8 Empty Promises & Hypocrisies – An Asian Perspective on COP26

By Ronald Leung 22 November, 2021

CWR's Leung share how hypocrisies by developed countries means Asia needs to step up on the race to resilience

Pledges from COP26 are either failed as the world is still heading to 2.7°C, recycled as the ending deforestation bill was first signed in 1992, or greenwashed as no obligations are assigned to signatories of the methane pledge
Calling for end coal but not oil & gas, making China the scapegoat while neglecting domestic climate failures & spinning pledges to look good are common in developed countries yet are hypocrisies that hamper climate actions
Rich countries are also not fulfilling their climate finance & private sectors are spinning; with climate threats advancing & Asia bearing the brunt, we need to step up & lead the race to decarbonisation & resilience

Depending on whether you were Boris Johnson or Greta Thunberg, COP26 is either a huge success or an utter failure. We get why Mr Johnson wants to brag – there are some encouraging pledges and agreements coming out this year. Yet, we have to agree with Greta – these promises/pledges are just a bunch of “blah blah blah” until countries actually deliver on them.

Inconsistencies & walking the talk & the under delivering on promises so far does not add to the hope-meter

Based on underwhelming new targets and hypocrisies we saw at COP26, there appears to be no plausible pathway to keep warming at 1.5°C by the end of the century; the optimistic scenario is at 1.8°C, just falling within the 2°C threshold.  We wish this was not so but inconsistencies and walking the talk and the under delivering on promises so far does not add to the hope-meter.

We are walking into a more water insecure world and if we are not careful, trigger ice tipping points that could change weather as we know it. We need to take a long hard look at our actions and start correcting our mistakes to avoid a grim future – we can start by tackling and making good on these 8 empty promises & hypocrisies:

1. Failing promises: the world is behind on its climate targets

The 1.5°C target of Paris Agreement was reaffirmed in COP26 and now the frequency of revising NDCs has shortened from five years to every year. Albeit progress, should we be celebrating?

What countries are actually doing point to a 2.7°C future…

According to Climate Action Tracker’s (CAT) report, there’s a credibility gap. Even though countries have promised to keep warming at “well below 2°C” in Paris six years ago, what they are actually doing point to a 2.7°C (midpoint of range 2.0-3.6°C) future instead. According to CAT, “policy implementation on the ground is advancing at a snail’s pace”.

This is worrying because at 2.7°C weather as we know it could change drastically due to a shutdown of the AMOC, the driver of ocean currents in the Atlantic.

…& 2030 targets remain totally inadequate

Having net-zero targets by 2050/60/70 are musts but at this eleventh hour, it’s 2030 targets that matter … and these “remain totally inadequate”.  If we manage to fully implementing all 2030 targets, we will end up at a 2.4°C (midpoint of range 1.9-3.0°C) world – and that’s a big IF. We are clearly cutting it fine and playing with fire.

So be prudent and start ramping up adaptation efforts to protect ourselves from advancing climate threats, especially when new pledges touted at this COP are merely repackaged version of old ones or lack of concrete details…

2. Old pledges to end deforestation dressed up and touted as a new commitment

The pledge to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030 signed by 110 countries was championed by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson as a “landmark” commitment. But wait, haven’t we been here before?

In 2014, 39 nations signed the New York Declaration on Forests to halve the rate of loss of natural forests by 2020 and end deforestation by 2030. This agreement failed – countries did not meet the first goal and are not going to meet the second, according to the progress assessment.

To add to déjà vu, the pledge “halve the rate of loss of forests by 2020” was actually first included in the Aichi Declaration in 1992! And guess what – UN lamented last year that among Aichi’s 20 targets, not one was fully met.

History shows us that they are better at announcing than delivering on deforestation targets

Perhaps Johnson believes in third time lucky, but the rest of us are not buying it – history shows us that they are better at announcing than delivering on deforestation targets. Although the Glasgow pledge has improved in including key countries and providing additional finance, the lack of proper enforcement mechanisms points to yet another cycle of disappointment.

Upcycling the same pledge as a new commitment is the only environmentally friendly element

We must learn from our past mistakes and put in the hard work to address issues which caused past pledges to fail, not just pile new pledges on top of old ones. Otherwise upcycling the same pledge over and over as a new “landmark” commitment is perhaps the only environmentally friendly element in this fiasco.

3. Methane emissions pledge without individual responsibility = greenwashing

Even if ambitious pledges are indeed new and not upcycled, they are still “blah blah blah” if no specific targets are set out. The methane emissions-reduction pledge signed by over 90 countries risks becoming one.

Signatories have no obligation to cut their methane emissions by targeted amounts…

…it smells like another NATO

Hailed as another “landmark” commitment in COP26, the pledge’s signatories say they are going to be part of a global effort to have a global reduction of 30%”. You can argue that this way of pledging increases the willingness for countries to sign as signatories have no obligation to cut their methane emissions by targeted amounts. But to me, it smells like another “greenwashing” commitment – or as Singaporeans put it: NATO, aka No Action Talk Only.

Another evidence of NATO is that countries are still doubling down their investment on the oil & gas sector, a key contributor of methane. This brings us to the next point – why are we just ending coal? Where’s the call to end oil & gas?

4. Why end coal but not oil & gas … yet another climate injustice?

The battle to end coal was fought till the very end at COP26 with India being blamed for watering down the final language from “phase out” to “phase down” at the last minute. China was also the other “baddie” on this front – with COP26 President Alok Sharma lamenting “China and India will have to explain themselves”.

Why are we not talking about phasing out oil & gas?

Sure, developing countries like China and India should be more ambitious in phasing out coal. But why are we not talking about phasing out oil & gas? After all, ending coal will only deliver a 33% cut of total carbon emissions, whilst oil & gas account for 47% of total carbon emissions?

Is it because the G7 only produce 8% coal vs. ~25% oil & 29% gas?

Given this, why does the COP26 final agreement have no explicit reference to oil & gas? Is it because the G7 only produce 8% of global coal compared to nearly a quarter of global oil and 29% of global gas?

Moreover, casting developing countries like China and India as culprits for not-ambitious-enough agreement is unfair as it neglects the fact that they have much lower emissions per capita (below left) and historical emissions (below right). Shouldn’t rich countries (which make up most of the historical emissions) take the lead and set an example in ending oil & gas instead of continuing to subsidise the sector? Where’s the climate justice in this?

Whilst promising, BOGA only represents <1% of global output

Sadly, as history tells us, developed countries are only paying lip services to buy time for more drilling and burning of fossil fuels. But there is hope ahead – some countries have started BOGA (Beyond Oil & Gas Alliance). Whilst promising, this alliance only represents less than 1% of global output as rich oil & gas producers such as the US, UK, Norway and Australia sit on the side-lines.

Notice the subtle difference in framing – why is it “End coal” & not “Beyond Coal”?

Also, notice the subtle difference in the framing of the campaign – why is it “End coal” and not “Beyond Coal”?  At every turn, coal is made to look worse than oil & gas. So while hopeful, we remain sceptical, especially since some appear to be only interested in playing the blame game…

5. Making China the scapegoat distracts but won’t solve climate problems

China has become the favourite scapegoat at COP26 – from President Biden accusing President Xi for not showing up to Prime Minister Morrison’s gaff (or was it?) saying “tackle China” instead of “tackle climate change”. Were these tactics to shift the spotlight to China so that no one will pay attention to their own climate flaws and laggard/ hypocritical actions?

US has not upgraded its grid since… well forever

Comedian John Oliver put it succinctly: while China has become one of the most advanced countries in Ultra-High Voltage (UHV) transmission line, US has not upgraded its grid since… well forever. These outdated grids cannot withstand advancing climate risks – prolonged blackouts are already happening in Texas, California, Connecticut and more. This lack of investment also hampers the transition to renewable energy.

Things look even grimmer for Australia as it is one of the worst performers in climate actions, ranking #58 out of 61 countries in Germanwatch’s Climate Change Performance Index. By the way, the US ranked #55 while India and China are at #10 and #37 respectively.

Massive gas projects in Australia supported by the govt = GHGs from 46 coal fired power plants > China’s 43 planned coal plants

The truth is out there … this Honest Government Ad exposed how massive gas projects in Australia supported by the government will emit greenhouse gases equivalent to 46 coal fired power plants, three more than the 43 that China plans to add. Bear in mind that China has 1.4 billion people to provide electricity to while Australia only has 26 million.

Some might argue that Australia is merely exporting these gases so emissions shouldn’t be counted… but by the same token which countries do not import made-in-China goods? Is the difference between exporting gas and exporting goods so drastic that it warrants adding carbon emissions to one but not another?

Clearly more time is spent on “spinning” for the media than it is on actually tackling climate change

While the media was all over China’s climate hypocrisies, Australia’s flew under the radar – clearly more time is spent on “spinning” for the media than it is on actually tackling climate change. Or perhaps the media was already biased from the start; and it’s not just China. Despite India watering down the language to phase down coal, it also said in negotiations that all fossil fuels must be phased down in an equitable manner (kudos to Guardian for reporting this!) – where was the mainstream media coverage of that?

6. COP26 host UK spins to look good … while Indonesia tells it like it is on deforestation

After signing the pledge to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation, the UK government triumphantly declared the “end of deforestation by 2030”. This festive mood was quickly dissipated when Indonesia rebuked the claim by saying that it was “false and misleading”.

Indonesia thought the “end of deforestation” made it sound like they would not be cutting down any trees whereas its pledge was that it will keep its forest cover steady by replanting trees after cutting them down. Basically, the UK didn’t make a clear distinction between “end of deforestation” and “net deforestation” – this is worrying because we would hope it understands the different between “end of carbon emissions” and “carbon neutrality”/ “net zero”.

Such wordplay and pledge spinning to look good can be dangerous as it gives the public a false sense that we are reining in emissions when we are not. This worries us because rich countries (which dominate the climate agenda) should be encouraging countries to make promises that they can actually keep.

Instead, the UK is clearly signally to the rest of the world that it is OK use words to make your targets sound way better than they actually are. Oh and let’s not forget that it is also OK to set targets and totally not deliver on them …

7. Never delivering on promises is OK … financial help from developed countries still MIA

The tendency for developed countries to make promises that are not kept is most evident in climate finance. In 2009, they promised to provide US$100bn/yr to developing countries by 2020; they still cannot fulfil this pledge to this day – only US$80bn flowed as of 2019; this amount is far from enough for developing countries to meet their mitigation and adaptation needs.

To make up for their failure, rich countries have simply made another promise in COP26 to provide climate finance of around US$500bn by 2025 to developing countries. So instead of acknowledging the difficulties of climate finance and working out how to close the financing gaps, they have just made the gap bigger plus worst still, delayed the responsibility or resolving this for another five years.

Developed countries cannot accept it to be labelled as a “compensation” or “reparations”…

Then, there is also the issue of “loss and damage”, a mechanism for developed countries to compensate developing countries’ damages caused by the climate crisis. Yet it has resulted in little progress as developed countries cannot accept it to be labelled as a “compensation” or “reparations” as they do not want to bear the legal liability. So they say they care about climate justice, but when it comes to personal liability it’s a firm no.

…& care more about their image than actually righting climate injustice or saving the planet

This attitude of “I am willing to help but will not shoulder the responsibility to pay the compensations” is yet signal to the developing world that rich countries care more about their image than actually righting climate injustice or saving the planet. Can they be trusted uphold their pledges when push comes to shove? Their credibility is sliding.

8. Private sector to the rescue … or just more spinning and greenwashing?

Spinning the commitment to look good is not exclusive for governments, corporates do it too.

How can banks lend to fossil fuel & achieve net-zero at the same time?

GFNAZ, a coalition of the finance sector with over USD130trn private capital, commit to mobilise finance for net-zero. It includes most of the biggest banks including JP Morgan, Citi, Wells Fargo and Bank of America…etc. Yet these four also provided most financing (~USD1trn from 2016-20) to the fossil fuel industry, according to this report. So we have to ask: how can you lend to fossil fuel and achieve net-zero at the same time?

Another occurs in the Fashion Industry Charter which stepped up climate ambitions but its signatories does not include majority of the online retail brands (aka the top global polluters) such as Fashion Nova, Shein and ASOS. This is clearly not enough as fashion would be the 4th largest emitter in the world if it was a country. So less NATO and more action please!

Asia – don’t make the same mistakes – stay honest, don’t NATO and step up

Yes, it’s depressing. But despite all the failed promises and hypocrisies, we are still cautiously optimistic that the world will find a way to work together – the recent US-China joint declaration is a good sign.

Rich countries need to man-up, shoulder their responsibilities & fast-track decarbonisation

But this is not enough. Time is not on our side and actions need to be accelerated. Before the next COP, the world needs to stop prioritizing profits over people and end the political bickering to actually make meaningful progress. Rich countries need to man-up, shoulder their responsibilities and fast-track decarbonisation, not just say they will. They also need to step up and help the more vulnerable to adapt.

As for Asia, we will bear the brunt of climate impacts which means there is no time to waste – we need to stop waiting for others to rescue us. We need to rescue ourselves. Let’s not forget that net-zero by 2050 is just a first step, we have to actually REDUCE emissions after 2050 to stay within 2°C.

Asia must look beyond failed promises and step up to lead the charge on adaptation

At the same time we shouldn’t put our fate in others’ hands and believe everyone will decarbonise as pledged. We must look beyond failed promises and step up to lead the charge on adaptation to waterproof our future. There’s no reason why we can’t do this – many Asia countries are already leading in climate actions, from Bangladesh’s delta management and Singapore’s coastal protection to China’s sponge city and Cambodia’s success water story.

Climate threats are only intensifying – it is time for Asia to step up and lead the race to decarbonisation and resilience.

Further Reading

  • G20: Don’t Just End Coal; Add Deep Cuts For Oil & Gas Too – Producing >60% of coal, oil & gas, G20 is trying to end coal yet still subsidising oil & gas. Why does this happen? Which countries are most responsible? CWR’s Ronald Leung brings to light the motivations behind
  • Net Zero & Water Security: 3 Bottlenecks In Future Tech – The momentum of global net zero is building yet CWR’s Debra Tan & Ronald Leung see 3 key bottlenecks that could prevent us from achieving both net zero & water security
  • Asia, Why On Earth Would We Leave Our Future To The G7? – With G7’s absent leadership & inability to plan for pandemics, CWR’s Tan calls for Asia to step-up and lead the global fight against our climate crises
  • COVID & Climate – Make Money Or Save Lives? – Governments are prioritising lives over money but with pressure to re-open the economy, can we use lessons learnt from COVID-19 to prepare for the climate crisis? CWR’s Ronald Leung explores the future of aviation and low oil prices
  • Climate Resilience In Asian Cities – Vivekanandhan Sindhamani and Nanco Dolman from Royal HaskoningDHV share how cities can become climate resilient, which are doing worst & best, the role Nature-Based Solutions can play, & what all of this means for Asia

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Ronald Leung
Author: Ronald Leung
Hailing from Hong Kong, Ronald’s interest in geopolitical and economic issues led him to understand that climate change is one of the most pressing challenges of our times, yet politically, the topic lacked urgency and societal attention. This motivated him to join CWR upon graduation from the Master of Global Political Economy at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. He assists the team in research across various focus areas and sectors that CWR covers and works on the publication of CWR’s monthly newsletter. He also helps manage and expand our network of contributors plus keeps the content on our website updated. Prior to CWR, Ronald focused on market and competitor research in a property conglomerate and a travel tech start-up. Besides, he conducted country analysis and co-published geopolitical articles with his professor in CUHK. He hopes to use his experiences as a debate team captain in the University of Hong Kong (where he obtained a Bachelor in Accounting & Finance) to raise public awareness towards climate change in Hong Kong.
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