Barack Obama’s speech highlighted start of second week of COP26

Former US president Obama criticised China and Russia for their “dangerous absence of urgency” on the climate crisis in a powerful speech that made the global media headlines. His appearance overshadowed other announcements made yesterday.


Day 1: BPCC’s green blog on COP 26 in Glasgow
Day 2: Methane emission pledge hailed as success on second day of COP26
Day 3: Coal and climate finance are the focus of the third day of COP26
Day 4: Youth activism flavours fourth day of COP26
Day 7: Barack Obama’s speech highlighted start of second week of COP26
Day 8: Gender equality – focus of eighth day of COP26 – overshadowed by new heat calculation
Day 10&11: China-US ‘breakthrough’ as final statement is hammered out
Summary: COP26 disappoints with the loss of strong commitment

Officially, the day’s focus was on adaptation – helping the countries most vulnerable to climate change adapt to its effects. In particular, small island nations that could be submerged by rising sea levels. A further $232 million in new commitments was pledged by countries to the UN’s Adaptation Fund, along with other pledges to help prepare vulnerable nations for the effects of climate change.

Adaptation costs are likely to rise to $300 billion a year by 2030, according to the UN. The need to brace developing economies against the coming shock of climate change needs to be balanced by the need to stop its cause – emissions. The poorer countries say more should be spent on adaptation, even if it is at the cost of cutting emissions. European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans replied saying that rich countries must also come up with emissions reduction plans as well as helping to fund developing nations as they deal with the climate emergency.

Also at COP26 yesterday, the High Ambition Coalition (HAC) of countries committed to keeping the global temperature rise below 1.5C added several new members, among them were Austria, Canada, Colombia, Ethiopia, Italy, Ireland, Uruguay and Rwanda. And the Netherlands said it would join the 20 governments pledging to end financing for fossil fuel projects abroad. South Korea, however, backtracked on its commitment made last week along with 40 other countries to phase out coal in the 2030s. Yesterday the South Korean government said that it never agreed on a phaseout date; it merely restated its existing 2050 goal.

Today’s main session will focus on the science and innovation needed to keep the global temperature rise to than 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. Meanwhile, work is going ahead to draft a final agreement from COP26 that will probably end up as a lowest-common denominator, a text which all participating countries can sign up to.

This is likely to include a framework an international carbon market, an agreement to pay reparations for countries already suffering economically from climate change (so-called ‘loss-and-damage’), and a monitoring system to check whether countries are fulfilling their climate pledges. These are all issues that past COP summits failed to resolve.

Finally, African nations want to start discussions about channelling $700 billion every year from 2025 to help them deal with the climate crisis.

All eyes, however, were on Barack Obama as he criticised his successor, Donald Trump, saying progress on climate change had “stalled” on his watch but that under President Joe Biden, the US was “prepared to take a leadership role”.

“Most of the time when you are dealing with and sometimes expressing frustration toward U.S. delegates at these COP conferences, I just want you to know that they’re the ones championing your cause back home. It’s just that we’ve got our own politics to deal with,” he said. “Sometimes it may feel like the United States, like some other countries, are not always moving as fast or following through on their commitments as much as we like. It’s not for lack of trying by the kinds of people you are working with here. But we’ve got our contentious battles.”

Mr Obama called on world leaders to “step up and step up now” to avert climate disaster, pointing at China and Russia for being foremost among countries that are failing to cut planet-heating emissions quickly enough. “It was particularly discouraging to see the leaders of two of the world’s largest emitters, China and Russia, decline to even attend the proceedings.” He added: “Their national plans seem to reflect a dangerous lack of urgency.”

Mr Obama said “there are times where I feel discouraged, there are times where the future seems somewhat bleak,” adding that “images of dystopia start creeping into my dreams”.

The Covid-19 pandemic, the rise of nationalism in countries such as the US and misinformation spread on social media had frayed the global effort to confront climate change, he said. But he added that “cynicism is the recourse for cowards and we can’t afford hopelessness.”  He urged young climate activists to push their politicians to do more. “If those older folks won’t listen, they need to get out of the way. Vote like your life depends upon it, because it does.”

Mr Obama sought to address this disparity, saying that “imperfect compromises” will be required to address the climate emergency.  “Yes, it’s going to be really hard. The good thing is humanity has done hard things before and I believe we will do hard things again.”

Day 1: BPCC’s green blog on COP 26 in Glasgow
Day 2: Methane emission pledge hailed as success on second day of COP26
Day 3: Coal and climate finance are the focus of the third day of COP26
Day 4: Youth activism flavours fourth day of COP26
Day 7: Barack Obama’s speech highlighted start of second week of COP26
Day 8: Gender equality – focus of eighth day of COP26 – overshadowed by new heat calculation
Day 10&11: China-US ‘breakthrough’ as final statement is hammered out
Summary: COP26 disappoints with the loss of strong commitment