Bangladeshi veteran of UN climate talks fears COP26 will fail the world's poorest

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 1 November 2021 18:53 GMT

Flood-affected women are seen standing in a chest-deep water in front of their house in Jamalpur, Bangladesh, July 21, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

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Slow action to cut emissions and deliver finance means Glasgow summit will likely fall short of keeping 1.5C goal alive and protecting vulnerable people, warns Saleemul Huq

* Climate summit logistics favour rich, but wild weather hits all

* Failure to deliver climate finance for vulnerable 'a farce'

* Youth and big-emitting developing nations start to tip balance

By Laurie Goering

GLASGOW, Nov 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - For top Bangladeshi scientist Saleemul Huq, the inequities of climate change are hard to avoid - even at the COP26 U.N. talks in Glasgow.

Since arriving for the crunch negotiations, he's made a long daily commute to the conference venue by train from his hotel in Edinburgh - the nearest place he could afford a room, as the summit sent prices rocketing in Glasgow.

"Last week, with the floods, it was taking me several hours with cancelled trains. That's loss and damage from climate change" - a problem that now reaches well beyond traditionally climate-vulnerable countries like Bangladesh, he said.

Huq, 69, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Dhaka, has attended every one of the 26 COP meetings held since the first in Berlin, in 1995.

Over the years his hair has gradually turned white and he's swung from depression - "I didn't get out of bed for 48 hours after Copenhagen", when efforts to seal a global climate deal in 2009 failed - to joy at winning the Paris Agreement in 2015.

This year, Huq - an elder statesman of the talks - doesn't see a lot to like, and he's angry.

A view of U.N. climate talks veteran Saleemul Huq at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, Nov. 1, 2021. Photo courtesy Saleemul Huq

Emissions cuts promised by the world's biggest climate polluters so far will add up to a dangerous 2.7-degree Celsius rise in average global temperatures - far above the more ambitious 1.5C goal of the Paris deal, backed by scientists.

Wealthy countries that promised to deliver $100 billion a year in funding from 2020 to help poorer, vulnerable nations grow cleanly and adapt to climate threats - an urgent priority this decade - now say they will not meet that goal until 2023.

"That's like saying there's a cheque in the mail that we'll get in 2023. It's a farce," Huq said, sipping a cup of tea in the Glasgow conference centre as suited negotiators rushed by.

Meanwhile, the UK host government of COP26, he noted, is licensing new oil field exploration and reducing taxes on passenger flights - an important driver of climate change - even as it calls on other countries for swifter emissions reductions.

That doesn't add up to the kind of atmosphere needed for COP26 to deliver on its goal to "keep 1.5 alive", to protect countries like his already being battered by storms, floods, droughts and sea level rise, Huq said.

"My sense is this will be worse than Copenhagen," he warned of the expected COP26 outcome. "I'm predicting failure."

But what happens in the bubble of the U.N. talks - where world leaders fly in on private jets to give brief speeches about the urgent need for climate action - is less important than what is already in motion elsewhere, he said.

From youth leading protests to cities and states scaling up low-carbon shifts and businesses becoming greener, "the real action is happening outside the Blue Zone," he said, referring to the main venue for the U.N. talks.

"We needed governments to agree the Paris Agreement - but we don't need governments to implement it. We can do that," he added - even if some of the rules set to be determined at COP26 could make that much easier.

U.S. cities and states, for example, drove climate action while former President Donald Trump blocked federal progress.

"It's important to set the rules - but it's orders of magnitude less important than what people do out in the world," he said.

CHANGES AFOOT

He does see some changes emerging that give him hope.

The first is that nations such as China and India - fast-growing big emitters that once rated climate action as far less important than their economic development - now see cutting emissions as in their own interest.

"China and India used to be very defensive, saying we have a lot of coal and we want to use it like you did," he said.

But their own scientists now have made clear the two countries are at high risk from climate change - "and the governments know that", Huq said.

He also sees the traditional divide between developed and developing countries at the talks shifting, particularly as climate impacts begin to slam rich nations as well as poor ones, with about 200 dead in floods in Germany this year.

The new balance, he said, is between generations, particularly as young people - many of them far more environmentally aware - begin taking on negotiating roles.

"Young people are out in the street with Greta, and old people are here in the Blue Zone giving speeches and so far letting down their children and grandchildren," he said. "Hopefully over time that will change."

One positive development, he said, was the decision by Italy - the co-host of COP26 - to turn a traditional pre-COP meeting in late September and early October into a youth-led gathering.

Finishing up his tea, he adjusts his blue suit - "my battle armour" - and prepares to go back to monitoring the negotiations, set to end on Nov. 12.

"I spend three weeks each year on COP - and 49 weeks at my day job, working with vulnerable communities to help them adapt to the impacts of climate change," he said.

"I am always trying to shift the needle in favour of the poorest people," he added.

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(Reporting by Laurie Goering @lauriegoering; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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