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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been basking in the glow of the Glasgow summit to distract from the domestic political scandal now engulfing his government.Phil Noble/The Associated Press

As the United Nations COP26 climate conference hurtled toward its climax this week, it was hard not to get the impression that the 40,000 official participants gathered in Glasgow for what many billed as the last chance to save the planet were playing a game of virtual reality.

Over the course of two weeks, the world bore witness to a flurry of declarations followed by prolonged sessions of mutual backslapping among the signatories, and admonishments from climate activists about the utter inadequacy of said commitments.

In Glasgow, more than 40 countries, including Canada, agreed to “accelerate a transition away from unabated coal power generation.” But China, the United States and India – which together account for about 70 per cent of the coal burned to generate electricity – were conspicuously absent from the deal. As was Australia, whose economy depends more than most on coal exports.

Another non-binding agreement involving 130 countries – Canada included – committed signatories to ending deforestation by 2030. The emptiness of the undertaking was apparent as Indonesian officials specified that it would be “obviously inappropriate and unfair” to adhere to the pledge at the expense of economic development.

Another caveat-filled agreement to which Canada signed on involved a pledge to “work toward all sales of new cars and vans being zero emission globally by 2040, and by no later than 2035 in leading markets.” But four of the world’s largest automakers – Volkswagen, Toyota, Renault-Nissan and Hyundai-Kia – were not among the signatories. Neither was China.

Speaking of which, Chinese President Xi Jinping skipped the Glasgow gabfest altogether rather than face a public scolding about his country’s “dangerous lack of urgency,” as former U.S. president Barack Obama described it. Mr. Xi refused to be lectured to by leaders from the developed countries that have a century-long emissions head start over China – now the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases.

John Kerry, U.S. President Joe Biden’s climate envoy, nevertheless handed Mr. Xi a propaganda victory with a joint declaration in which the United States and China agreed to co-operate on climate-related efforts. But the agreement – which according to The Washington Post, was “the product of nearly three dozen negotiating sessions” between U.S. and Chinese diplomats over the course of the past year – was thin gruel even by UN standards.

By week’s end, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, seeking to bask in the glow of the Glasgow summit to distract from the domestic political scandal now engulfing his government, was nudging the parties toward a face-saving final agreement that would preserve the notion that COP26 had been worth its weight in CO2 emissions despite appearances to the contrary.

The whole event had a prepackaged feel to it, and more than a whiff of self-indulgence among the participants who live for such gatherings and the networking opportunity they represent.

It was as if, inside the Glasgow bubble, no one had even heard of geopolitics or technology, even though they remain the biggest obstacles to tackling climate change. In reality, the energy transition is akin to a high-stakes game of chess that threatens to reconfigure power structures across the globe.

Even countries dependent on imported fossil fuels that theoretically stand to benefit from the phasing out of oil, natural gas and coal are unwilling to risk the political and economic upheaval that such a transition would entail. China, a net importer of oil and coal that dominates the global market for batteries and solar panels, might conceivably stand to come out on the winning end of an energy transition. But Mr. Xi understands better than anyone that his country is nowhere near being able to end its dependence on fossil fuels and that, in the absence of the technological breakthroughs that remain elusive, may never be.

The same goes for India, where the millions of future climate refugees who risk being displaced by severe weather events are vastly outnumbered by the hundreds of millions of people for whom access to fossil fuels remains a ticket to a more comfortable life.

It is no secret why Russian President Vladimir Putin was also a no-show in Glasgow. He has been too busy in recent weeks turning the screws on Europe, whose leaders have been grovelling for him to send them more Russian natural gas as they brace for a winter of discontent among voters facing skyrocketing energy bills. Besides, any effort to accelerate a “phase out” of fossil fuels would threaten to bankrupt the Russian state and sow political chaos.

Ditto for Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Mexico, Algeria, Nigeria and a slew of other dictatorships or struggling democracies for which fossil fuels are the primary, if not sole, source of wealth. COP26 did nothing to change that reality.

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