India’s 2070 net zero goals: A tale of hope?

By Matthew Neils’ 22 and Ghazi Randhawa ‘22

Hi Everyone, COP26 ended today on a historic note. In spite of its shortcomings, COP26 should go down in history as a breakthrough COP as a lot of countries have shifted their stances and offered compromises for the sake of avoiding a dystopian future. In this flurry of shifting media cycles on every big and small announcement from COP26, we decided to write about an important net-zero pledge made by a very important developing country that has frequently expressed reluctance on climate commitments: India’s pledge for net-zero GEG emissions by 2070.

The recent report by Climate Action Tracker (CAT) shows that the world will likely miss its target to restrict the global average temperature to well below 2℃, let alone the 1.5 degree Celsius by 2050. With the new pledges in the previous week of the COP26, CAT found that the world would rise to be about 2.4 degree Celsius by the middle of this century. Moreover, the current plans against climate change have been criticized for setting very short term goals which would not prevent increases in temperatures above 1.5 degree Celsius.

While developed countries have been rightfully criticized for pushing our shared world to this brink of collapse and low-income, developing, and island countries have been highlighted as the primary victims of the crisis, the rapidly emerging economic giants of BRICs have had an evolving and contentious role in international negotiations surrounding climate action. Their sheer economic growth and rising greenhouse gas emissions are generated by the need to lift their population out of poverty. This need for growth is coupled with their vulnerability to climate change. China and India present an exacerbated version of issues that arise in climate action by emerging economies: a huge growing population, rapid economic growth at the expense of environmental concerns, and extreme vulnerability to climate change induced alterations in the functioning of their earth systems. Their share of the total greenhouse gas emissions has been steadily increasing since the start of 1990s. Yet, their per-capita emissions of GEGs are still quite low in comparison to developed countries that have markedly higher GEG emissions per capita.

Developed countries have long stressed the trade-off between climate action and development opportunities. This stance is contentious and has led to failure of previous climate action agreements like the Kyoto protocol’s ratification in the US. In view of the evolving science and economics behind climate change, there is a growing consensus that economic development in these countries should not follow the Kuznets curve perspective. The Kuznets curve implies that countries’ tolerance for levels of environmental degradation has a trade-off with development that eventually reaches a peak. After that point, the country’s preference for environmental degradation goes down even as further economic growth occurs and this leads to environmental cleanup. Many countries have shown development and environmental patterns on lines of the Kuznets curve with the most recent example being China. However, with the burgeoning scientific literature on climate change, experience with development strategies, and breakthrough scientific developments, there has been a growing recognition for the dispelling these cycles of development economics and a call for sustainable low-carbon development pathways.

Historically, India has been part of the G77 group in global climate negotiations. Since the first UNFCCC conference in 1992, India’s economy has grown rapidly along with its aggregate carbon emissions and per capita emissions. If corrective action is not taken, India is expected to join the club of countries who single-handedly contribute the most to fueling the climate crisis. Of the four largest emitters (China, the United States, the European Union, and India), India was previously the only emerging economy not to have made a net-zero commitment. As recently as a month before the COP26, India shirked its responsibility for climate action. India’s (coupled with China’s) earlier reluctance for climate action has led to breakdown in negotiations at earlier climate conferences. While India has agreed to the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibility, it has been reluctant to make a net-zero pledge for many reasons.

Firstly, India has been a vocal advocate for the right of developing countries to pursue their development plans. India has instead laid the onus of climate action on developed countries who caused the problem. It has repeatedly pointed to the fact that its per-capita emissions are lower than many developed countries who have caused the problem of climate change. India is a rapidly developing huge country which is not expected to reach its peak population and economy for a long time. India has relied on fast and massive economic growth rates to pull swathes of its population out of poverty. To summarize, India has long believed that it has a lot to lose from climate action which it believes would hinder its economic development strategy. However, new breakthroughs in science about climate change have led to serious concerns about the short term and long term sustainability of any carbon based development in any country. India is no exception to this insight and its vulnerability to climate change has impacted its view on climate change.

Secondly, India has frequently objected to the ‘net-zero’ framing of climate action. Net-zero commitments are often criticized for being hollow pledges in that they do not commit to decreasing carbon emissions. India has instead been more active in pledging better carbon intensity targets for its economy. Carbon-intensity targets aim to increase the efficiency of carbon emissions for running the economy. Carbon-intensity targets are touted by India as a more pragmatic measure of climate action than net-zero pledges. Net-zero emissions have also been recently criticized for being too long-term and not doing enough to prevent extreme climate change in the short term(more than 1.5 degree Celsius by middle of the century). Moreover, the number of countries making net-zero pledges has grown vastly over the past few years and India has been facing pressure to join the club. Moreover, we think that the goals of net-zero and carbon intensity should go hand in hand in development policies. Just committing to increased carbon intensity or net-zero pledges alone would not ameliorate the problem of aggregate emissions of India.

Thirdly, India has been reluctant to cooperate in view of unfulfilled pledges for climate finance. It is a known fact that developed countries largely failed to fulfill their pledges for immediate and long term climate finance they agreed to in the Paris agreement of 2016. This pattern of repeated failure by developed countries in provision of climate finance has caused a trust vacuum. Why should developing countries keep giving leeway and ratchet up their commitments to climate action when developed countries keep on failing to deliver on their promised action? COP26 saw increased activity and relatively more solid commitments and pledges over climate finance. Moreover, we think that climate finance is a thorny issue and its best possible resolution would still be far from the perfect version that many developing countries would want. It should not hold back India in driving up its ambition in climate action and emissions pledges because there is no other option around climate change.

Last Monday, India joined the other major emitters in a neutrality commitment with Prime Minister Modi’s announcement of new climate goals. This announcement represents a major break from the country’s reluctance to make a net-zero goal. Less than a week before the beginning of COP26, India’s minister of the environment expressed skepticism over the value of neutrality commitments. In light of this reluctance, The new ambitions have three main pillars:

The headline goal is for net-zero emissions by 2070. This date is 10 years behind China’s goal of 2060, and 20 years behind the American and European goals of 2050. It also falls behind global calls for net-zero emissions by 2050 in order to keep warming under 1.5 ℃. Although 2070 falls behind this goal, policymakers have indicated that later deadlines among low and middle income countries can be consistent with remaining below 1.5 ℃ of warming if wealthy countries achieve neutrality before 2050. Indeed, increased pressure on wealthy countries is part of India’s climate strategy. Their minister of the environment has highlighted the importance not only of when a country reaches neutrality, but how much they emit before they reach that point, calling attention to the major contributions of wealthy nations and China to global emissions before they reach net zero.

Additionally, Modi made a number of promises concerning the energy sector: an increase in non-fossil fuel generated energy, achieving half renewable energy generation by 2030. There is doubt about whether India can successfully fulfill these commitments given its history with similar goals. For example, the country had a previously-stated goal of 175 GW of renewable energy generation by 2022, but its capacity currently stands at roughly 100 GW and the country is not on track to reach its goal. The new commitment is for 500 GW of capacity by 2030, an even more ambitious increase. Additionally, coal is an important part of both India’s power generation and its economy more generally, with coal mining and coal energy generation accounting for roughly 10% of the country’s Index of Industrial Production. This reliance makes a shift to renewable energy especially politically and economically challenging. India’s attempts to remove language supporting a phase-out of coal from today’s COP26 deal further reinforce this concern.

Finally, the country aims to cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 1 billion tons (compared to business as usual emissions) by 2030 and has raised its carbon intensity reduction goal from 35% to 45%. While these new goals are among the most ambitious announcements to come out of COP26, and the new climate aspirations are an encouraging sign, they may not be enough. In light of the Climate Action Tracker report, India, like other large economies, needs even more ambitious climate goals in order to keep warming below desired thresholds. Climate Action Tracker rates the new plan “Insufficient” (up from a previous rating of “Highly Insufficient”) due to the lack of concrete policy details and the fact that the enhanced pledge still does not place India on track to keep warming under 2 ℃.

Even with these doubts and limitations, India’s commitment is certainly ambitious, and is a noted improvement on previous climate goals and projections. At the very least, the plan represents a major ratcheting up of climate ambition when compared to India’s previous reluctance, and may provide an impetus for similar aspirations in other countries and sectors. If successful, India would achieve a major energy transition in a country currently reliant on coal and oil that could provide both motivation and practical guidance for other low and middle income countries seeking to make similar transitions. The announcement from a previously reluctant party also places political pressure on other large countries such as the United States, Brazil, and China to enhance their mitigation efforts and may have spurred some of the later commitments from these parties at COP26.

As highlighted by Modi and the Indian delegation, much of the success of the plan is incumbent on the delivery of appropriate levels of climate finance. Even with opportunities for technology transfer and leapfrogging that could allow for low-income pathways to neutrality, such a transition is expensive, and requires major up-front investments that can be difficult to finance. Additionally, climate finance is an important area to support environmental equity. While India is a major net emitter, its per-capita emissions remain far below those of wealthier countries. Therefore, expectations of major emissions reductions without proper support from these countries are both financially unfeasible and do not properly align with climate liability and responsibility.

India’s net-zero goals thematically align well with much of the other news coming out of COP26. They are a definite improvement over previous business-as-usual attitudes, but there are serious concerns about implementation and they remain insufficient to meet more ambitious climate goals. The way that they will be most effective is if pressure is put on other countries such as the United States not only to support low and middle income climate transitions, but to similarly ratchet up ambitions for domestic energy transitions. As climate-conscious citizens it is important to promote the messaging that commitments such as India’s are not an end-solution to the climate crisis, but rather a positive acceleration of climate ambitions that must continue in order to avoid the most harmful outcomes.

Day 3: First Summary Draft (and Boris Johnson!)

Professor Ayse Kaya, Kyra Hall ’22, and Olivia Stoetzer ’23 in the plenary

Judging by the official COP26 calendar,* Wednesday, November 10th looked to be an uneventful day with no large plenaries on the schedule, nor were there many side events. This took us by surprise, as no other day looked this light. But, Wednesday did not disappoint.  The release of the first summary draft of COP26 sent a jolt through the halls of the Blue Zone of COP26. As we gathered outside of the plenary rooms waiting to hear the first informal consultations on this draft, a protest was taking place in the same spot: Fridays for Future‘s young activists gathered the attention of everyone, ranging from the media to Parties to observers. 

Friday for the Future activists

As the doors to the plenary room opened, parties and observers flooded into the massive space in a constant flow. By the time COP President Alok Sharma shared his opening remarks and the go-round between the ministers commenced, the room was packed, with every seat occupied. Teams of ministers — one from a developing country and one from a developed country — took turns to report on their various thematic responsibilities, such as climate finance and the Enhanced Transparency Framework Agreement of the Paris Agreement, a mechanism for countries to report data on emissions, NDC progress, and climate change impacts. The representative from Switzerland proudly spoke up first, reporting that parties had agreed that an end date for producing NDCs was a necessary result of COP26. The representative from Maldives, on behalf of the adaptation committee, reported that they agreed on the need for a 2-year work program and that work must start immediately. Luxembourg and Jamaica, on behalf of Loss and Damage, called for new and additional funding, as they highlighted that linkages between loss and damage and climate finance have far too long been overlooked. Denmark and Grenada stressed 1.5 degrees C of warming as the only option (as compared to the consideration of 2 degrees in the Paris Agreement). Several parties spoke after, reflecting the substantive work they had done while also emphasizing a call for more action and ambition. 

After this go-round, the COP President summarized from his view the achievements of the week, along with necessary steps forward. President Sharma will be meeting with parties Wednesday night to finalize draft resolutions ahead of tomorrow’s morning meeting. He urged parties to “come armed with the currency of compromise” as we head into the last two days of COP26 in Glasgow. Sharma closed by emphasizing that “what we agree on in Glasgow will set the future for our children and grandchildren.” 

After these remarks, the EU representative minister asked for the ground and applauded the inclusion of gender and indigenous rights in the draft text.  The representative emphasized the importance of adaptation, defining the EU’s “leadership role” in this issue area, and clear and immediate action on adaptation and all aspects of climate change. “The EU is here.” was his message. The Guinean representative, on behalf of G77 and China, followed these remarks and expressed disappointment in the lack of progress on climate finance, especially the “lack of appetite” on devising a common definition of multilateral climate finance. His remarks also emphasized the importance of Loss and Damage. Gabon’s representative, on behalf of the African Group, and Bhutan’s minister, speaking for the LDCs (least developed countries), echoed many of the Guinean representative’s points. Bolivia’s representative pushed even further, stating that the common position of the draft did not represent the views of all countries and was actually a narrative working to shift responsibility to developing countries. 

Soon after the conclusion of this meeting, Day 3 witnessed the arrival of the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. We happened to be right there as he walked by and someone from the crowd shouted:  “Is it too late to save the summit, Prime Minister?”  Is it?

Boris Johnson, UK Prime Minister

*The calendar was updated midday, but it originally showed very few events, which was confusing to non-insiders.

Climate Finance and Article 6

Day 1 at the Action Zone

After two very full days of COP, I am starting to see strong themes and linkages across events, speeches, and negotiations. The majority of the events I attended were related to climate finance and Article 6 – the market-based mechanism of the Paris Agreement. These themes relate to two of the overarching goals of the conference: to mobilize climate finance and to establish the rules and regulations for the Paris Agreement carbon market. It was interesting to hear perspectives on these issues from both government officials and panelists that were from various organizations and communities all over the world. I want to emphasize that there was a general dissidence on the outcomes of the conference between these panelists, making up civil society and observers, and the government officials, sometimes behind closed doors, in the negotiation rooms. 

Climate Finance

At COP15 in Copenhagen, developed countries made the pledge to channel $100 billion a year to developing nations by 2020 for mitigation and adaptation. Countries still have yet to hit that mark in 2021. There is also a clear disconnect between where donors and receivers want the funds to go. Developed countries want the funds to go to mitigation, because it would help everyone in the long run. Developing countries want the funds to go to adaptation, which would have far more local, community impacts. The majority of climate finance has gone to mitigation efforts, leaving adaptation largely underfunded. 

Yesterday, Professor Kaya and I observed the Adaptation Fund Contributor Dialogue and Reflections, where ministers from all over the world each shared their reflections on the importance of the Adaptation Fund, along with what their country is doing to contribute. Because Professor Kaya went into the nitty gritty in a past post, I will only share that I was surprised by how low the pledges were, especially for those contributing for the first time and with the expectation of an annual fund of $100 billion. Many countries were donating around $10-30 million, with John Kerry announcing in person the United States’ pledge of $50 million, upon Congress’ approval. All funds to the Adaptation Fund are purely grants, thus it makes sense that these numbers are a lot smaller. Still, I came away thinking that some countries were being stingy. 

At this morning’s negotiations for mobilizing long-term finance, there were striking disagreements, largely falling between developing and developed country lines. Though the negotiations largely focused on editing a draft text, it was interesting to see how every word was scrutinized. In a paragraph talking the need to fund adaptation that specifically used the phrase “doubling adaptation finance,” countries debated for quite a while on the need to use “double” as a metric. The European Union recognized that there would be a large increase in support for climate finance anyway, thus there should not be a target, especially because there is no baseline to begin with. Bangladesh argued that “doubling” should be replaced with “quadrupling.” Ecuador pushed even farther, calling for parity between adaptation and mitigation funds – a very bold ask! 

I am looking forward to following these drafts along with the climate finance pledges, which, if interested, can be tracked here. 

John Kerry speaking at the Adaptation Fund Contributor Dialogue and Reflections. Canada’s Minister of the Environment was also present and sat next to Kerry. (If you zoom in, he is in the corner!)

Article 6

Article 6 of the Paris Agreement established a market-based mechanism to allow countries to achieve their Nationally Determined Contributions through carbon trading facilitated by the United Nations. A similar mechanism was created through the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, known as the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). In theory, CDM was supposed to allow developed countries to fund mitigation efforts that work on sustainable development in developing countries. It was a flexibility mechanism that allowed developed countries to reach their mandated emissions reductions through carbon offsets. However, according to the Carbon Market Watch, more than 85% of CDM projects were unlikely to have generated real emissions reductions. From many points of view, this market-based approach is seen as a way for developed countries to pay off their emissions rather than to actually invest in mitigation.

Yesterday, I attended a panel event called “Net Zero smoke and mirrors, a story of betrayal: making the case against carbon market offsetting.” Several different speakers shared their experiences and views on the market, echoing the failure of CDM and the need to hold corporations and governments accountable by ensuring there is no access to a carbon market. At the end a question was asked that really contributed to the way I approached the climate finance negotiations today. The speaker talked about how market-based mechanisms are an opportunity for developing countries to receive reliable finance, therefore they take part in it. The negotiations today stressed the need for reliable, accessible, and sustainable finance, and though carbon markets can have consequences on countries, they agree to the system to get access to these funds. The speaker asked how countries can receive funding if there is no Article 6. This brings us back to the motivations for funding climate change mitigation and adaptation and the role various actors play in the climate governance regime. 

In class early this semester, we talked about whether the Paris Agreement was the best possible climate treaty, or was it just a compromise by developing nations to get developed nations on board. As I have observed the concessions and debate, but also the political moves, I truly wonder if the nation states at this conference have the ability to move forward with this agreement to make it more than just a compromise, but an effective treaty that can truly save humanity. I am excited to see what is in store in the last three days.

An Intersectional Framing, to offer pathways for everyone

The brutalist gray sky served as a less than prosperous introduction to COP26 Week 2. Once inside, the energy of the hallways, meeting rooms, action hubs, and other collaborative spaces proved quite the opposite. At first interaction, the sight of thousands of people is quite unfamiliar given our past and ongoing years within the epoch of global pandemic. Yet, the beauty of the diverse, multinational, and multi-interest individuals brings back the memory and ease of human capacity. 

The Side Room events offered an expansive introduction into the multiplicity of climate actions and expertise. The importance of framing climate change within the contexts of plurality allows for the it’s global impacts to meet every individual where they are to mobilize them towards action. 

The “Intersectionality at the Nexus of Climate, Human Mobility, Loss and Damage: Regional Perspectives” event was truly out of the norm at COP26. To avoid misrepresenting with objective perspective the nature of the UN and the COP26, we will not create a binary. But, the discussion of anti-colonization, citizen power, standpoint epistemology, local knowledge, intersectionality, and non-Western gender identities shaped a rich and nuanced conversation that rooted the migration caused by climate change as an issue of justice. A community leader from Pakistan spoke on the unjust economies that arise from vulnerability: sex work, child trafficking, human trafficking, slave labor, etc. A community leader from the Bahamas spoke of her organization’s production of a Feminist Standard of Governance that legitimized the experiences of femme-identified Bahamians and undocumented Haitian women who received aid post-Hurricane Dorian. The community leader from Fiji spoke at length about the violent decisions coerced out of third gender indigenous Fijians that remained in their destroyed homes after a recent cyclone, instead of being subjected to the thrashes of the Christian-led disaster shelters. One of the questions posed asked the panelists to respond to the tension of working with vulnerable communities and institutions with the monopoly on disaster response. 

In just this one panel the intersections of race, class, colonization, gender, sexuality, economics, justice, human rights, etc. were all discussed and activated by community leaders leading the charge in addressing these issues. The panel evoked a direct quote that shifted much of my understanding of climate migration: 

“Migration is not a threat, it is a vulnerability.” 

Framing climate migration and (im)mobility as vulnerability, recognizes the constructed, perpetuated, and systemic nature allows for the penetrating fear of inability to be smashed under the imagination of action to keep people in their homes, in their communities, and in their cultures. 

The panelists were unafraid to recognize their own intersectionality as privileged individuals, celebrating in the ease, glamour, and heavily removed reality of participating in COP, while communities continue to die and the inaccessibility of the COP to the most vulnerable at this critical moment further undermines the altruistic vision of the UN. I felt at home in this observation. I have been ruminating on my own capacity and the accountability I must hold myself to, as one of few within the world accessing a potentially monumental, but often unimaginative outcome of global climate negotiations.

“Future Lab: Governance – Choose your own adventure” was an interactive session that brought together a variety of experts to provide a case study of decision-making of what economic choices could be made for a hypothetical small village in West Africa. There was an array of insightful points: 

“Over governance requires imagination.” 

“Integration of generations, particularly young people, is important to think long term and plan our systems to meet the ancestral test.” 

“The only way to predict the future is to shape it.” 

“Bring in communities to be full experts.” 

“We need to have a way to bring the whole system into the room.” 

This lab exposed the urgency of redefining, reshaping, and maybe even dismantling global decision-making systems. True to this statement, the middle of this session was interrupted in part by chants outside of the room: “What do we want? Climate Justice. When do we want it? Now!” One of the panelists spoke about her activism and how she feels both within this room and outside of  it. The chants in conjunction with the messaging of the UN that has plastered it’s propaganda: “NOW” everywhere. 

In keeping with the important insights of the Bahamian panelist to recognize the term ‘intersectionality’ has heavily departed from its intellectual and epistemological origin from a Black feminist scholar, I want to invite readers to contemplate their own urgencies. We are all existing in some pursuit of or from something and that sense of temporal liminality should be our motivation towards creating the kind of material conditions that are critical to us right now.

Where are you? What do you want? When do you want it….

The Americans are Back

November 8, 2021 was the first day of the second week at COP26 in Glasgow, and a new Swarthmore observer delegation team took over from the first one.  I spent much of the day, joined by a couple of students who are also part of the delegation, listening in on climate finance.  And, I started writing a blog on that topic.  But,  for now, I want to write about my observations and anecdotes from Week 2 Day 1.  As a social scientist, I do not get a chance to do that very often.

My story can be previewed in one sentence:  the Americans are back!  As the US pavilion’s wall declares (in a uniquely American way, where you cannot tell whether it is supposed to be humorous):  “The United States is back in the Paris Agreement, back at COP, and ready to go all in climate.” And, by the looks of it, they were missed.   

The big event of the day was former U.S. President Obama’s presence in the halls of COP.  While I didn’t get to hear him in person, I enjoyed observing the effects of his visit.  He gave two talks, one in the morning and one in the afternoon – both of which were ticketed, and tickets were not readily available.  One person from our delegation did make it in.  But, hundreds of people without tickets nonetheless cued up on the staircase where Obama was expected to descend into the room for his morning lecture.  And, when the crowd got a glimpse of Obama, even a mere fleeting glimpse marked by hundreds of smart phones (which themselves were trying to capture the moment), the crowd cheered him as if he were a member of the Beatles.  His quick descent down the stairs and into the large conference space for the talk lingered on with the crowd waiting outside. Some people tried to reason with the security guards that if there was room left, what was a ticket in the end?  There were firm but polite rejections.

His second talk, similarly, witnessed a multinational crowd huddled outside of the large plenary room, where he was speaking.  As the diverse groups were listening to him through the webcast, they were also hoping to see him in person. One person giddily told her friend “I already saw him, I don’t know why I am still waiting here.”  Another group burst into spontaneous clapping as they watched him on the webcast.  At some point, the crowd got so significant outside of the closed doors, where he was making the address, that a security guard took a megaphone in her hand to exclaim: “President Obama will not be exiting this way”, finally paving the way for us climate finance nerds to wait for the next session in the same room.

The other American in the limelight was John Kerry, serving as the inaugural Presidential Envoy for Climate Change.   He spoke eloquently about the need to close the gap on adaptation finance during the Adaptation Fund Contributor Dialogue.  This gap refers to what less developed countries need for building capacity and resilience to meet the challenges of climate change and what more developed countries have been dispensing for that cause.  If you are wondering why the relatively rich should pay for the less fortunate to adapt (beyond moral reasoning), the answer is simple:  much of the greenhouse gas emissions since about 1850 has been contributed by today’s developed countries, while the effects of climate change are disproportionately felt by the poor.  Kerry put it forcefully:  “The stakes here [in Glasgow] couldn’t really be higher.”  He announced the first ever US contribution to the Fund — USD 50million–, deeming it a shift in the U.S. position.  Later on, the German representative jokingly noted that their contribution was 50 million Euros, which superseded the American.

From Day 1, it looks like the Americans have leveraged China’s absence, reestablishing themselves as a key player, if not a leader.  President Biden’s visit last week had already set that stage, and Obama’s visit with Kerry’s diplomacy appears to have further solidified it.  However, it remains to be seen how long the love for the Americans will last – the proof will be in the negotiation pudding in the remaining days.   And, the developing countries, the G77 group, are keeping up the solidarity so far in key negotiating items.  So, stay tuned.

COP26 and Deforestation

By M. Ghazi Randhawa’ 22 & Matthew Neils’ 22

World leaders pledge to halt and reverse deforestation: A cause for celebration?

Hello from Swarthmore! In addition to the excellent coverage of the COP26 proceedings from Alicia, Daniel, and Melissa this week, we are hoping to provide some analysis of the news coming out of the conference from a Swarthmore perspective. Given the attention that it has garnered, the magnitude of the agreement, and the obvious relevance of forest health to us on our arboretum campus, the landmark commitment to ending and reversing deforestation seems a fitting place to start.

Even when surrounded by them, we sometimes take for granted the enormous impact that trees have on global carbon accounting. Stable forests act as massive carbon sinks, sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere. New research estimates that global forests absorb on net 1.5 times the total carbon emissions of the United States each year. However, this carbon does not disappear; when forests are cleared or burned, it is released back into the atmosphere. Indeed, of the world’s three largest rainforests, only the Congo Basin remains a solid carbon sink. Deforestation has a double impact; it stops potential carbon-uptake of the forest and releases carbon that was stored there.

In light of these impacts, representatives of 133 countries covering as much as 85 percent of the forests in the world and at least 30 corporations have signed an agreement committing to stop deforestation by 2030 and make efforts to reverse it. In addition to reaffirming Paris agreement goals of ending deforestation in developing countries, the agreement contains roughly $19 billion in financial commitments to reforestation projects in developing countries and promises to provide remuneration to indigenous people to acknowledge their role as custodians of forests.

Despite the newsworthy nature of this agreement, many experts and activists are skeptical of its ability to create meaningful and lasting differences in deforestation practices. Much of this doubt stems from previous failures of similar agreements. Of particular salience among critics is the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests, a voluntary commitment to halve deforestation by 2020 and eliminate it by 2030. Originally heralded as an impressive step forward, with over 200 signatory countries, multinational corporations, indigenous leaders, and non-governmental organizations, the retrospective story of the agreement has largely been one of disappointment.

The ambitious 2014 commitment was followed by a general lack of published mitigation targets, and the countries that did create targets were unambitious. Indeed, the 2019 five-year report of the project carried the subtitle “A Story of Large Commitments yet Limited Progress.” The data indicate that this assessment may actually have been overly positive; a 2020 report of progress on deforestation goals found, “an average of 41 percent more [tropical primary forest] loss each year after [the agreement] was signed than before.” Needless to say, the 2020 goal of halving deforestation was not met. The Declaration on Forests followed a pattern that many observers of global climate governance are only too familiar with; a promising initiative is introduced at a conference, but national-level financial, administrative, and political follow up is insufficient to achieve its goals.

Despite these past experiences, there is good reason to believe that the new agreement has both new magnitude and a new approach that give it the opportunity to break the pattern of disappointing deforestation commitments and achieve a more meaningful impact. The most important feature of success has been the inclusion of Brazil, Russia and China in this declaration, countries who had not signed onto previous agreements on deforestation. The inclusion of China has large potential for impact because its growing economy has been driving major deforestation in fringe forested areas like Pacific island countries. Similarly, Brazil has been witnessing unprecedented deforestation in the past decade, so its commitments are a good signal.

Secondly, the increased finance for protecting the forests is a necessary attempt to fix the distributive consequences in developing countries of stopping deforestation. Deforestation has immediate benefits for the local communities while ending deforestation has long-term global benefits. Larger financial commitments are an important step in addressing distributive consequences, fostering local support for reforestation measures, and supporting front-line communities. It is the first step to set up a system that works for everyone.

Thirdly, there has been a marked increase in the provision of philanthropic financial commitments by private actors like Jeff Bezos. This shows the growing awareness and perceived urgency of climate action amongst non-state actors. This should be encouraged and shows there is great potential for raising funds for certain oft-overlooked causes of climate action. The inclusion of pledges by at least 30 corporations to cut out products like coffee that drive deforestation in developing countries is a very important and much needed step to halt this blatant exploitation of forests in the developing world. In countries like Brazil, industrial sources of deforestation vastly outnumber the local population’s demand for deforestation.

However, let us not paint too much of a rosy picture of the massively grim state of forests. No international agreement on controversial issues plays out as effectively as it was intended and that is why we see a constant evolution of the treaties, agreements, and bureaucratic setups governing them. The biggest concern has been the role of countries that  bought-in to the deforestation setup for the first time. While Brazil’s inclusion in the agreement has been touted as a game changing scenario for deforestation and harbinger of success of the agreement, critics have alleged that Brazil’s commitment resembles active attempts at greenwashing and is nothing more than a hollow pledge to gain access to climate finance. While Brazil has sent the second largest delegation to COP26, deforestation rates in Amazon in the past 12 months from June have reached their highest levels ever. So will Brazil show a turn around in the next decade? We can only speculate that there is a high chance of underperformance in Brazil due to its current regime’s anti-environmental actions leading right up to COP26 and its needs as an emerging economy. In such a situation, the role of transnational networks of epistemic and activist in the implementation of this agreement in Brazil is of paramount importance in holding it accountable.

Similarly, China has shown a colder attitude to climate change negotiations in COP26 in a clear departure from its earlier ambitions of global leadership in climate action. It has shown clear preference for pursuing environmentally unsustainable practices if the costs get too high with their announcement of 11 new coal plants in view of rising oil prices. Deforestation agreements can suffer a similar fate in China if costs of abatement of deforestation locally and globally get too high.

The US congress also has a history of refusing to ratify environmental treaties due to domestic political conflicts. If Democrats lose control of the Senate in 2022 midterm elections or there is a lack of broad support for these pledges, the USA’s commitment and support to this agreement and other such agreements at COP26 could become a problem.

Lastly, this agreement would not mean anything if the haves of this world continue consuming the same lifestyles that drove our Blue Marble to this state of sheer fragility and possible collapse at the expense of have-nots. The pledged to source out deforestation-driving products by corporations is a necessary step, but many of these companies still fall short of providing remuneration for the profit earned by dwindling forest cover of developing countries over the past decades. Just as fossil fuel companies knowingly brought us to the brink of climate crisis, corporations that drove deforestation have KNOWINGLY landed us in a world of shrinking and fragmenting forests and an extinction crisis by imperilling biodiversity. They should be held accountable. Moreover, we as consumers should feel compelled to source our material comforts locally and sustainably. There is evidence that consumers can change their lifestyles for the better and deforestation is one sector that can allow consumers to express their preferences and make an impact.

Finally, it is vital that we as members of civil society place pressure on governments and the private sector to follow through on their commitments. In the United States and other signatory countries, this looks like working to build political will for ratification, an extensive reforestation program, and meaningful support to indigenous communities, as well as tying agreement followthrough to their diplomatic agenda. Citizens have a vital role in ensuring that agreements made at COP are followed and expanded, and in shaping a more sustainable and just future.

Participation at COP26 & Its Limitations

As we’ve previously mentioned, COP26 is packed with thousands of people each day (according to news reports, more than 30,000 people are in attendance.) Each of these attendants is designated with a certain status/classification which include: observers (mostly civil society and NGOs), media/press, and party members (heads of state, negotiators, and their staff members). (FYI, Melissa just posted a blog and does an amazing job discussing more about these dynamics.) While we are recognized by the UNFCCC as official delegates, our observer status signifies not just our current roles, but also lets us know which spaces we can actually have access to.

Today, Alicia and I decided to visit the Green Zone — The Green Zone is a separate space where the public can get access to events, exhibitions, workshops and talks hosted by civil society, artists, business and other groups from across the UK and all over the world. This year, the Green Zone is at the Glasgow Science Centre which is around an 8-10 minute shuttle ride (GMaps says 5 minutes, but it’s definitely longer) from the Blue Zone, located at the Scottish Events Campus.

We decided to attend an event there entitled: Role of Indigenous peoples and their communities and nature-based solutions. While I won’t use this blog to go in depth about their discussions,  I do want to point out a particularly interesting moment of the session. The Indigenous group (including José Gregorio Díaz Mirabal and Tabea Cacique), who spoke only Spanish and Portuguese, was halfway disrupted by a Scottish woman who exclaimed: “Some us only speak English here!”

Presenters at the event “Role of Indigenous peoples and their communities and nature-based solutions.”

Just to give the full context to this story, there were no official translators present in the discussion, nor did the event supplied us with the headphones that I was able to use at the blue zone to help me hear and translate the language.  (Heres a pic of me using one — it has six channels including languages like English, Spanish, Chinese, etc.) Later on, a crowd member volunteered to translate which allowed us to carry on.

While I would like to believe that this woman’s sudden interruption was not out of malice, but merely out of frustration and an (extreme!) eagerness to understand the group, I could not help but be bothered about the larger structural issues present: barriers in communication. Sessions at COP26 are mostly in English which really puts those that are from non-English speaking countries at a big disadvantage — whether that be in activism or negotiations. Communication and participation are so closely related, and at a place like COP… it is perhaps the most crucial aspect. 

After that event, Alicia and I headed to our very first plenary focused on discussing what can be done to enhance the scale and effectiveness of climate finance. Plenaries are sessions which are generally available to everyone (for the last two days, it was not open to observers) where they have panelists to discuss a certain issue and provide heads of states, ministers, and (at the end, if there is time) observers the chance to speak. We had the opportunity to sit very closely to the middle of the stage, just behind the Guyana and Guinea-Bissau delegation. Not every country was present — whether that was due to other commitments or rather the inability to send anyone to the conference, it is important to point out that many of these absent delegations included nations from Africa and the Pacific.

Nonetheless, we were still able to recognize some familiar government officials, including Philippine lead negotiator and current Secretary of Finance Carlos Dominguez. Alicia and I had the chance to meet and chat with him where he asked us about our role here, experience, and background (Of course, I had to let him know that I was Filipino as well!)

If you’ve been keeping in touch with my blogs and comments, I have raised my concern about the ways that the Philippine delegation was approaching COP26. Taking this very rare opportunity, I decided to discuss this with Dominguez and his party about their chosen representation. They shared with me that they decided to have a small group out of a “respect for the UK’s requests” and also their goals in bolstering the group with finance officials and experts due to the important discussion of climate finance. 

Alicia and I (Daniel) w/ Philippine Secretary of Finance Carlos Dominguez & Philippine Assistant Secretary of Finance Paola Alvarez

It was a definitely an exciting moment to have had this moment to speak with him and the Philippine party. However, my point underscoring the importance of having representation like climate justice activists, scientists, and Indigenous members still stand.

I had a great time being in this session (will hopefully write a blog getting into the specifics of a plenary!), and being so close to so many influential people… Yet, I can’t help but be disappointed in the other important people that are still left out of these room. Despite great efforts to have a more inclusive COP, issues in representation and participation still remain.

I am trying to make the most of my limited experience here, and will definitely be more in the plenary sessions (and hopefully be able to make a statement and/or ask a question if given the opportunity.) For now, I’ll settle with my five seconds of fame after being featured next to the Nepali lead negotiator during the plenary session. (I can’t seem to find the video — but rest assured, I will add that link as soon as I get access to it.)

The many types of events at a COP

If you’ve been following this blog and all that Alicia & Daniel have been up to this week (which has been a lot!!), you might now be wondering how the Swarthmore delegates choose which activities to pursue while at the conference. And if you haven’t thought about this, it’s worth considering just how massive this annual conference is and how many concurrent events there are at any given time!

At every COP, there are many types of events. Here’s a quick breakdown.

First, there’s the Blue Zone. This very, very large area (often several buildings) can only be accessed with an official badge.

Entry hallway of the COP26 Blue Zone

The Swarthmore delegation has “observer” badges, while other people have “party” badges (which means they are officially part of a country’s negotiating team). Within the Blue Zone, observer delegates only have access to some of the various types of events. At the most formal level, there are plenaries and a number of types of negotiating sessions. Observer delegates can often attend plenaries and sometimes can attend negotiating sessions. However, observers were restricted from attending any of these events during the first two days of COP26 — with the reason given being that it was the World Leaders Summit (with many heads of state in attendance) and there were more restrictive quotas set due to COVID.

COP26 Plenary room

Still within the Blue Zone, there are also other events that are open to all badge types. Many if not most of these occur within pavilions, which are temporary structures rented by countries, NGOs, and others. Each pavilion has its own 2-week slate of events! Pavilions are quite substantial structures themselves, often with space for several dozen people. That said, the size (& therefore cost) of pavilions varies, and this is one of many ways in which there are disparities in access between countries (a bit more on that later).

Another location where events in the Blue Zone occur is the Action Zone, which has the most informal & colorful feel of the space.

Photo of the Action Zone from our first day.

In addition to all of this, there is an entirely different area called the Green Zone. This venue is open to the public; badges are not needed. The Green Zone is about a 15 minute walk or short (electric) bus ride from the Blue Zone. We stopped by the Green Zone this morning and found it to be something like a massive, climate-focused science fair filled with dozens of hands-on science exhibitions and hundreds of local schoolchildren. There are also lectures and film screenings and other neat events occurring in side rooms of this venue. (I don’t have a great photo of the Green Zone yet, but will try to add one to this post soon!)

Finally, there are other big events, often protests, that occur outside of both zones. See here for some initial pictures from The Guardian:

While we’re talking about the COP venue, it’s worth mentioning that accessibility is a huge challenge — and is perhaps more so this year than ever before due to COVID. Challenges started even before COP26 began, with many delegations having a hard time planning for and then traveling to the UK because of vaccination disparities and the requirement of quarantine periods for unvaccinated delegates. (The UK offered to pay for vaccinations & quarantine hotels, but the process has been abysmal.) Another big challenge in planning is that there are limited flights to/from some locations, and so some delegates are needing to stay for abnormally long periods in the UK (or, of course, not coming at all).

There was also a lot of confusion leading right up to the first day of COP26 regarding how daily COVID testing would work. (It turns out we each have to take a rapid test every morning and then present results during our security check-in.) We’ve also heard that official party delegates who remain in quarantine (either because of post-travel requirements or because of several positive cases that have occurred) are having trouble accessing their negotiation sessions virtually because the online platform for delegates is quite terrible. Finally, actually getting inside of the Blue Zone has been a very slow process each morning — with sometimes a multi-hour wait standing in line outside.

As Daniel has mentioned, the Glasgow Climate Dialogues (and many others) have called for a UNFCCC action plan to increase accessibility at future COPs. Given the logistical missteps that have occurred this year, there is unfortunately a long way to go to achieve this extremely important goal.

A Day of Dialogues

Today marks the end of the World Leaders Summit! For context, each day has a theme in which discussions follow — it’ll be focused on finance tomorrow! (check out the Presidency Programme here)

Here is the set of sessions that I decided to attend today (see below). My goal today was two-fold: first, continue learning about the impacts of unequal representation on the ground, while the second was attempting to informally chat with national delegates / party members.

My itinerary for November 2 of COP26

Despite being 10 minutes late, I joined Melissa at event titled: Glasgow Climate Dialogues, where they invited folks to think about how to improve participation by the Global South at COPs in order to hold a “just transition.” They shared with us a communique which includes efforts on access, participation, adaptation, and more. 

“Every effort possible must be made by the COP26 Presidency and others to get delegations from all parties to COP26 – especially from the Global South. This effort must include enhancement in the rollout of vaccines, arrangements for hotel quarantine, adding capacity to visa processing, and ‒ as a fall back ‒ creation of global hubs to enable virtual access where travel is impossible.”

– Excerpt from the Communiqué (Glasgow Climate Dialogues)

One of the panelists, Oxfam UK CEO Danny Sriskandarajah, reified the “moral imperative to include the most marginalized and the future generations” within our climate discussions. While Sriskandarajah’s statement is inspiring and one that I agree with, I often find myself frustrated in thinking about this given that most diversification and inclusion efforts does not necessarily equate to actionable change. This led to me asking:

Q: A larger issue of conferences such at this is that it often requires “formal and technical” and I would even argue a western-centric knowledge to participate… How can institutions like this not just include, but importantly, center these voices to actually be decisive and meaningful?  

Fellow panelists Margaret Naggujja and Julius Ng’oma agreed with my statements, with Ng’oma discussing how the complexities of negotiations at COPs can be detrimental to certain groups. For example, Ng’oma recalls the story of the Malawi delegation finding it difficult to navigate these spaces, adding onto another challenge to their work. Sriskandarajah circled back at the end also agreeing, ending the discussion with a call to action for COPs to have a “participation revolution.” To watch the dialogues (and hear me ask my question!), check out this video: Glasgow Climate Dialogues.

Following this, I had some time in between my next couple of sessions, where I had the chance to interview party members and delegates of South East Asian countries Thailand and Indonesia. We chatted about the difficult and/or ease of getting to COP26, goals and achievements of their respective nations, and also their level of their optimism for COP26. (Side note: I actually interviewed two other European delegates who later revoked their consent to have their thoughts and photos published). Below I share some of the insights from my interviews.

DISCLAIMER: The two members provided their consent for their statements to be summarized in this blog, for their photos to be included, and also wanted to make clear that all of their statements do not necessarily reflect the entire opinion of the delegation.

First, I interviewed Indonesian journalist Jessica Wulandari, who mentioned that she and the rest of the delegates had a surprisingly easy process getting into the UK in terms of getting their VISAs. As a reporter of the Indonesian delegation, she mentioned that her main goal was to keep the Indonesian community engaged throughout the next two weeks, especially on their concerns on international climate funding. Wulandari is referencing the $100 billion climate fund that countries are currently negotiating on how to finance and distribute. Taken all this into consideration, Wulandari remains optimistic for the outcomes that will come from COP26.

For the Thailand delegation, I interviewed Environmental Analyst Wirat Songsri who, unlike Wulandari, mentioned the challenge of attending due to the process of quarantine and financing it. When asked about Songsri’s goals, he cited Thailand Prime Minister’s Prayut Chan-o-cha goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2030, eventually working towards carbon neutrality by 2050. Songsri also remains optimistic in achieving these goals, but highlighted the necessity for international support to reach these efforts.

Admittedly, it was pretty difficult approaching these busy folks and getting them to speak to a random college student standing around with an iPhone in hand taking notes. But I am immensely grateful that they took the time to chat with me. 

Filled with thousands of people everyday, COP26 is increasingly overwhelming to navigate. Although my status as an observer means that there are (many!) limits to my participation, I am still trying to make use of my time here by connecting with people who mainstream media do not often hear from. It was an extremely jam packed day today (and I can only expect the next couple of days to get busier). While I take a rest after today, please enjoy this photo of Alicia being told to distribute headphones for an event at the World Health Organization pavilion. 

Alicia passing out headphones at a World Health Organization event

Day2: Environmental Justice, Communities, and Imagination.

Hi all!

Even though this is my first blog, you might already know from Daniel that so far we have mostly attended events at the pavilions.

Today was a similar day. We could not get into the plenary sessions (where the negotiations happen) since they were restricted to mostly official party delegates. The reasoning we were given was that the capacity of the site is limited and because Monday and Tuesday were dedicated to the “World leaders summit” with leaders from all over the world (the important people) there were no spots left for observers. The hope and communication we got is that starting tomorrow, that should get better and we should have more chances to get into the plenary sessions and follow the negotiations more closely.

Overall, there have been a lot of complaints regarding the transparency and lack of communication at this COP, even way weeks before it started.

The entrance to the area where plenaries happen being restricted to party delegates

Anyway, we all filled our schedules for the day with events in the pavilions. I started the day attending a roundtable discussion at the US Center pavilion titled “Equitable Deep Decarbonization: A Roundtable Discussing the Historic Justice40 Initiative.” They talked about the Justice40 initiative of Biden’s plan that that “aims to deliver 40 percent of the overall benefits of federal investments in climate and sustainable transportation to disadvantaged communities” and the importance of transparency and engaging communities in conversations so that solutions come from the bottom up. Something to note though is that at least from the sessions I attended so far at the US Center pavilion, they don’t open up the space for questions. Overall, the session was good and I appreciated how they highlighted the importance of putting these communities at the center. However, as long as they only share what they want to share, I’m going to remain a bit skeptical, especially when the conversation is about how inclusive something is.

Equitable Deep Decarbonization: A Roundtable Discussing the Historic Justice40 Initiative at the US Center Pavilion.

Another event Daniel and I attended was at the WHO pavilion titled “Achieving the Paris Agreement and preventing the next Pandemic: the case for transformative, climate-resilient and healthy food systems.” They mostly highlighted the need to shift to a new food system and diets that are less meat-intense, end industrial animal farming, and shift to agroecological systems. Something they stressed after a question Daniel asked with regards to cultural considerations was that even though the goal of reducing meat consumption is global, their more specific target is the global north and do not mean to impose diets on communities who have their specific cultures and whose impact are minimal.

“Achieving the Paris Agreement and preventing the next Pandemic: the case for transformative, climate-resilient and healthy food systems.” hosted by WHO

The next event, and in fact my favorite of the day, was hosted by delegates of Costa Rica at the NDC pavilion. The session was about Costa Rica’s approach to climate change and was called “Transformative Climate Communication-Short Stories and Climate Conversations.” They mentioned that they believe in science and that all plans and solutions should be based on science but even science has limitations and that’s when imagination comes into play, to complement science and craft solutions. They then showed a video of several writers from Costa Rica reading poetry and tales about the world in 2050, allowing us to dream of a different world with good outcomes and imagine a world of possibilities. Listening to the stories filled me with joy and inspiration (also felt good to attend a session in my first language, Spanish.) I think there is so much power in that art to inspire and boost real action using the science available to us.

Writers reading the tales they wrote as part of the “Costa Rica 2050 tales” book

The stories read are actually not public yet as they are part of a book that will be officially published at the end of the year as part of a project from the Climate Change Office from the Environmental Ministry. If anyone is interested, the book is called “Costa Rica 2050 tales of change” and features the work of several authors. They also mentioned that with the goal of being inclusive they tried to incorporate as many authors from different backgrounds as possible such as indigenous, LGBTQ+, and rural communities but also acknowledge that the way everyone experiences climate change is different and not one perspective could be the same as others. Another project that Costa Rica featured was the “Climate Conversations.” The idea is basically to promote communication and space for conversations about climate change. They brought up the point of how even though people know about climate change they don’t talk about it and if they don’t talk about it, it’s harder for them to raise their voices. They also mentioned that inclusivity played a role in the creation of the guidelines and methodologies they created for the discussions as they were co-created with different communities.

Costa Rica presenting their upcoming book “Tales of Change”
Costa Rica presenting their upcoming book “Tales of Change”

To end the day, we had the opportunity to briefly meet with Swarthmore alum and a former professor who are part of the US official delegation. Among other things, we discussed how this COP is different from previous ones, delegation sizes, how to get the best out of our time at COP26 among other things.

Oh and before heading to the train station back to our hotel, I found someone from Paraguay (my home country) who’s also attending COP26 as an observer with her organization. I am very happy I get to make these connections (found 2 Paraguayans yesterday too who are actually party delegates) with people working on Climate Change issues back home, especially since we don’t have a lot of youth representation.

Meeting a fellow Paraguayan

Today, just like yesterday, was a good day filled with inspiration and connections. Hope tomorrow we get the chance to follow the negotiations more closely. Stay tuned!

Waiting in the never-ending line to enter the blue zone