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“Too Little, Too Late”: Global South Activists Decry 2050 “Net Zero” Goal by Wealthy Nations

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After nearly a week of speeches, negotiations and protests at the COP26 U.N. climate summit, we speak with Meena Raman, head of programs at Third World Network, who says developing countries need more time and resources to adapt to the climate crisis and end the use of fossil fuels. Without a just transition that addresses inequality, she says, many countries will continue to suffer from both poverty and environmental devastation. “When the rich world has not been able to phase out fossil fuels, … it’s really dubious to preach to the developing world that they have to get out of fossil fuels,” says Raman.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we continue on the U.N. climate summit, representatives of over 40 nations have pledged to end the use of coal power. The deal, announced at the COP26 summit in Glasgow, did not include many of the largest coal producers, including China, India, Australia and the United States.

To talk more about the state of the climate summit, we’re joined by Meena Raman. She’s head of programs at Third World Network, usually based in Penang, Malaysia, now joining us from Glasgow. Behind her, the rotating globe that’s suspended over the U.N. climate assembly.

Meena Raman, talk about the significance of these 40 countries committing to ending the use of coal, but the major users, from the United States to China, refusing to participate in this.

MEENA RAMAN: Well, Amy, I think what we need to recognize is that all these, you know, sideline pledges or announcements actually need to be reflected in the real commitments, which are under the convention and the Paris Agreement. A lot of these announcements are all outside of that process.

So, of course, I don’t think you can put the U.S. on the same level as China and India, because the U.S. is a much bigger historical emitter than China or India. And China and India — and I’ve said constantly previously before — they do have huge challenges because of large emissions coming because of large populations. So, in terms of per capita, U.S. is still much higher than China and India. So, the point I’m making is that you can’t, say, put them on the same platform together.

And the second point I’d like to make also is that what’s critical is to recognize the energy poverty that many of these — the developing countries face. So, we do need to phase out from fossil fuels, but what’s fundamental is that it has to be on the basis of what’s called just transition, so that the people who are energy poor, the more that they have access to renewable energy, the more that we ensure that they are not the victims of climate solutions.

So, having said that, I do think that all countries need to do much more, not just on coal, but fossil fuels as a whole, but the developing world has — does require large amounts of financing, large amounts of technology transfer for the kind of transformation that needs to happen. When the rich world has not been able to phase out fossil fuels, which it ought to have done by today, and yet it continues to expand the use of fossil fuels, it’s really dubious to preach to the developing world, you know, that they have to get out of fossil fuels.

So, the leaders — and this is recognized by the treaty itself, the convention and the Paris Agreement — those with the greatest responsibility, historical emissions and current cumulative emissions together, they have a huge responsibility for the current warming — and this has been pointed out also by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — in relation to the large amounts of CO2 which have been emitted, which are causing much of the impacts that we face today.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain the 1.8 degree Celsius that now is being put out as the goal?

MEENA RAMAN: No, it’s at 1.5. It’s not 1.8. If you recall, in Paris, the agreement in the Paris basically says that countries will ensure that the global temperature goal will be limited to well below 2 degrees centigrade from preindustrial levels, and they will pursue towards 1.5 degree centigrade. Now, we all know, as climate justice groups, that the 1.5 is a much safer guard rail, but the issue really here is that when particularly the rich world talks about, you know, we need to achieve the 1.5 degree limit, the devil really is in the detail of how to get there.

Now, when you have a 1.5 degree limit compared to a 2 degree limit, the amount of carbon space or the atmospheric space that you have left is much smaller than under a 2 degree limit. So, the issue really is that, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has pointed out, if you add all the emissions from the historical and you take the cumulative into account, we only have something like 500 gigatons of carbon space left. This means that at the current emission trends, we will exhaust this carbon budget for limiting temperature rise to 1.5 on a 50 — with a 50% chance. And that itself is a problem. So —

AMY GOODMAN: Let me clarify something, Meena.

MEENA RAMAN: — within a decade, this 500 — yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: The number has always been 1.5 degrees Celsius, which is 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, and scientists have said that global warming must be kept to this, above preindustrial levels. But I thought what has —


AMY GOODMAN: — come out now is that the International Energy Agency reported Thursday that warming could be limited to 1.8 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by 2100.

MEENA RAMAN: Yeah, they were referring to the methane and other initiatives and cooling and so on, and they have come to 1.8. Now, I have not seen the details of the report, but I think that what need to recognize, Amy, is the fact that, whatever, whether it’s 1.8 or 1.5 or even 2 degrees, with the push for net zero by 2050 by all countries — and this is being pushed right from the U.N. top level, right down to the U.K. presidency — we, in civil society, in the climate justice movement, are very critical of that, because it is about — if you look at U.S. saying net zero by 2050 and other developed countries saying net zero by 2050, and if you look at the content of that, that’s actually doing too little, too late. And net zero will exhaust the — with the net zero distant targets of 2050, there is no time for 2050. And you actually need to get to real zero today. It actually should have been done yesterday, by the rich world, in particular. So, we need to recognize the fact that we are not going to be able to limit temperature rise either to 1.8 or 1.5 or even 2 degrees, if we allow the rich nations to keep to net zero by 2050. This is too little, too late.

And net zero, what it actually means is that you don’t decarbonize. Every ton of carbon that you emit, you’re going to plant a tree to absorb that carbon. It doesn’t work that way. Science does not work that way. So, we are being — we are being told about these net zero targets, and it’s an illusion. It’s really a complete illusion. And we are very worried that there’s a lot of greenwashing which is happening here. A lot of it is about — if you look at the targets, they talk about — what do you call it? — carbon credits, offsetting. Offsetting. It’s not about decarbonizing. Decarbonizing means you remove emissions and you also plant trees to increase those things. But what’s happening here is that net zero through carbon offsets, which means that the developing world will have to do much more of the heavy lifting again. And this doesn’t work. The time for carbon offsets is over.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to get your comment on the first week of the talks. And, of course, we’ll be with Glasgow all next week. President Biden came. He was one of the openers of the U.N. climate summit. But right before he came to Glasgow, he was in Rome at the G20 summit, and he held a news conference, when he was asked about his call for the world’s largest oil producers to increase output. This is what he said.

JEFF MASON: You also met with energy consumers about supply. What steps are you considering taking if OPEC+ does not raise supply? And do you see any irony in pushing them to increase oil production at the same time that you’re going to COP26 to urge people to lower emissions?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Well, on the surface, it seems like an irony, but the truth of the matter, as you’ve all known, everyone knows, that the idea we’re going to be able to move to renewable energy overnight, and not have — and from this moment on not use oil or not use gas or not use hydrogen, it’s just not rational.

AMY GOODMAN: Meena Raman, if you could respond to what Biden said?

MEENA RAMAN: Well, his response is completely irrational. And it really is about the hypocrisy of world leaders like him coming to COP26 and saying that we need to do more. Now, if the rich world cannot get off their oil addiction, and if they cannot — you know, it’s not just about renewable energy. More importantly, it’s also about consumption patterns and production systems. So, the consumption — we can’t be being oil addicts, or fossil fuel addicts, actually. And so, we do need to move. The transformation is phenomenal. But Biden has no excuse to say what he said.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you so much, Meena Raman, for joining us, head of programs at Third World Network. She traveled to Glasgow from Penang, Malaysia.

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