The failure that was Cop26

What assistance comes as a result of Cop26 will be piecemeal, inadequate, and decline in substance as the climate crisis increases in intensity. Africa must continue to demand more.

Opinion by


There is a version of events where Cop26 in Glasgow was not a failure. There is an argument here: Glasgow built on and consolidated the gains made in Paris and it secured deals on reducing methane emissions and deforestation.

One could optimistically describe the vague consensus on financing as a measure of clarity. And the provision of global public goods will always face a “tragedy of the commons” problem. Against this baseline, Glasgow made progress.

But this version of events, this glass half-full narrative, would never come from small island nations, Sahelian states, or Madagascar, because what others describe as a future climate crisis is already their daily experience. And adopting gradualism in response to a problem requiring revolution is abject failure.

It has been evident for a while that as long as the worst effects of the climate crisis occur in places where the global community has assigned a lesser value to life, the gradualism of Cop26 will be presented as “reasonable”. 

When the worst affected places, despite their limited responsibility for the crisis, demand damage, loss, and mitigation assistance, their stance is described as unreasonable, as when Norway’s environment minister Espen Barth Eide said, “To hold the planet hostage for not getting enough money is wrong.” 

This inadequate response to the climate crisis can especially be seen as a failure when compared to how the West responded to the Covid-19 pandemic. When the people and economies at risk were those whose lives have been assigned greater value, the response was proportionate to the scale of the problem. 

Gradualism was rejected. In the first two months of the pandemic, governments announced $10 trillion in economic responses, according to a McKinsey report.

“Western European countries alone allocated close to $4 trillion, an amount almost 30 times larger than today’s value of the Marshall Plan,” wrote the authors. “The magnitude of government responses has put delivery into uncharted territory.” 

When one faces an existential crisis, the response is always in uncharted territory, yet in the face of a climate catastrophe, the same countries that responded with trillions in an 18-month period have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, to commit $100bn a year to developing countries, and then consistently fall short of reaching an already inadequate commitment.

Moral clarity after the fact

In the movie Titanic, the elderly Rose recounts that of the many half-filled lifeboats launched before the Titanic went down, only one returned to pick up survivors from the sea, and the 700 people on those boats would spend their rest of their lives “waiting for an absolution that would never come”. 

This phenomenon of moral clarity, conveniently after the fact, has been a constant of effete political leadership in every crisis of human history. In 1939, US immigration authorities refused landing to the MS St. Louis, a ship carrying over 900 Jewish passengers attempting to flee Nazi Germany. 

The UN itself detailed how it allowed the “Bosnian Muslim ‘safe area’ of Srebrenica to be overrun in July 1995 by Bosnian Serbs, who then systematically killed thousands of the town’s men and boys.” After the fact, the UN noted that “The tragedy of Srebrenica will haunt our history forever.” 

As the Rwandan genocide unfolded, US State Department spokespersons twisted themselves into knots parsing the difference between “acts of genocide” and “genocide” in a studied effort to avoid describing the situation in a way that would transfer any responsibility to act.

Former President Bill Clinton would go on to call this one of his “greatest regrets”, admitting that they knew enough, early enough, to intervene and save lives and didn’t.

Political expediency has always trumped courageous responses in the hour of crisis, only to be followed by heartfelt regret, tears, and moral clarity afterward.

For primary victims of the climate crisis, no help is coming. What assistance comes will be piecemeal, inadequate, and decline in substance as the crisis increases in intensity, regularity, and breadth.

Fortunately for us, we are not without options. Unlike the victims described in the incidents above, today’s climate victims have options that they can exercise before they are overwhelmed. 

What can African states do in response?

Up the ante on their demands

As I have indicated in “What does the ‘international rules-based order’ mean for Africa?”, no minority group has ever increased its power by appealing to the good conscience of the majority.

As my favourite abolitionist put it, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” The demand here is not a simple request. The demand here is disruption. African states need to up the ante by attaching their climate demands to every international engagement. In the plethora of “Africa summits” they are invited to, they must include their just demands for climate mitigation and adaptation funding. 

Form impromptu alliances

In the demand for climate adaptation financing, South Africa and India have significantly more leverage because of their disproportionate use of coal. Negotiate with these two to desist from negotiating bilateral deals, so that other developing countries can ride their coattails. By isolating India and South Africa from smaller, weaker states, the Global North can continue its divide and conquer strategy. Fight this.

Reform and improve governance

There is simply not enough concessional financing and increasingly nativist politics across the global North will place hard limits on what financing will be available. Capital is a coward and with Africa perceived as risky, with a weak or unpredictable regulatory environment, it will always be the last option as an investment destination.

It’s like African central banks that are contemplating issuing official digital coins as a means of reducing the attraction of cryptocurrencies, when it is their poor governance that is driving crypto growth. African governments should strengthen fiscal policy and create functional regulatory regimes.

Redirect domestic DFIs

Improved governance must include stringent project selection and directing domestic resources to projects that benefit Africa even if these projects attract Western ire. Western countries are hypocritically building massive natural gas generation at home while actively denying financing to developing countries for the same projects.

The Afreximbank has thrown its weight behind exploration and development of downstream natural gas projects. When African financial institutions make such risky bets, they need to be supported so that the bets pay off.  

Gyude Moore is a senior policy fellow at the Center for Global Development.

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