COP26: If not us, who? If not now, when?

Latest data from NASA’s Vital Signs indicate the world has already warmed by 1°C since the start of the industrial era when carbon dioxide concentration in the air was near 280 parts per million (ppm).  Today carbon dioxide concentration is at 417 ppm. A quarter of this increase has occurred in the last 20 years. Such rates of increase are unprecedented over the last 2000 years. With 2020 being the second warmest year on record, it is now widely accepted this planetary warming is down to the activities of nearly 8 billion people.  Its origins date back to the 18th century when the UK led the global march to industrialisation. Many argue the UK has a moral responsibility to demonstrate that decarbonisation of their economies is a viable path for all countries without compromising economic growth. 

Looking across the River Clyde to its north bank on Day 1 of COP26, we no longer see Scottish territory but land designated as ‘independent’ under the control of the United Nations.  The arrival of 25,000 delegates this week sees the next round of negotiations following the landmark treaty, signed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, committing countries to addressing climate change. COP26 is the most important meeting since COP21 in Paris in 2015 when 200 countries committed themselves to limiting average global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees. Yet no one believes the measures taken over the last 6 years have put us on a safer path. Indeed many of the detailed issues around implementation of the Paris agreement like carbon markets and alignment on timescales have yet to be resolved.  The key twin objectives of COP26 are to seek bolder government action that commits countries to a net-zero goal by 2050 alongside a package of financial commitments worth $100B a year to support developing nations in their transition. 

Key to its success will be securing national commitments to greenhouse gas emissions reduction known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). According to the independent Climate Action Tracker, the latest figures suggest around 120 of the 197 parties involved in COP26 have submitted NDC pledges.  However only 12 countries to date have given them legal status, 3 more are planned for legislation and the remainder are just proposed targets or policy aspirations.  The largest emitters are China, US, EU+UK, India, and Russia and it is their commitments that will face the closest scrutiny.  Of these 5, only the EU has enshrined its targets in law. The United Nations Environment Program’s latest Emissions Gap Report suggests that if every country meets its current commitments, the world will still be on track to warm by more than 3°C by the end of this century.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is calling for a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions for every nation by 2030 to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. Critically the longer we delay these cuts the deeper and more painful they will need to be to limit extreme warming.  

As societies rebound economically from the pandemic, securing the promised financial commitments made at COP15 in 2009 of $100B per year also continues to be problematic.  This goal is seen as crucial in securing the trust of many developing nations who are relying on this finance to support their national climate plans. 

What level of financial investment will it take to tackle global climate change? In their 2019 report, Morgan Stanley estimated it would require $50tn ($50,000,000,000,000) principally to address energy decarbonisation through renewables, EVs, carbon capture, hydrogen production, and biofuels. However, estimates do vary widely depending on the level of activity required for climate mitigation, adaptation, and societal transitioning efforts.  

Our Prime Minister is fond of using the UK as an exemplar to demonstrate how to decarbonise a national energy system (to some degree) without compromising on economic growth.  The green industrial revolution is, in his words, an enormous growth opportunity for those countries prepared to take a lead role. There is also the cost of inaction where figures like $50tn could pale into insignificance in relation to costs from droughts, flooding, wildfires, sea-level rise, and the indirect effects of resource scarcity on vulnerable populations and biodiversity.  So while the scale of investment needed for this transition is undoubtedly challenging, maybe it is not the primary bottleneck to progress. After all, it is estimated $12tn has been spent globally over a relatively short period to support Covid-19 response efforts. 

Perhaps the biggest hurdles to overcome are societal behaviour change together with measures required by our governments to nudge us in the right direction.  It seems many politicians believe such policies will be widely unpopular, and despite the growing global awareness of the long-term benefits and risks, they may be right.  As John F Kennedy said, Politics is a jungle – torn between doing the right thing and staying in office. 

What are the most likely outcomes from COP26?  In the UK the event has certainly attracted considerable mainstream media attention in its run up. It is perhaps this raised profile across civic society that will have the biggest impact through a growing awareness of the issues and a stronger propensity to take action. Will the conference itself have any impact internationally?  Will we get a domino effect of countries committing to 50% emissions targets by 2030?  At the current moment, it seems highly unlikely. The reality facing many COP26 delegates is the sheer volume of legal and technical content leaving little time for any meaningful negotiation. In many cases, national positions have already been cemented in advance. We should, of course, expect the usual torrents of greenwash and political spin accompanying any pronouncements on outcomes.  When these are stripped back climate experts are predicting a relatively weak political declaration that aspires to much but commits to little in the way of tangible actions.  Our political leaders may individually recognise the dependency of healthy human societies on the continued stability of natural ecosystems. They may even acknowledge there are likely to be ecological limits to economic growth. But for many, addressing environmental issues will still be considered a drag on shorter-term economic development. As such they will resist taking the bold decisions that set the planet on a sustainable path for future generations. If this prediction comes to pass over the next two weeks it seems no longer credible to talk about a 1.5°C target. Instead, we may need to face up to the consequences. 

Greening the urban environment – a Glasgow mural 

“This is a green world, with animals comparatively few and small, and dependent on the leaves. By leaves we live.” Sir Patrick Geddes (1854 – 1932) Scottish biologist, sociologist, geographer, urban planner, advocate of nature conservation and campaigner against environmental pollution. 

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