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Britain‘s Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of the COP26 UN climate summit in Glasgow on Monday. Photo: AP

COP26 global climate talks open to cries of betrayal, blame

  • COP26 aims to keep alive a target of capping global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels
  • But the task will not be easy. Britain’s Boris Johnson opened the summit by saying the world is strapped to a ‘doomsday device’
A UN conference seen as critical to averting the most disastrous effects of climate change got under way on Monday, its task made even more daunting by the failure of major industrial nations to agree ambitious new commitments.
The COP26 conference in the Scottish city of Glasgow opened a day after G20 big economies failed to commit to a 2050 target to halt net carbon emissions – a deadline widely cited as a condition for preventing the most extreme global warming.

Instead, their talks in Rome only recognised “the key relevance” of halting net emissions “by or around mid-century”, set no timetable for phasing out coal at home and watered down promises to cut emissions of methane, another greenhouse gas.

“While I welcome the G20’s recommitment to global solutions, I leave Rome with my hopes unfulfilled – but at least they are not buried,” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said on Twitter.

More than a 1,000 delegates queued for over an hour to attend Monday’s opening speeches, with world leaders set to defend their climate change records and in some cases make new pledges at the start of two weeks of negotiations that conference host Britain is billing as make-or-break.

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“Humanity has long since run down the clock on climate change. It’s one minute to midnight and we need to act now,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the opening ceremony, adding that the world is strapped to a “doomsday device”. “If we don’t get serious about climate change today, it will be too late for our children to do so tomorrow,” he said.
But discord among some of the world’s biggest emitters about how to cut back on coal, oil and gas, and help poorer countries adapt to global warming will not make the task easier. At the G20, US President Joe Biden singled out China and Russia, neither of which is sending its leader to Glasgow, for not bringing proposals to the table.

“The disappointment relates to the fact that Russia and … China basically didn’t show up in terms of any commitments to deal with climate change,” Biden, who faces domestic resistance to his climate ambitions, told reporters at the G20.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose country is by far the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases ahead of the United States, was to address the conference on Monday in a written statement, according to an official schedule.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia, one of the world’s top three oil producers along with the US and Saudi Arabia, dropped plans to participate in any talks live by video link, the Kremlin said.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said he had decided to stay away after Britain failed to meet Ankara’s demands on security arrangements and protocol, the Turkish broadcaster NTV reported.

Delegates queue outside the COP26 UN Climate Summit in Glasgow on Monday. Photo: AP

Less senior delegates – many of them held up on Sunday by disruptions to the rail service between London and Glasgow – were stuck for over an hour in a bottleneck outside the venue to present proof of a negative Covid-19 test and gain access.

UN chief Guterres said the summit must act to “save humanity” and protect the planet, warning that currently “we are digging our own graves”.

“It’s time to say: enough,” he told world leaders at the conference. “Enough of brutalising biodiversity. Enough of killing ourselves with carbon. Enough of treating nature like a toilet. Enough of burning and drilling and mining our way deeper. We are digging our own graves.”

Delayed by a year because of the Covid-19 pandemic, COP26 aims to keep alive a target of capping global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels – a level scientists say would avoid its most destructive consequences.

To do that, the conference needs to secure more ambitious pledges to reduce emissions, lock in billions in climate-related financing, and finish the rules to implement the 2015 Paris Agreement, signed by nearly 200 countries.

Explainer | Handy guide to key facts and terms at COP26 Glasgow

Existing pledges to cut emissions would see the planet’s average temperature rise 2.7 degrees this century, which the United Nations says would supercharge the destruction that climate change is already causing by intensifying storms, exposing more people to deadly heat and floods, killing coral reefs and destroying natural habitats.

Richer countries have failed to meet a US$100 billion annual target for climate finance by 2020. Poorer nations like India want more cash to move past their reliance on coal and other fossil fuels.

“As citizens across the planet, we urge you to face up to the climate emergency. Not next year. Not next month. Now,” Swedish activist Greta Thunberg tweeted, asking her millions of followers to sign an open letter accusing leaders of betrayal.

Covid-19 will make this UN climate conference different from any other, as 25,000 delegates must wear masks, socially distance and test negative for Covid-19 each day.

Two days of speeches by world leaders starting on Monday will be followed by technical negotiations. Any deal is likely to be struck hours or even days after the event’s November 12 finish date.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: challenges mount as COP26 opens