What is COP and why is COP26 so important?
For decades, the countries of the world have been working to edge closer to a set of legally-binding achievable commitments to help with climate action. These have been termed COP for “Conference of the Parties” which is an annual event that brings governments together to discuss and review how climate change is being managed domestically and internationally. The first COP (COP1) meeting was held in 1995 in Berlin, Germany. What makes COP26 (in 2021) so special is partly because it is the first one since the Covid-19 pandemic began and is being hosted in Glasgow, in the UK. Covid-19 of course demonstrated to the world the kind of temporary climatic restoration that is possible if it wasn’t for human activities. COP is usually attended by countries that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) treaty in 1994. In COP26, there are 197 countries participating. Six years ago, in 2015, in Paris, in COP21, there was a shared aspirational goal which was jointly agreed to limit global warming to well below 2°C, and preferably to 1.5°C. However, what wasn’t agreed in Paris is how countries would do that, and since then, by 2020, countries were supposed to have submitted their climate action plans – which is now up for negotiation in COP26, which is the other fundamental reason why COP26 is so special. We have plenty of gaps to achieve 1.5°C. Being transparent in how countries plan to achieve this is at the crux of whether it will be at all achievable in practice.
Why 1.5°C global warming target?
This figure of 1.5°C global warming is against the average global temperature in pre-industrial times. It is important because there’s already more carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere (the air we breathe in all the way up to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere) than we’ve had historically, thanks to over 200 years of industrialisation and human consumption linked to our habits, modern lifestyles and population increases. We’ve been burning fossil fuels such as coal to generate electricity, as well as burning petrochemicals for vehicle fuel and making plastics. In these processes, large amounts of greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere Greenhouse gases trap heat from escaping from the Earth, which also includes methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases. In 1751 carbon dioxide emissions were near zero, but this has grown to 9800 metric tonnes by 2014. Because we’ve been doing this for decades and centuries, it’s meant that there’s already momentum – an unstoppable juggernaut – in the Earth’s climatic system which means the world is already warmer than before and will continue to warm up regardless of what we do. Based on this, some scientists are saying that limiting the warming to 1.5°C target is now beyond practical reach. However, at the same time, doing nothing isn’t an option. It’s never too late to do as much as we can (e.g. 2°C is better than 2.7°C), as it means we will limit global warming from escalating to a level that makes life on earth evermore challenged, and eventually completely unbearable. If that does happen one day, humanity’s time on earth could be more about surviving under harsh conditions, rather than as it is today, where generally we can all hope to live a fulfilling life and enjoy the natural world. While humanity may adapt, other animals and plants would be far less able to.
That said, let’s also not hide the fact that not all of humanity will be affected in the same way, in intensity and duration. Rich countries will have the means and tools to at least mitigate some of the worst risks and quite possibly raise the draw bridges to ignore the impacts elsewhere. But the poor, especially if they are in the direct line of the impacts, will have little to no resources to help themselves.
The ripple effect of greenhouse gas build-up
Each year we put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than natural processes can remove, which means the net global amount of carbon dioxide rises. The more we overshoot what natural processes remove, the faster the annual growth rate. Carbon dioxide in the air acts like a blanket keeping heat trapped in the Earth and, over a period as it builds up, starts a ripple effect that has far-reaching consequences all over the world.
For example, the extra heat means we have warmer seas, and having warmer seas means less fish (and fauna population generally) can survive and coral reefs die, which in turn means catastrophic disruption to vast oceanic ecosystems. Warmer seas also mean warmer air, which in turn means disruption to “normal” jet streams, which means we get more rainfall (flash flooding) and extreme weather – more heat, fires, and drought in some places – while a rise in sea level due to melting polar ice caps will submerge large parts of the world, particularly low-lying and coastal areas. The consequence of losing low-lying land on its own is large scale displacement of people, hunger, political instability and ultimately the death of millions of people. Bangladesh is a good example of this, as is the Maldives, but closer to home, the Netherlands and historic cities like Venice. Even closer to home, parts of the UK coast will be underwater, too.
And it’s not just the impacts from warmer oceans. Deforestation, for example, has accelerated at an alarming rate in recent decades, which is having similar ripple effects. Just like coral reefs play a regenerative role by soaking up carbon dioxide in the sea, when we cut down forests, we lose the trees that would otherwise clean the air, not to mention the loss of biodiversity and the consequences of disrupting the natural habitats of thousands of species. Some scientists are predicting the extinction of 550 species this century. A warmer climate means other historical stores of greenhouse gasses such as in Permafrost’s, which store vast amounts of methane, start defrosting releasing methane into the atmosphere causing yet more warming. Methane degrades quicker than carbon dioxide, but it is 30% more warming, and it is also released when we burn oil and gas. In this way, the Earth gets warmer and warmer in a self-perpetuating cycle.
This warming of our planet then impacts animals and plant life. We have less biodiversity. Changing rainfall patterns, less green areas, permanent flooding, extreme weather events, and ocean acidification (due to more carbon dioxide in oceans) all disturb the natural habitat and ecosystem balances of millions of animals and plants.
As you can see, the global climate system is a complex web of climate and ecosystem related dependencies, requiring global action across multiple – perhaps even all – areas of human activity.
Has humanity started acting too late?
Yes. Partly this is because for decades there’s been an unresolved debate about whether the temperature increase is due to natural warming of the Earth (like it has in previous ages of the Earth), or if the current warming is a genuine reflection of increased human activity? This debate became polemic and politically binary, with far too many people either in denial or catastrophising.
The good news is that the impacts of climate change have started to be felt more frequently in recent decades, and across the world, which has tended to hit home the realness of global warming. Air pollution (e.g. smog-filled cities) and impacts in our seas (plastic, chemical pollution and reducing fish sticks) have also visibly shown the consequences of inaction. It’s no longer the concern of people in faraway lands. The data is also much clearer and comprehensive, which means disagreeing with it is much harder.
However, a lot of damage is already done and the consequences are in motion. We, therefore, need to plan on how we become more resilient to the impacts of global warming. That in itself will require huge investment.
What are the sticking points of COP26?
Currently, global carbon dioxide emissions are set to rise by 16% by 2030. Yet, they must fall by 45% from what they are today to meet the 1.5°C target. As with every 1°C increase in temperature, the volume of reduction increases exponentially, so the later we leave things the harder it will be to limit warming.
For example, it’s expected that the US will generate 22% more coal-fired power in 2021 than in 2020. While the US is the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide per person, China is the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide in absolute terms and is still increasing construction of coal-fired power plants because it doesn’t want to destabilise economic growth. Countries like Saudi Arabia are entirely built on selling oil and have targeted 2060 to achieve net-zero, like China. Other countries like India, starting from a less privileged position, is targeting 2070 for net-zero output. This variation exists because the economies of industrialised and industrialising countries decarbonise at different rates. That is, they must transition from one that is dependent on burning fossil fuels to one that uses green/renewable energy. This isn’t easy and governments need to manage the transition by working through all the politics that comes with it. It could mean, for example, people lose jobs in some sectors (with growth in other sectors) or some companies need to go bust, while others need greater incentives (tax breaks, subsidies, financing etc.) to help with the transition.
The contribution to the climate crisis is vastly imbalanced between developed and developing countries. Most emissions are from already developed countries. In other words, rich countries have already been burning greenhouse gases for decades and centuries to become industrialised and enjoy a higher quality of living standards. Yet, just as poorer countries want to do the same, they’re being asked to commit to carbon-neutral economic growth, even though their emissions levels are small in comparison to rich countries. Thus, to make this fair, poorer countries need to be compensated and helped towards transitioning to a decarbonised industrialisation path. But are the richer countries prepared to compensate with the extraordinary sums of money needed, and how this is equitably worked out across countries? In addition, this isn’t just about money. The money from richer countries needs to go towards renewable energy transition and carbon-neutral activities. And what about resilience planning for the impacts that will happen – is this part of the deal for developing countries?
A third sticking point is in the politics of carbon accounting which means that the climate action a country takes can be far from clear. Loopholes have opened up in how we count carbon emissions, with the market of carbon offsetting and territoriality.
Avoided deforestation is a way to offset carbon emissions. It works on the principle that, people in say the Amazon rainforest can be paid to find alternative livelihood to cutting down trees. To measure whether deforestation has been avoided, a baseline is set, and then after a year (or whatever period is used) and the project launches, if the rate of deforestation falls to a certain level, then the project developer can create offsets based on emissions avoided because some trees weren’t cut down. Other companies can then purchase these offsets to reduce emissions from their carbon balance sheets. These arrangements lack regulation and sellers can manipulate baselines to create tiers of pricing, such that the larger the purchase the cheaper the prices. There is no real incentive to decarbonise. Even if the offset did in fact cut emissions, there’s also the risk of double counting. A company gets to delete emissions from their own accounts and the country in which the offset project exists also cancels the same number of emissions from its national inventories.
What does God have to say?
From a theological perspective, the starting assumption for Muslims is that nothing truly belongs to human beings. Instead, everything in material existence that we own, consume or benefit from in our Earthly life has a basic trust relationship with God through which they are to be approached. Of course, how much we live by this or not in practice is a different matter – and a point of test for us. Nevertheless, this is the concept of amanah (security, trust, shelter, peace, protection etc.), which, by default, entails responsibility. In other words, we are given provisions and ownership over things on Earth, but this is on the condition that we act with competence, honesty, responsibility, gratitude, and appropriate measure in taking due care in our use and engagement with what we’ve been given.
In this sense, we have a default higher-order responsibility to take care of the Earth. Not doing so is sinful and we’ll be individually (and collectively) accountable or rewarded by God for the things we did or didn’t do as individuals, within our contexts, which honoured or violated this basic amanah. This amanah condition applies to our treatment of mundane things like a piece of cloth to how we use water etc. to as profound as say how we protect the ozone layer, and fish stocks etc. God is ever watchful (Al-Baseer) and All-Knowing (Al-‘Aleem) and our consciousness of God is lived out based on knowing that either we “see” Him or, if that’s too difficult, that He sees us.
The second, somewhat related, is the principle of stewardship (khulafah) of the Earth. Muslims are meant to be moral guides, and we’re meant to be thinking and extracting guidance from the Qur’an and Prophetic life to help guide ourselves and fellow human beings towards mutually beneficial outcomes, prosperity, and productive lives. Protecting the environment is therefore a highly sacrosanct endeavour that should become part of the modern believer’s DNA. Well, aside from the fact that it should be by default, with a clearer view of the climate crisis, Muslims need to up their game in championing, doing, and working out the best path for averting climate disaster for future generations. As the current generation of Muslims to have inhabited the Earth, it is our time to act as stewards, more so than at any time in the history of Islam, even going back to Prophet Abraham.
As Muslims of the UK, we have our own God-centred role to play individually and as part of wider society. The list of what we can do is long and identical for those from non-faith backgrounds, and conceptually embracing zuhd (detachment from excessive consumption) and intermittent fasting (sawm) should be helpful catalysts. We can, for example, eat less red meat, only buy food that we can eat, make purchasing decisions based on how good the product or service is for the environment, reduce-reuse-recycle more, avoid buying one-time-use plastics, embrace sharing, switch to hybrid and battery-powered cars, cycling more, promote cyclical economy, invest in green-tech, be happy to share in the burden of subsidising developing countries to help them transition to carbon-neutral economies, learn about green economics, encourage the organisation we work for to increase their care for the environment etc. The governments and citizens of Muslim countries likewise have their own context-specific roles to play.
God says in many points in the Qur’an that without virtue human beings would cause destruction of things like crops, fellow human beings, and kill-off fish. This goes back to the primordial covenant (before time) when the Angels asked God as to why He created Adam and his progeny for time on Earth. God’s answer was that it would be a place for mankind to accede to virtue. In this sense, global meetings like COP26 are a sign of our willingness to accede to virtue.
God wants us to recognise our own contribution to the impact we have on the Earth. God says, “Corruption has appeared throughout the land and sea as a result of what the hands of people have earned so God may let them taste part of the consequence of what they have done that perhaps they will return to righteousness” (Qur’an, 30:41).
God wants us to preserve and not waste things: “God is the One Who produces cultivated and wild gardens, and palm trees, crops of different flavours, olives, and pomegranates, similar in shape, but dissimilar in taste. Eat of the fruits they bear and pay the dues at harvest, but do not waste. Surely, He does not like the wasteful” (Qur’an, 6:141).
God wants us to shun wantonness and excessiveness – an unchecked desire to need and want more. “Do not be like those who leave their homes boastfully and showing off to people to hinder them from God’s way” (Qur’an, 8:47). “How many cities have We destroyed that exalted in their livelihood? Here are their homes now uninhabited after them except for a few (Qur’an, 28:58). “Indeed, Korah was from the people of Moses, but he behaved arrogantly towards them. We had granted him such treasures that even their keys would burden a group of strong men. Some of his people advised him, “Do not exalt! Surely God does not like those who exalt” (Qur’an, 28:76).
God wants us to problem solve. Every Prophet, including the Prophet Muhammad, has been a problem solver of one kind or another. To emulate them we must solve the big and small problems of our time, as a manifestation of belief.