made are kept, according to the IEA, that would be 1.8, if every single thing goes exactly to plan. And as we know, previous pledges, especially in the climate space, have been missed time and time and time . . . 

Gideon Rachman
Yeah, I wanted to ask you about that because if we look at the records of previous COPs and this is, after all, COP26, there’ve been 25 before, there have been big declarations before. Have people generally hit the targets that they agreed on?

Simon Mundy
The answer is many of them have been missed. And I think the one that everyone was talking about this time in Glasgow was the commitment that developed countries would provide $100 billion per year in climate-related assistance to developing countries by 2020. Among all the developed countries in the world, $100 billion a year is not that difficult to raise, but it was missed by a long way. And of course, Covid is cited as an excuse, but many would say that Covid provided even more reason to give support to developing countries that were hit very hard. So that’s yet another example of how domestic politics in the developed world is really getting in the way of a co-ordinated global response. And that’s the only kind of response, of course, that is really going to work in tackling the climate crisis, though, of course, you know, we can talk about why that is.

Gideon Rachman
You’ve just published this book, A Race for Tomorrow, about climate change, which is very much on-the-ground reporting. You know, you go all over the world, Africa, the Arctic, and you bring to life very vividly what’s actually happening on the ground. How much of a connect did you feel between what you’re seeing out there and this process of international diplomacy? It’s a vast conference that you attended in Glasgow. I mean, I think one of the people you quote in the book, former prime minister of the Maldives . . .

Simon Mundy
Former president, former president yeah . . . 

Gideon Rachman
Says, you know, it’s a circus, really, it’s a it’s a profession for people now. It’s not really engaging with the issues.

Simon Mundy
Yeah, he said it’s a whole industry. He said some of these people have children who were born into the COP because it’s been going on for nearly three decades. So I think he’s obviously to some extent, right. I mean, there is this whole industry around the COP. There is enormous amounts of money being made. There are side events happening where people are earning huge amounts of money. It’s problematic for me because I do think in answer to your question, there is a huge disconnect between the atmosphere at some of these events that I attended and the things that I saw in places like north eastern Ethiopia, where people are losing their livelihoods, where children are losing their health because of drought, followed by locust infestation both connected with climate change in places like Tacloban, where in that area, more than 6000 people lost their lives in a single typhoon. And then you go to Glasgow and you see some people having a great time over drinks, and I think it’s definitely true that a lot of people went to Glasgow in order to work very hard and try and make a positive impact. There’s also a certain number of people who went there because everyone else was going there, and it was, it was the chance to hang out with people. And for some people, actually, I was hearing a lot of people spend that’s their business deals that were completely unrelated with climate change, but all the CEOs were there. So if you, I spoke to one head of an environmental consultancy and does a lot of work with the biggest global companies, he said he’s met more CEOs of Fortune 100 companies at this COP than he had at all the other COPs combined. So it was very different in that sense in terms of why people were going. I think it’s good to have that increased private sector engagements on climate issues, of course. But I do think this one turned into at least in some quarters, a bit of a business convention, a sort of networking convention, rather than an opportunity to have really tough conversations about how we’re gonna have an equitable solution to this problem.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. And I mean, for the businesses involved, greenwashing is the great phrase, which is essentially, you know, saying the right things but not really getting with the programme other than rhetorically. Do you think that’s basically what’s going on?

Simon Mundy
Yeah. And I’m not even sure how far we should blame the business leaders for this, because something that everyone seems to agree on is that the governments have not gone far enough. So everyone, a lot of people are thinking, what else can be done? What can I do personally? So if you’re the head of a big company and you’re a good person, naturally you’ll be thinking, what can I do? But where it gets problematic is that if you are the head of a big multinational company, you have been benefiting personally from the economic trends of the last 30 years and the huge rise in inequality. You are paying historically low rates of top marginal income tax. So in all these things, you have a particular set of economic incentives. So if the solution to climate change involves, for example, higher taxes on the rich to pay for various responses, you have an economic incentive not to go for that. And that’s why I think it’s very important to have a greater mix of voices around the table. And I think a lot of people that I’ve been speaking to, including in Glasgow, including some people in big business, actually, just think it’s getting a bit uncomfortable the extent to which big business is driving the conversation. I spoke to the head of Munich Re, who said that’s when he’s been speaking to other big global chief executives, he’s been unsettled to hear things. Things like, I think his words were, you know, because the government is not doing that thing, you know, we have to take over the responsibility. And that’s obviously problematic because you want elected representatives to be pulling their weight and in the absence of them really doing their job effectively, it’s getting very, very worrying in some ways.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. I guess the visual image most of us will take away from COP26 was Alok Sharma, the British minister charged with shepherding the whole process, choking up at the last moment because the crucial phrase on coal had been changed from phasing out to phasing down and even though subsequently, he tried to say, well, he was tired and, you know, a lot had been achieved, that felt like a kind of a moment of truth. How bad was that shift on coal?

Simon Mundy
One thing I would say is it’s definitely true that he was tired. I mean, you know, there are a couple of people who are involved, right in the sense of it who I saw during the conference and I’d seen previously, and people were really physically showing the tiredness. I think there was a lot of sleep being missed. I think as far as I can see, the sense among delegates was that Alok Sharma had done about the best job he could personally do in the circumstances. It’s a very challenging job, especially given the problems of coronavirus and the problems with various sorts of tensions, including between the US and China. In terms of that move on coal, it was right at the end. There was a lot of unhappiness about it from a lot of countries. It definitely made the mood feel, even among those people who had been relatively positive about the outcome, it made them feel a hell of a lot less positive. So that move being, of course, to change the language about coal, from phasing out coal to phasing down coal, which of course, is much, much less strong. And these words do, of course, matter. And it was, of course, India and China who have been blamed for that change. And I think, you know, in the immediate sense it is, it is accurate to say that they drove that change. But I think it’s too convenient for people in countries like the UK or the US to put all the blame on India and China. India in particular, I was based there for three years as the FT’s Mumbai correspondent. India is a very poor country. If you earn a few thousand dollars a year, that puts you right at the top of the income distribution in India. Most people in India are extremely poor by Western standards. In India, about a third of children are stunted due to malnutrition. India needs to grow and it needs to be supported to do that in a green way. So I’m definitely uncomfortable with the idea of simply painting China and India, in particular, as villains here, because I do think especially given anyone who’s read the history knows the amount of the extraordinary trillions and trillions of dollars in today’s money of wealth that was extracted from India by Britain over two centuries and more. So I think to simply say, let’s blame India and not support them in that energy transition, that’s much too convenient, in my opinion.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah. You mentioned as one of the things that made the whole thing more difficult, the US-China tensions. I guess one of the more positive things that people latched on to was the fact that a US-China statement came out saying the two countries, two largest economies in the world, intend to work together on climate change. How much substance was there in that?

Simon Mundy
Almost none, actually. There was a big contrast between a 2014 agreement between then President Obama and President Xi, where there were actually targets, new targets that was set out in that agreement. And that was seen as one of the things that really paved the way for the Paris Agreement in 2015. This one, there was almost nothing binding. There was a lot of nice-looking words. The closest thing that I saw to things that were really solid was China saying that it would look at taking action that would make a plan to deal with its methane emissions. Also, there was a decision to resurrect a bilateral working group, so there will be dialogue going forward, which is important because, as you know, obviously there’s not enough dialogue happening between officials from those two sides. But in comparison with that 2014 agreement, it was actually very weak.

Gideon Rachman
So going back and leaving the conference hall for a moment and back to what’s actually happening in the world, I mean, if you look at your book and other stuff that I’ve read and spoken about, one of the things that is most alarming to me is the melting of the Arctic and of Greenland. And you have a kind of very shocking anecdote in your book, which brings that to the form.

Simon Mundy
Yeah, it’s, it was a terrible thing that happened. I met scientist called Konrad Steffen, who was one of the great Polar scientists who’d been working on the Greenland Ice Sheet for 30 years, achieving real scientific advances in exposing the speed and the hazardousness of the melt of the Greenland Ice Sheet. In particular, he was shedding light on how dangerous it is in terms of global sea levels. People used to think that the ice sheets responded to temperature changes over the course of centuries. And he found that it was actually on a decade by decade or even year by year basis. The ice was changing its behaviour, dramatically accelerating its melt. And one of the things he told me was that at his camp on the ice sheets, these crevasses were opening around the camp. There had been no crevasses in the ice when he had arrived there in the early 1990s. And he said because the ice is melting faster, it’s stretching faster. These huge holes in the ice, these crevasses are opening up, and the next day he was travelling to his camp. It was his penultimate visit there, he was retiring the following year and he fell into one of those crevasses while working on the ice, and he was not not seen again. So it’s obviously something which I tried to treat respectfully and appropriately in the book. I mean, he would have been furious with me if I had not told his story, but I wanted to think very carefully about how to do it because I think about the impact that he had in his lifetime, which he felt was not enough, and he was saddened by how all that hard work had not been enough to drive change. But his work is still having an impact. I hope that in time, the body of scientific evidence that we have will drive the action that we need to see.

Gideon Rachman
I mean, his tragedy dramatises what’s going on in a really shocking way, but taking a step back at the overall impact, so how bad is the melt and how quickly is it gonna have an effect on sea level rises, you know, and be felt around the world in the major cities?

Simon Mundy
It’s been changing very dramatically. The winter temperature in Greenland, I think it was during the first decade or decade and a half of Koni Steffen’s work on the ice, a 7.3 degree change in the winter temperature at that site. So even though the global average temperature has gone up by a bit over one degree, these very specific sites and during specific seasons, the temperature change can be an order of magnitude greater. So the big question is what happens to the sea level? Actually, it was, this is one of the most shocking things that I heard during my research because people talk about the level of sea level that’s expected. So if you look at the IPCC reports, it says during the century we can expect something between 30 and 90 centimetres, depending on which scenarios you look at. Now, Koni Steffen was one of the lead authors in that report, and he said, look, it’s very conservative, and I think that it’s published by the IPCC. It has to be signed off by all the governments. So you have these climate science deniers who say, oh, it’s all alarmist. According to Koni Steffen, it’s actually the opposite. It’s very conservative because it has to be signed off by the governments. It’s even more than normal peer reviewed science. They only publish things that they can be extremely confident about. So he said one metre is almost guaranteed even if we stopped all carbon emissions today. Now I’ve visited countries like the Maldives, where the average height of land in the Maldives is only a bit above one metre. The highest point of the whole country of the Maldives is two metres above sea level because it’s made by coral sand, just coral sand that washed up in clumps. So if Koni Steffen was right, that means that countries like the Maldives and the Marshall Islands and a few other countries that are constituted by coral sand simply will cease to exist, and anything remotely approaching their current form. And we’re so fortunate that we have this extraordinary modern science that tells us these things, and I hope that in due course as Koni Steffen hoped as well, that we will actually start to make full use of that extraordinary science that we have access to.

Gideon Rachman
And yet your experience in Glasgow doesn’t suggest we’re getting close. Just a couple of questions then to finish on the gap between what you reported on the ground and then the conference you’ve just attended. Does it make you think that the UN diplomatic process climate negotiations focused above all on restricting carbon dioxide and methane emissions, that that’s still our main route to go? Or do you think other things are going to have to come on the agenda?

Simon Mundy
So on the COP, first of all, I mean, you mentioned the comments from from President Nasheed of the Maldives. I saw him again at COP, actually. And his sense is that you’re always going to be very limited in what you can achieve. You bring about 195 countries together, think it was 197 at this COP, and you expect them to reach unanimous consensus on something in a two-week event. You’re not gonna get something that’s massively ambitious in detail. It is simply impossible with that sort of structure. I had another interesting conversation with the young climate activist from Argentina who was saying, look, the COP is obviously deeply flawed as a model, but you can’t take it away from us because as developing countries, that’s our best shot of actually making our voices heard. Take it away or stop paying attention to it, then the world becomes even more unbalanced in terms of the lack of representation of voices from the developing countries where most human beings live. But I do think it’s useful in terms of just thrashing out a vague global sense of direction. But in terms of the detailed mechanisms that could actually fix the problem, I don’t think you’ll get that at a COP. The best thing I’ve heard on this, and we don’t have time for me to go into, in detail, but I’d urge everyone to just Google, A Carbon Club? By William Nordhaus. It’s an essay, and he’s written a lot about it. But there was an essay last year in Foreign Affairs, for example, so he’s a Nobel winning economist for his work in this field. And he says the only way to fix the problem or at least to start to fix the problem is to have an international carbon pricing system. You’re not gonna get 197 countries agreeing between themselves at the COP, but if you could get, let’s say, the US and the EU, they come together and they say, okay, we agree we’re gonna have a credibly assessed carbon price of, let’s say, $100 a tonne and there will be no carbon-related tariffs on trade between us. But we’ll put carbon-related tariffs on imports from everyone else who does not have this credibly assessed carbon price of a hundred and so on. And that’s the carbon club. To join it all you have to do is to have that credibly assessed carbon price. And so initially, let’s say it could be the US and the EU, then Turkey would have an incentive to join. For example, the UK would have an incentive to join. Mexico, Canada. Eventually, China would say we are totally independently announcing the Xi Jinping master plan for dealing with carbon pricing, which just happens to coincide, that is the best idea that I think I’ve heard so far. So I don’t think we should stop doing the COPs, but we shouldn’t expect really detailed powerful solutions to come from a COP, in my opinion.

Gideon Rachman
Which brings us to the question you started with that you said you’re still wrestling with, which is why do you think people are willing, given the enormity of the threat, to settle for what seems such mild outcomes to such a huge threat? What was your tentative conclusion?

Simon Mundy
Well, there are various reasons, in my opinion. One is the people who have the hands on the levers of power tend also to be people who are doing pretty well out of the current set-up and so are incentivised not to want to shake it up too much. It’s not because they’re bad people, it’s just because they have incentives to not break the current system, which is doing well for them, and that’s just because they’re human beings. There’s also the issue of a disconnect between the powerful people at the global level, particularly in the developed world and the impacts that have so far been disproportionately felt in developing countries. So of course, we’ve had some terrible events in Europe and North America, but on my travels it was definitely in the developing countries where I saw really, really bad and bites in places like Ethiopia, Bangladesh, the Philippines. But we don’t often see them. If you’re living in London or New York or Brussels, you’re not regularly confronted with the sheer horror in many cases of the climate impacts that are already happening on the ground. And that’s one of the reasons why I wrote the book. It’s not only about the people who are on the frontline in the developing countries. There’s also a lot about people who are driving technology, people who are driving all sorts of inspiring responses to climate change, as well as people at big companies in the fossil fuel industry, for example, and seeing how they’re responding. But a big part of it was that I think if we did pay more attention to the extraordinary suffering that is already happening predominantly in the developing world, we would be taking it a lot more seriously and there would have been more seriousness in Glasgow this month, certainly.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Gideon Rachman
That was Simon Mundy, author and editor of the FT’s Moral Money newsletter, ending this edition of the Rachman Review. Thanks for joining me. I hope you’ll be able to join me again next week.

This transcript has been automatically generated. If by any chance there is an error please send the details for a correction to: typo@ft.com. We will do our best to make the amendment as soon as possible

Get alerts on Transcript when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section