OPINION: Promises, promises…

I promise that I’ll replace my gas boiler with an air source heat pump. I promise to shop more sustainably and with a lower carbon footprint, and I promise to donate more to help the disadvantaged.

I feel quite righteous just writing these words, but that is what they are. Just words. Who can say when — or even if — they will translate into any meaningful action?

This, simplistically put, is proving to be the main issue of contention with many countries’ nationally determined contributions (NDCs) at COP26 climate summit upon which so many hopes have been pinned.

NDCs are at the heart of the Paris Agreement and the achievement of its long-term goals to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

NDCs embody the efforts that will be made by each country to reduce its own greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to the global effort to control climate change and mitigate its impacts.

However, a stated commitment to achieving Net Zero by 2050 — albeit a praiseworthy ambition — means little without specifics and details that are based on science, rather than political expediency or rhetoric.

Almost as worrying as the absence of the leaders of some of the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitters from Glasgow is that so many countries’ NDCs are lacking concrete plans on how they plan to decarbonise and reduce emissions by the end of this decade.

Calls for transparency and climate accountability are increasingly heard from developing nations and non-governmental organisations, as they urge the G20 and developed world to reveal specifics of their decarbonisation plans and commit to more funding for adaptation and mitigation.

COP26 President Alok Sharma last week said he was “cautiously optimistic” regarding success at the latest climate change summit even while expressing “deep concern” that the full $100 billion pledged annually to global south nations on the frontline of the climate crisis has yet to materialise.

There was also the suspicion, heard frequently in the halls of the Glasgow venue and on the streets outside, that natural resources heavyweights were playing hardball behind closed doors.

This accusation was sometimes targeted against nations. The Global Strategic Communications Council noted Australia, Brazil and Saudi Arabia — “three countries with slick negotiating teams” — as standing accused by campaigners of stopping fossil fuel reductions being mentioned in texts and of blocking efforts to close loopholes in carbon markets.

A mood of cynicism could also be detected among the watching global audience, with many convinced that the fossil-fuel industry's discreet but ample presence at the event was more about protecting the value of their assets than driving change.

Meanwhile, ministerial delegations from developing nations were complaining that they were being side-lined around the negotiating table.

Despite these frustrations, the world has been offered fresh promises at COP26.

Although we have not yet seen the final agreements at the time of writing, the outcome will probably offer promises which, on the face of it, are enough to keep global warming within the targeted 1.5 degrees Celsius increase.

Attention will then shift to whether those ‘promises, promises’ will be honoured. It is hard to be optimistic.

(This is an Upstream Opinion article.)