Recycling, carbon capture, inequality: Experts find blind spots in Cop26 plans

Analysts say world leaders must put more focus on social justice in climate negotiations

Waste pickers need better working conditions for a sustainable economy to work, one expert said. AFP
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As world leaders arrived in Glasgow on Monday for the first day of Cop26, critics said their climate plans were lacking focus on vital issues such as recycling, carbon capture and inequality.

Dozens of countries have put forward what they say are ambitious strategies to limit global warming to 1.5°C, the goal of the Paris Agreement.

But plans submitted for Cop26 were “overwhelmingly focused on the clean energy transition”, said Hatty Cooper, who advocates a circular economy that emphasises reusing and recycling goods.

This means there is too little attention on preventing waste, even though saving resources could cut emissions by about 40 per cent, she said.

“We need an alternative model of production and consumption,” she said. “We need consumers to change their behaviour.”

Just last week, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that recycling "doesn't work" and "is not the answer" to tackling environmental problems.

A panel of experts speaking on the sidelines of Cop26 said there should be more focus on the social effects of going green.

Panagiotis Fragkos, a climate modeller, said the measures championed by world leaders would lose public support if they cause widespread inequality.

Politicians have sought to play down concerns that the green transition would lead to higher costs or lower living standards.

But “one of the blind spots” in their climate plans is that they are “lacking social justice considerations”, said Patrick Schroeder, a researcher at the Chatham House think tank.

For example, recyclers and informal rubbish pickers need to have better working conditions for a low-waste economy to work, Mr Schroeder said.

“It’s a really important issue that needs to be addressed to make the circular economy more efficient and also make it work for human development objectives,” he said.

“Many of the social and political issues so far have been neglected.”

Negotiators will discuss gender inequality in the second week of the summit. The penultimate day of talks will focus on cities and regions.

Before then, they will discuss the financing and clean energy measures at the heart of their plans.

But another weakness, experts say, is that leaders are vague about how much they plan to offset emissions by removing carbon from the atmosphere.

This can include planting trees as well as using more cutting-edge technology such as carbon capture and storage.

Climate activists say governments should not rely on futuristic technology to avoid having to cut emissions now.

But some of the plans submitted for Cop26 suggest that carbon capture will “allow us to buy more time”, said Heather Jacobs, who has carried out research for Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

In addition, plans that rely on using trees and plants could run into the problem that such natural resources are needed for other green initiatives.

Countries can “end up in this kind of vicious cycle that leads to a state of inaction”, Ms Jacobs said. “This need to satisfy multiple different goals … leads countries to overestimate the availability of natural resources that are already in use now.”

Updated: November 03, 2021, 9:44 AM