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‘A bizarre experience’: young campaigners bemoan levity at COP26

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Greetings from Glasgow where the sun has continued to shine — against all odds.

The debate yesterday was dominated by two key themes: whether today will deliver demonstrations (it is billed as “Youth Day”, in honour of the Fridays For Future movement, as we describe below); and what will happen next with fossil fuels, following Thursday’s debates on the COP26 “Energy Day”.

Unsurprisingly, coal dominated the latter debate, with more than 40 countries signing a flagship global agreement to slash coal use — but without the all-important participation of the US, China and Australia. Green activists were furious about this, and the fact that the initial target to remove coal “by 2030” has been watered down to “as soon as possible” after that date. Check out our piece below about the American reaction.

Another interesting twist was the state of nuclear. Rafael Mariano Grossi, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, told me in a public COP26 interview that the European green taxonomy was poised to define nuclear as green. “It will happen,” he said.

Critics might howl in horror; particularly because Grossi also insists that nuclear is safe (when he told the audience that nobody died of radiation from the Fukushima accident, the comment sparked angry guffaws). But Grossi insists that rising energy prices have changed the public mood. Maybe so: another striking development yesterday was that European unions issued a public letter backing nuclear power. A sign of a changing (political) climate? Read on.

Day 4 in brief

  • The chances of limiting global warming to the goals of the Paris accord are “close to zero”, Fatih Birol, head of the International Energy Agency, told the Financial Times. “Without addressing this problem, the chances to reach our 1.5C target is close to zero,” Birol said. “I hope all the countries are going to be part of a deal where they can take these early steps for early retirements or repurposing their coal plants.”

  • “Climate change action is about to put corporate auditors under the uncomfortable — and unaccustomed — glare of the spotlight,” writes Gillian Tett in her latest opinion column. The pressure stems from a group of asset managers who threatened this week to vote against companies’ audit firms for failing to consider climate risks.

Explore the FT Global Gallery: COP26 Edition, a digital exhibition that reflects the themes and goals of this year’s high-stakes summit featuring multimedia interpretations of FT journalism, thought-provoking films, interactive data visualisation and exclusively commissioned art.

Talking point

In my recent conversations with business people about the growing intensity of the global climate debate, most ascribe a major role to a single activist movement: Fridays for Future, spearheaded by the Swedish campaigner Greta Thunberg.

Several of the group’s young leaders are here at COP26, and I took the opportunity to speak to two of them: Mitzi Jonelle Tan and Dominika Lasota, from the Philippines and Poland respectively.

Both were uneasy with what they considered an inappropriate levity among some attending the climate conference in Glasgow. “To be honest I find this summit such a bizarre experience. There’s so much detachment from reality,” Lasota said.

“You see world leaders toasting each other and laughing,” Tan added. “Are you not here to work? Do you not understand the urgency of what’s happening?”

We spoke after a welter of high-profile pledges in the early days of the conference, including intergovernmental commitments to tackle deforestation and methane emissions, and an announcement from the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero that $130tn of private capital was committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.

But Tan and Lasota worried that political and business leaders were shying away from disruptive structural changes that could set the global economy on a truly sustainable path. “We call for systemic changes,” Lasota said. “We’re often told that it’s impossible to make these macro-level changes. But it is possible.”

While some businesses have been keen to engage publicly with Fridays for Future leaders, both women said that they were wary of efforts to use them for “youthwashing”: companies using young activists to put forward a progressive image, without delivering substantive change. “Now it’s trendy to listen to young people: you invite us, take a photo, put it online — but nothing comes of it,” Tan said.

They said they were scrutinising the details of companies’ net zero pledges, with a particular focus on those that relied heavily on the unregulated carbon offset market. “A lot of private institutions want to direct money into carbon offsets and say that this is the answer to the climate crisis,” Tan said. “Really, it’s just an excuse to keep emitting.”

While Tan welcomed the emphasis on increased climate-related international assistance, she said the skew towards loans rather than grants was worrisome. It forced developing countries into additional debt, she said, as they grappled with the effects of a crisis caused mainly by the rich world.

With the youth climate movement set to remain a major force in this conversation, it’s worth checking out Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate’s Lunch with the FT this week, and this opinion column from the British 19-year-old campaigner Mya-Rose Craig.

What do you think of the arguments raised by these and other young climate activists? Let us know at moralmoneyreply@ft.com. (Simon Mundy)

Quote of the day

‘I’m compelled to single out the World Bank as an ongoing underperformer [on climate change],’ said Selwin Hart © AFP via Getty Images

Normally multilateral organisations avoid taking potshots at each other. But there is mounting anger at the UN and among many national governments about the World Bank’s perceived failure to bring its own lending portfolio in line with climate change goals and deliver innovative blended finance products to support the climate transition. World Bank officials have tried to brush off these attacks. But they look likely to grow in the months ahead.

“I’m compelled to single out the World Bank as an ongoing underperformer [on climate change],” said Selwin Hart, special adviser to the UN secretary-general on climate action.

Beyond Glasgow: The worldview

Coal being loaded on to trucks in Datong, China
© AFP via Getty Images

A COP26 effort to “consign coal to history” has been undermined by the fact that the US, China, India and Australia did not sign the pact. 

It is easy to see why coal is so hard to quit. China relies on coal for 65 per cent of power generation, according to S&P Global Platts Analytics. In India, coal fuels 71 per cent of electricity.

Fuel consumption has rebounded from its pandemic low, and CO2 emissions from coal are expected to jump above 2019 levels, according to a November 3 report from the Global Carbon Project. The rebound was “primarily because of increased coal use in China”, the report stated.

However, there are some reasons to applaud the COP coal announcement — one being that five of the top 20 countries that rely on coal for fuel signed the agreement: South Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, Poland and Ukraine.

The consequences of coal reliance are becoming increasingly apparent in real time. Reuters reported yesterday on unpublished, state-backed research that suggested more than 5,000 citizens died annually in South Africa’s “coal belt” because the government had not fully enforced air quality rules.

With financial support from former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg expanding to more countries to help them cut coal, hopefully the biggest coal users can make the transition to cleaner fuels — and as quickly as possible.

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