COP26: Time to walk the walk
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The UK presidency is being encouraged to make COP26 the event where ambition turns into action to achieve real progress on climate change.
Glasgow is about to host the first five-year review of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, and countries are expected to announce updates to their plans for reducing emissions, but many commentators are frustrated that new targets simply point to ambitions for, and not action on, climate change.
The UK’s president designate for COP26, Alok Sharma, has outlined four goals for the climate change agenda. Principally, he wants to align every nationally determined contribution (NDC) with a goal of lowering the current 2°C global warming limit to 1.5°C. Countries are being asked to announce ambitious emissions reduction targets ahead of meeting in Glasgow. The other three goals are to help countries adapt to climate change and minimise losses caused by flooding and other weather-related events, to increase and to mobilise climate finance, and lastly, to enhance international collaboration.
Carlos Pacual, senior vice president for global energy at the analyst IHS Markit, says: “Countries are looking at COP26 as the foundational point that will help translate [net-zero] aspirations into action.”
Laurence Tubiana, CEO, European Climate Foundation, told a CERAWeek energy forum hosted by IHS Markit: “COP26 has to capitalise on the short-term actions consistent with the net-zero goals that more than 115 countries have adopted, and with an element of credibility.”
For Professor Michael Jacobs, a research fellow at the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Sheffield, COP26 has to address the ‘emissions gap’ – the shortfall between the goal to which countries have committed and the actual commitments they have made to cut their own emissions.
Scientific opinion is that to be on a trajectory to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, global emissions in 2030 will need to be 25Gt of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent). Based on commitments made to date, Jacobs says, emissions are currently expected to be 53-56Gt by 2030.
Plans for reducing emissions include accelerating the phase-out of coal, encouraging investment in renewable energies, limiting deforestation, and quickening the pace to switch from petrol and diesel to electric vehicles within the next 10 years.
Internationally, there is a marked shift away from fossil fuels. Aurora Energy Research’s 2021 ‘Global Energy Markets’ report finds that economic growth will lead to global energy demand rising by 25 per cent over the next 30 years, but the share of fossil fuels will decline by 15 percentage points to 71 per cent as renewable energy production increases. Energy market modelling shows global emissions will peak around 2030 followed by a decline.
“Based on current and stated policies, we expect greenhouse gas emissions to peak around 2030, with oil demand also peaking around the same time, due to faster growth in electric vehicles,” says Aurora research director Richard Howard.
China’s post-Covid-19 economic recovery has seen the reopening of over 40 coal mines and 10GW of new coal-fired power stations in 2020. Its attendance at COP26 has not yet been confirmed but the country has said it will aim for carbon neutrality in 2060 (a decade after the Paris Agreement’s deadline) and it is also aiming to get a quarter of its total energy from nuclear and renewable sources by 2030.
One of President Joe Biden’s first acts was to bring the USA back into the Paris Agreement. The country is one of the world’s largest CO2 emitters and has pledged a target of 50-52 per cent reductions from 2005’s emission levels in 2030. The EU has adopted an ambitious law which commits the bloc of 27 countries to net zero by 2050. It is on course to meet its target of 40 per cent reduction in emissions from 1990 levels by 2030, and has revised its target to 55 per cent, although this will be using emissions trading incentives. Individually, Germany proposes it will reach net zero by 2045 and France introduced legislation to decrease emissions by 40 per cent by 2030 compared with 1990 levels. Saudi Arabia, Russia, Australia and China are among the 12 G20 countries yet to announce revised targets ahead of COP26.
The UK’s role at COP26 will be to lead diplomatic efforts for governments to jointly set a target for removing public finance from fossil fuels and to support renewable energy. It has taken the lead when in April it set a target of 78 per cent emissions reduction by 2035, compared to 1990 levels. Importantly, the target includes international aviation and shipping emissions in the calculation for the first time.
The EU has announced plans to have 25 per cent of all agricultural areas farmed organically, to plant three billion trees, restore 25,000km of rivers and reverse the decrease in bee and wasp populations. Detractors including scientists at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology argue that the plans may result in the EU outsourcing environmental damage by increasing imports of agricultural products and that the EU’s CO2 footprint should factor in emissions created by production abroad.
All revised targets look to achieve net-zero emissions, but Ric Casale, co-founder and trustee of the climate charity Carbon Copy, says the world should be focusing on zero-carbon policies. There is, he says, a gap between the rhetoric and the reality, and that success should not necessarily be a set of specific targets but deliverables that are realised in 12 months’ time. He believes a 12-month review would be a good way to measure the national and international goals that have been achieved.
Casale also wants action to be mandated at a local level, with finances allocated to and managed by local authorities and “into the hands of people responsible for implementing policies”. He says the UK, and Glasgow in particular, is a good location for COP26. Awarded Global Green City in 2020 by the Global Forum on Human Settlements, the city is committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2030.
Echoing Casale’s call for local action rather than international ambition, Martin Baxter, director of policy and external affairs at the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment, a professional body for environmental practitioners, says that there is a detectable shift in the UK to more corporate action. He praises the government’s procurement policy, which will take into account the net-zero ambitions and performance of companies when awarding public contracts over £5m.
He believes incentives and “the right signals” are driving improvements in technologies. For example, the semiconductor industry is investing in ways to reduce waste water in semiconductor production and to improve energy efficiency in data centre operation. Companies are also encouraged to look at their supply chains to understand how they can influence their carbon footprint through supply choices and product design.
Another target, to increase and mobilise finance, may be a significant milestone for COP26. At the 2009 COP in Copenhagen, developed countries agreed to transfer $100bn each year to developing countries to help them build renewable energy markets. The latest figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) show only $79.8bn was transferred in 2018. In addition to delivering the agreed finance, COP26 could be the platform for international financial institutions to work towards releasing private and public sector finance.
The agreed finance is needed, among other things, for early warning systems and flood defences, as well as protecting and restoring habitats that are themselves natural storm and flood defences.
Oil Change International’s global industry campaign manager, David Tong, says banks should use financial tools like prudential regulation, credit guidance and public statements to regulate or make it more costly to lend towards fossil-fuel production.
At COP26 all countries will be asked to produce an Adaption Communication with details of actions and plans to adapt to the impact of climate change with a view to sharing best practice around the world. This will build on the Adaptation Action Coalition developed by the UK, Egypt, Bangladesh, Malawi, the Netherlands, Saint Lucia and the UN Development Programme.
The success of COP26 will be based on more than finalising the Paris Rulebook (the rules needed to implement the Paris Agreement). The call for action rather than more rhetoric is getting louder. As the host nation, the UK will have to bridge international differences to progress the phasing-out of coal (if not oil and gas), lower the 2°C temperature cap, and raise accountability for financial contributions. Changes at national, local and individual levels may result from the media attention COP26 attracts, before anything governments can put into place.
Climate change – so what?
According to the IPCC, the last five years have been the hottest on record, accompanied by a rise in sea levels. Its August report, ‘Climate Change: The Physical Science Basis’, is described as a “code red for humanity” by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. “The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable,” he says.
In recent years, phenomenal weather events have become more frequent, with another year of record high temperatures in Europe and the west coast of North America, with accompanying wild fires, as well as fatal flooding in Germany, New York and China. There was also the sight of deep snow falling in late August in the Atacama desert in Chile, said to be the driest place on Earth, when the effects of climate change meant that rising temperatures led to more water evaporating to fall as snow in sub-zero desert temperatures at night.
Ice sheets in the Antarctic and Greenland are melting and they will continue to melt regardless of the emission scenario, says Professor Michael Norton, environment programme director for the European Academies Science Advisory Council. “All we can do now is to try and reduce the rate at which their melt is accelerating and delay the rate of the sea levels rising,” he declares.
The Amazon could also change “from a rainforest to a savannah of grassland and sparse woodland”, says Norton. The transition could occur within 50 years, beginning at the edges and gradually spreading inland. “The most recent data shows that it has already become a net source of carbon and is no longer supplying that incredibly valuable ecosystem service of sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere, he observes.
Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences projects that without mitigation a 3°C rise in mean annual temperatures would expose up to three billion people to conditions that today exist only in places like the Sahara desert.
There are lots of acronyms and phrases peculiar to climate change meetings. Here is a COP glossary:
COP – Conference of the Parties which signed the 1994 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
Paris Agreement – negotiated at COP21 in 2015, 197 countries or states agreed to reduce the impact of climate change by limiting the rise in the mean global temperature to 2.0°C and to strive for 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The Agreement called for emissions to be reduced to net zero by 2050.
The Paris Rulebook – will set the Agreement in motion by defining the tools and processes for a full, fair and effective implementation. A focus for COP26 will be to finalise the Rulebook.
Article 6 Paris Agreement – This relates to carbon markets and covers emissions trading schemes, the international transfer of carbon credits between countries, and the application of taxes to discourage emissions. Critics say carbon trading is a way for developed countries to continue producing emissions and places the responsibility on developing countries without reducing poverty.
NDCs – Nationally Determined Contributions. An expression of how a country feels it can reduce emissions to reach the overall aim of halting global temperature rises. The UN says they “embody efforts by each country to reduce national emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change”. NDCs are submitted every five years to the UNFCCC secretariat and must represent a progression compared to the previous NDC.
Net zero (also called carbon neutral) – the state when the emissions produced (by coal- and gas-fired power stations, for example) and the reduction of those already in the atmosphere (via reforestation and trees absorbing CO2) are equal.
Zero carbon – using only renewable energy rather than offsetting emissions from fossil fuels to reduce carbon emissions to zero.
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