Former U.S. President Barack Obama told the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, on Monday that world leaders at the summit “have not done nearly enough” to address the climate crisis.
Speaking during the second full week of the talks, known as COP26, Obama said that most nations failed to meet the commitments made in the 2015 Paris climate conference agreement and that the world is nowhere near where it needs to be in confronting climate change.
He said it was “particularly discouraging” that the leaders of China and Russia — two of the largest emitters — declined to attend the Glasgow conference, saying both nations have demonstrated what “appears to be a dangerous lack of urgency” on climate change.
China is the world’s biggest carbon emitter. In a statement to the conference last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping called on other nations to “step up cooperation” and act on climate targets. Xi, however, offered no new commitments.
Obama said advanced economies such as the United States and Europe need to lead on this issue, but so do China, Russia and India. “We can’t afford anybody on the sidelines,” he said.
He also argued it was essential to listen to people who objected to swift action on climate change.
“We actually have to listen to their objections and understand the reluctance of some ordinary people to see their countries move too fast on climate change. We have to understand their realities and work with them so that serious action on climate change doesn’t adversely impact them,” he said.
He added, “We’ve got to persuade the guy who has got to drive to his factory job every day, can’t afford a Tesla, and might not be able to pay the rent or feed his family if gas prices go up.”
The United States is the second-biggest greenhouse gas emitter after China.
Call to protest
More than 100,000 climate-action activists from across the world took to the streets of Glasgow on Saturday to express their frustration at what’s been agreed to so far at the COP26 climate talks.
As far as they’re concerned, the new pledges made during the summit — to cut carbon and methane emissions, end deforestation, phase out coal, and provide more financing for poorer countries most vulnerable to extreme weather — are just “eye candy,” falling far short of what’s needed to curb global warming.
Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, who was among the protesters, has described the two-week summit as more “blah blah blah” and called it a “failure.” She told clamorous youth protesters outside the venue that the conference has turned into “a global north greenwash festival.”
Others worry, though, that in the rush to make climate action pledges, Western governments may be going too fast with decarbonizing and risk losing the support of their own populations by failing to take into account the economic impact of the monumental shifts envisaged.
Opinion polls suggest that across the globe, overwhelming majorities of people see climate change as an emergency requiring dramatic action. But some polls in recent weeks have also suggested that when people are told what the costs to them may be to curb global warming, they are reluctant to shoulder the financial burden.
A survey in Britain published Sunday suggested that less than half of the British people were willing to pay thousands of pounds to make their homes greener to help meet net-zero emission goals outlined by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Those polled were asked their opinions on green policies to slash emissions both before and after hearing about the estimated upfront costs of insulating their homes and switching from natural gas boilers for heating to heat pumps. In the survey conducted for British think tank Onward by pollster JL Partners, 50% backed the idea of better insulation for homes, double glazing and switching to heat pumps. But when they were provided with the estimated cost of $11,000 per household, support trailed away, with just 26% agreeing.
“Millions of voters, broadly supportive of the ‘cleaner earth’ agenda, are wondering how much of the burden of transitioning to a low-carbon, low-emission economy will fall on them, when they’re already struggling to make ends meet,” economist and newspaper columnist Liam Halligan wrote Monday in The Telegraph.
Financing the switch
Key themes at the summit have included how to fund the transition away from fossil fuel dependency to renewable, sustainable energy and how to finance projects to make countries more resilient to extreme weather. The discussion about costs and how to share them between governments (via taxation), consumers, households and the private sector has also been featured.
Last week, major banks, investors and insurers pledged trillions in green funding in a coordinated commitment to incorporate carbon emissions into their investment and lending decisions.
The United Nations’ Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, made up of more than 450 financial institutions across 45 countries and managing assets valued at $130 trillion, has committed to its program to cut carbon emissions and fund investments needed for new greener technologies.
Unveiled last week by U.N. climate envoy Mark Carney, the funding can take the form of bank loans and investments by venture capitalists, private-equity firms, mutual funds, endowments, and other big investors that buy stocks and bonds. They would still earn profits while shifting funds toward investments that help reduce carbon emissions.
“These seemingly arcane but essential changes to the plumbing of finance can move and are moving climate changes from the fringes to the forefront and transforming the financial system in the process,” said Carney, a former head of the central banks of England and Canada. “The architecture of the global financial system has been transformed to deliver net zero,” Carney said.
“The gap between what governments have and what the world needs is large” to finance a global energy transition and reach the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in Glasgow after the announcement of the finance measures. “And the private sector needs to play a bigger role.”
Climate activists have decried the pledge, saying it is just another big promise that won’t be observed.
“Global leaders can no longer trust financial institutions to regulate themselves,” Veronica Oakeshott of Global Witness, an international nongovernmental organization, said in a statement.
Some industry analysts and economists say that the private sector plans are far from concrete, and that significant problems remain on how to measure the carbon footprint of investment portfolios and align those measurements across international financial markets. Of particular concern is how to verify the accuracy of what banks and investors report.
Others worry that financial firms are there to maximize profits for clients and shareholders and that they risk losing customers or breaching their fiduciary obligations if they fail to maintain good returns. It remains unclear at this stage how profitable green investments will be.
There are also worries that the fossil fuel sector will see further divestments by lenders and investors eager to reduce their carbon footprint, which will boost energy costs for consumers as global demand for natural gas and oil continues to rise. Fossil fuel investments are already insufficient to meet future energy demands.
That, in turn, has contributed to the current global energy crunch and record-high energy prices for households and businesses, say industry commentators.
Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.