Climate change: James Shaw slams countries at COP26 'dragging the chain' on emissions, but won't name names

New Zealand's representative at UN climate talks in Scotland says the draft outcome won't reduce emissions enough to keep warming within 1.5C of pre-industrial temperature levels.

Doing so will avoid the absolute worst effects of climate change, scientists say, but attendees at COP26 in Glasgow have settled on something that could result in a rise nearly twice that, James Shaw told The AM Show on Thursday.

"It's not as ambitious as we'd like. These decision texts tend to represent - because every country has to agree to it - they tend to represent the lowest common denominator."

One of the negotiators, speaking to The Guardian anonymously, told the paper the text is "devoid of ambition". Greenpeace International executive director Jennifer Morgan said the deal "is not a plan to solve the climate crisis, it's an agreement that we'll all cross our fingers and hope for the best". 

"It's a polite request that countries maybe, possibly, do more next year. Well, that's not good enough and the negotiators shouldn't even think about leaving this city until they've agreed a deal that meets the moment. Because most assuredly, this one does not."

Most attendees will likely leave after negotiations end on Friday (UK time), leaving behind a frustrated Shaw.

"I have been in meetings and I have been cross with people. There are countries that are really dragging the chain."

He wouldn't name any, saying he was on a "diplomatic mission and we're still in the middle of it".

"I'm not going to tell you what's going on in those negotiations. But there are some tensions which are going to affect the outcome. That's kind of how these things work." 

What's in the text

The draft conclusion acknowledges current pledges to reduce emissions are insufficient, and says countries should "strengthen" their reductions, particularly in the near-term. 

It urges countries to hurry up moves to end the use of coal, and put a stop to fossil fuel subsidies, but doesn't set a date. 

The draft says to stop Earth heating beyond the 1.5C threshold, carbon emissions must drop 45 percent by 2030 from 2010 levels, and reach net zero by 2050. On current pledges, they will increase 14 percent on 2010 levels by 2030. 

Developed countries are encouraged to "urgently scale up" aid to help poorer nations adapt to the effects of climate change, since they're likely to feel them most; but says aid should be in grants, not loans, which merely saddle poor nations with more debt. Previous promises of billions in donations haven't been met, Reuters reported. 

Whatever is finally agreed on Friday will not be legally binding. 

'Bend the curve'

Despite the disappointment, Shaw says things are moving in the right direction - just not fast enough.

"If you went back say about a year or so, 18 months ago, the collective targets of countries around the world added up to about a 3.5C to 4C scenario - that would be absolutely catastrophic. Now there's been a lot of countries - including New Zealand - who have strengthened their targets in the intervening period of time, and that now adds up to… between 1.8C and 2.7C. Neither of those get us 1.5C obviously, but you can see the collective will of countries increasing their targets is starting to bend the curve in the right direction. 

"The problem is that we've only got this decade to cut global emissions by about 45 percent, which is what the IPCC said is required. So yeah, we still need to lift our ambition around the world to make sure that we actually do stay within that." 

James Shaw in Glasgow.
James Shaw in Glasgow. Photo credit: The AM Show

New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions have stayed relatively stable since 2005. Per capita carbon emissions have actually been falling since then. The biggest drop came in 2020, likely due to the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown. We have about 0.06 percent of the world's population, but account for 0.011 percent of emissions - nearly double our fair share. 

"We just increased our target shortly before I came here, and there are a number of countries around the world that haven't changed their targets since they first lodged it in 2016," said Shaw. "The science has moved on considerably since then, so we do know that we actually need to continue to put pressure on those countries that haven't lifted their game to do so."