COP26 and Reclaiming our Neglected Duty of Stewardship

Our neglected duty of stewardship for a transition to a sustainable global development by focusing on harmony between man and nature (photo: iStock by Getty Images).

COP26, the 26th United Nations Climate Change conference, is being held at the SEC Centre in Glasgow, Scotland, U.K., between 31 October and 12 November 2021.

Who would have believed that the levels of the two most important anthropogenic greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, continued their unrelenting rise in 2020 despite the economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic response? 2010-2019 is the warmest decade on record. On the current path of carbon dioxide emissions, the global temperature is expected to increase by 3 to 5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

Scientists, climate activists and UN officials have been warning that if governments don’t take drastic action to reduce emissions immediately, much of the world will suffer climate catastrophes, such as devastating sea-level rise, longer and more intense heat waves, and widespread species loss, among other consequences like the infrastructure damages. Going forward, it is important for communities to invest in resilient infrastructure that will be able to withstand future climate risks.

Glaciers have shrunk, ice on rivers and lakes is breaking up earlier, plant and animal ranges have shifted and trees are flowering sooner. The Arctic Ocean is expected to become essentially ice free in summer before mid-century. The intensity, frequency and duration of hurricanes have all increased since the 1980s. Sea-level is projected to rise another 1 to 8 feet by 2100. Bolivia’s second-largest lake has all but dried up due to drought; Iran’s largest lake has all but disappeared; and Lake Chad, Africa’s largest, has shrunk 80 percent in 30 years.

Heatwaves and drought during the past several years have already been connected to soaring food prices, making the staples of everyday life suddenly unaffordable. This may, and has led to unrest in many affected regions and mass migration across the globe.

The United Nations held the first Conference of the Parties (COP) back in 1995. COP1 concluded with the Berlin Mandate, a precursor to the Kyoto Protocol. The Berlin Mandate committed world leaders to keep talking on climate change but rejected plans to make targets and timetables for carbon emissions reductions legally binding. This decision was crucial and echoed through COP after COP, where big emitters, including the USA, Russia, China, India and Brazil, consistently refused to commit to specific and accountable limits on their greenhouse gas emissions.

These “bad COPs” continued until 2015 when the Paris Agreement was signed. For the first time, the international community agreed to a new process. The aim was to keep the global average temperature from rising by 1.5°C (2.7°F) above pre industrial levels and, failing that, prevent it from reaching 2°C (3.6°F) above. Every single country in the world would announce a specific target for emissions reductions this decade, by either 2025 or 2030. The 2015 commitments were a strong foundation even though it was clear that the countries’ emissions targets were inadequate.

Not surprisingly, earth-warming emissions have continued to rise faster than expected. The world has already warmed 1.1°C, and a UN assessment released in August ‘21 predicted that warming will exceed 1.5°C within the next two decades. Recent research suggests that current international commitments would increase greenhouse gas emissions by about 16 percent by 2030 compared to 2010, far short of the roughly 45 percent reduction in carbon emissions that is required to keep the world at 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming.

COP26 is the first time since the Paris Agreement that countries are revisiting their voluntary commitments under the accord. More than 100 countries have already submitted new targets, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs). However, experts say that even these new NDCs are not enough to prevent devastating temperature rise.

Heavy industries, e.g., steel, aluminum, chemicals and cement, and transportation sector, e.g., shipping, aviation and road, contribute to roughly a third of all emissions.

The major areas to cut down gas emissions are: coals, cars, and trees. We must stop mining and burning coal, an indefensibly dirty energy source, as quickly as possible. Alternative sources of energy, e.g., nuclear, wind, battery and solar, must be made affordable for the consumers. Vehicle emissions already account for about 15 percent of global carbon pollution, and transportation emissions are rising faster than other sectors. This is why phasing out the internal combustion engine and electrifying cars, buses, trucks, planes and trains are crucial to combating climate change as well as promoting public health.

Preservation of forests, which serve as vital carbon sinks, is very important for a healthy planet. In 2018, however, forest loss represented 8 percent of total global carbon emissions. The Amazon rainforest is in particular danger. In 2019, deforestation reached an 11-year high in Brazil and then increased an additional 25 percent in 2020.

Meeting the climate goals will neither be easy nor cheap; prices of most items can go up by at least 20%. Since cost always matters, a customer will not buy high-priced items unless the prices are affordable. So, the alternative solutions must aim at cutting costs for a wider acceptability.

Many of the developing countries rely on fossil fuel to improve the standard of living of their people. They blame the industrialized nations who got rich over the past two centuries by releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. They are reluctant to commit to carbon reduction despite being more vulnerable to climate change unless cash incentives are delivered by the wealthy nations to subsidize.

To address this cash issue, the largest emitters committed in 2009 to provide $100 billion annually, starting in 2020, to help other countries meet their targets and adapt to climate impacts. Unfortunately, the donor countries are approximately $20 billion short of fulfilling their promise.

Alok Sharma, COP26 President, said: “The World Bank will commit to spending $25 billion in climate finance annually to 2025 through its Climate Action Plan, including a focus on agriculture and food systems.”

Is this enough to save our planet? More than 90% of children around the world breathe toxic air today, with fossil-fuel burning largely responsible. Air quality in New Delhi and Shanghai is worse than most cities in the globe. Coal, oil and gas are responsible for 8.7 million premature deaths a year, one in five of all deaths.

Just reflect on a recent report published Friday, Nov. 5, by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute, which revealed that the world's richest 1% is set to be responsible for 16% of global carbon emissions by 2030.

"Maintaining such high carbon footprints among the world's richest people either requires far deeper emissions cuts by the rest of the world's population, or it entails global heating in excess of 1.5⁰C above pre-industrial levels," the report stated. "There is no other alternative."

The report was presented at the ongoing COP26 climate talks in Glasgow.

It estimated that between 1990 and 2015 "the consumption of the world's richest 1% drove twice the carbon emissions of the poorest half of the global population combined."

According to the report, the carbon footprint of the around 80 million people who make up the world's richest elite will be 25% higher in 2030 than in 1990.

It will also be 30 times higher than the per capita emissions permissible to remain below the 1.5 degrees of warming (since the industrial revolution) that was agreed on in the 2015 Paris agreement.

The report set a limit of 2.3 tons of CO2 emissions per person per year by 2030 to keep warming to below 1.5 degrees. The wealthiest 1% are set to produce around 70 tons, with the richest 10% (around 800 million people) set to emit over 20 tons by 2030.

"A tiny elite appear to have a free pass to pollute," said Nafkote Dabi, Climate Policy Lead at Oxfam.

At the same time, the 4 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world's population will see their carbon emissions remain well below the per capita limit.

In total, the global per capita average will still be 2.2 tons of CO2 more than it should be.

The global middle class, the 40% between the richest and the poorest, are set to cut their emissions the most, but still far from what is necessary. While the 1% will see some emissions cuts, according to the research in the report, this will likely only amount to around 5% by 2030.

The report also found that the geography of carbon inequality will change, predicting that China's wealthy elite will overtake that of the US in terms of carbon emissions by 2030.

These are dire warnings that our generation needs to pay attention to save our planet from the climate disaster that it has created collectively.

Published reports suggest that people do care and are serious about their future. The COP26 attracted many activists - from pre-teen school-going students to housewives and young mothers to vendors on the streets, let alone thousands of activists who came together in Glasgow with negotiators, officials and ministers from across the world, making their voices heard and demanding the action needed to prevent catastrophic climate change in our lifetimes.

Not all were amused. Greta Thunberg delivered a burning critique of COP26. “The leaders are not doing nothing, they are actively creating loopholes and shaping frameworks to benefit themselves and to continue profiting from this destructive system,” she said.

The Cop has turned into a PR event,” she added. “[Leaders] have had decades of ‘blah blah blah’ and where has that left us?” said Thunberg. “We know our emperors are naked,” she said.

A delegation of mothers from all over the world, all of whom had seen their own children suffer health damage from air pollution, met Alok Sharma on Friday morning to demand an end to fossil fuel financing.

The industrialized nations must act fast. About half of the world’s fossil fuel assets will be worthless by 2036 under a net zero transition, according to research. Countries that are slow to decarbonize will suffer but early movers will profit; the study finds that renewables and freed-up investment will more than make up for the losses to the global economy.

The most vulnerable assets are those in remote regions or technically challenging environments. Most exposed are Canadian tar sands, US shale and the Russian Arctic followed by deep offshore wells in Brazil and elsewhere. North Sea oil is also relatively expensive to extract and likely to be hit when demand falls.

To prevent chaos, experts suggest that oil exporters should diversify their economies as quickly as possible before change is forced on them when importers switch to renewables. Even more important, according to Jean-Francois Mercure of the University of Exeter, UK, who is the lead author of the research, was closer engagement between the two sides so the overall economic benefits of transition could be shared. “This needs to be a story of international cooperation and not leaving people behind.”

More than 40 nations at COP26 have pledged to end the burning of coal, though campaigners said the timescales for the phase out were too long and some of the world’s biggest coal-dependent economies were missing from the deal, including Australia, China, India and the US.

A group of 20 nations also pledged to stop all funding of fossil fuel projects abroad and divert about $8bn of spending to green energy instead from next year. However, China and Japan, two big funders of fossil fuel development around the world, shunned the initiative.

Five governments have pledged urgent action and investment to protect nature and shift to more sustainable ways of farming.

Twenty-six nations set out new commitments to change their agricultural policies to become more sustainable and less polluting, and to invest in the science needed for sustainable agriculture and for protecting food supplies against climate change, laid out in two ‘Action Agendas’.   

Ninety-five high profile companies made a commitment to being ‘Nature Positive’, agreeing to work towards halting and reversing the decline of nature by 2030.

These are surely positive developments. But are these enough to save our planet when her future hangs in the balance now?

The responsibility to save our planet lies squarely with all of us and must be a shared one equitably. It would require serious introspection and change of attitude and behavior. There has to be the untainted realization that what happens to places like the Maldives, Bangladesh, Haiti do matter to those living near and far. Thus, any narrow-minded approach to either looking into or solving the climate problem would be suicidal, let alone being stupid or short-sighted.

The scientific and engineering communities working in the academic and corporate world are not sitting idle to tackle the plethora of challenges of a potential carbon-neutral world. In what follows, I shall share a couple of examples only, the first from my own alma mater, and the second from my own company where I am employed (however, my views are solely mine and don’t reflect in any way those of my company).

An important question for petroleum reservoir engineers has been: as we move away from fossil fuels, what happens to dry or idle gas and oil wells? Professor Iraj Ershaghi at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, Los Angeles, and his team have investigated and developed an alternative that could turn idle, hazardous oil and gas wells into something valuable, e.g., conduits that can carry excess solar and wind-generated power into underground storage energy, which could prevent future rolling blackouts in California and enhance nation’s energy security.

Such innovative ideas, however, will not see light without massive research and development funding. Governments must surely take a lead in such funding. The rich billionaires must do their parts, too, to facilitate, promote and sponsor innovation.

The big corporations that have been responsible for the good, bad and ugly side of the carbon emission problem are seemingly serious about reducing it drastically.

BASF, the largest chemical company, in particular, has set ambitious goals on its journey to climate neutrality and wants to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. Based on the most recent progress in developing low-emission and CO2-free technologies, the company is also significantly raising its medium-term 2030 target for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions: BASF now wants to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions worldwide by 25 percent compared with 2018 – and to achieve this despite targeted growth. Excluding the effects of the planned growth, this means cutting CO2 emissions in half in the current business by the end of this decade. Overall, BASF plans to invest up to € (euro) 1 billion by 2025 to reach its new climate target and a further €2 billion to €3 billion by 2030.

Ethylene, propylene and butadiene are building blocks for numerous value chains and are essential for chemical production. Together with SABIC and Linde, BASF is working on the realization of a pilot furnace for the world’s first electrically heated steam cracker. Compared to conventional crackers, this would enable nearly CO2-free production of basic chemicals.

Hydrogen is another important feedstock for many chemical production processes. To achieve CO2-free production of hydrogen, BASF is pursuing two processes in parallel: the commercially available water electrolysis and methane pyrolysis, for which BASF has developed a new process technology. Another important lever to increase energy efficiency is the use of electrical heat pumps to produce CO2-free steam from waste heat. BASF’s goal is to work with Siemens Energy to gradually ramp up this technology to industrial scale and use it for waste heat recovery at entire sites.

At the Antwerp site, BASF is planning to invest in one of the largest carbon capture and storage (CCS) projects under the North Sea. Together with partners in the Antwerp@C consortium, this creates the opportunity to avoid more than 1 million metric tons of CO2 emissions per year from the production of basic chemicals.

BASF has also an operational excellence program to reduce waste at the source, which has made its processes run more efficiently. The company is convinced of the long-term strategic necessity as well as technical feasibility. Since it is very capital-intensive to replace existing highly efficient production processes with new carbon-neutral plants, BASF is trying to secure funding from European and national programs such as IPCEI (Important Projects of Common European Interest).

“We are convinced that ultimately all players involved will work together to make this once-in-a-century transformation economically successful. This also includes consumers accepting higher prices for CO2-free products throughout the value chain to offset higher operating costs and additional investments. To achieve this, we need new cooperation between industry and policymakers that leads to positive, outcome-oriented regulations and preserves our international competitiveness,” said Martin Brudermüller, the CEO of BASF.

As I have hinted earlier, moving forward to a carbon-neutral climate, drastic changes in mindset and behavior have to be made at both individual and collective levels. On an individual level, the journey must start at home requiring conservations, painful adaptations and making difficult sacrifices to reduce anything that is superfluous and wasteful. This is especially true for those growing up or living in the more prosperous industrial nations. Here are some ways that we can start making a difference: reuse plastic or water bottle/plate/cup, walk or bike whenever possible rather than driving, turn off light or unplug devices when not in use, keep car tires properly inflated, set thermostat at 25 degree C during summer and 20 degree C during winter, and share rides, stop being a happy consumer by buying necessary items only in limited quantities, and popularize the mantra of reuse/reduce/recycle.

The wealthy nations, as the ‘early climate warmers/sinners’, must be willing to make the lives of ‘others’, the less prosperous people, better by sharing the burden of their transition to a carbon-neutral world via all means possible. Without such a collaboration, financial and technological, the dream for a better world will only remain a distant dream and nothing else!

In the Qur’an, humans have been endowed with vicegerency on earth. Sadly, over the centuries we became too materialistic, too greedy and unabashed exploiters. As the gap between our rich and the poor people widened, we became wasteful and arrogant. We forgot our task of stewardship. We must recoup and act like guardians who truly care not only about our own kind, but about everything – from the air that we breathe into the water that we drink to the rocks to the plants to the birds and the bees and the cattle to all the living species, including the endangered ones.

As noted by many Muslim scholars, our earth will regain its natural state (fitrah) and find a balance (mizan) if humans rethink and reprogram their lifestyles and mindsets as stated in the Qur’an:

“Fasad (disorder, mischief and corruption) has appeared in both land and sea
Because of what people’s own hands have brought
So that they may taste something of what they have done
So that hopefully they will turn back.” [Qur’an 30:41]

Islamic worldview calls to make a transition to a sustainable society and economy by adopting responsible development and respecting sustainability principles. This change requires a shift in norms and practices. “Religion can become a powerful part of the solution if humans embody a holistic spiritual view towards mankind, earth and cosmos,” says Professor Odeh Al-Jayyousi, a member of the UN Global Scientific Advisory Panel, for UN Environment’s Global Environment Outlook 6 (GEO6).

May Allah guide us all to perform our neglected duty of stewardship for a transition to a sustainable global development by focusing on harmony between man and nature (ameen). The sooner the better!

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