The rhetoric is strong – ‘this is our last hope’, in the words of COP26 president, Alok Sharma, Britain’s business and energy minister. Time is running out. Decisions need to be made by the heads of the world’s government and adhered to if our environment is not to be significantly degraded by runaway climate change.
But will the high expectations for a meaningful outcome from this year’s UN climate-change conference be met? Or will the gathering of government and private jets, the motorcade of the world leaders through the streets of Glasgow and the two weeks of talking all turn out to have been in vain?
The conference opened on Sunday 31 October with more than 120 world leaders gathered for the event’s first few days. After they depart, the complex and difficult negotiations will be left to their environment ministers, who will stay until the scheduled end of the talks on Friday 12 November. About 25,000 people are expected to attend the conference in total.
The Road to Glasgow
As a response to growing scientific concern that greenhouse gas emissions threaten humanity with runway global warming, leaders and representatives of 179 countries met in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 to agree the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
This was a set of measures intended to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous climatic changes. Anthropogenic warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of natural forests for farmland has steady increased the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from around 280 parts per million (ppm) – where it had been for millennia – to 412 ppm over the space of a century and half.
Having established that our planet was facing a massive threat, the question then arose as how to tackle it. Reducing fossil-fuel consumption would lead to reduced economic growth – how would that affect the poorer countries?
Parties to the convention promised to regularly check progress against targets set at annual events convened by the UN, called ‘conferences of the parties’, or COPs. Over the intervening years, Poland has hosted three COPs – COP14, in Poznań in 2008, COP19 in Warsaw in 2013, and COP24 in Katowice in 2018.
Back at COP3, held in Japan in 1997, governments adopted the Kyoto Protocol as an attempt to control greenhouse-gas emissions. Rich countries, which had emitted the bulk of the greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere, had the task of decarbonisation while developing nations were let off while they boosted their economic development. This approach was evidently not working. The concentration of greenhouse gases kept on building up at an alarming pace. So at COP21, held in Paris in 2015, the nations of the world reached a binding agreement requiring countries rich and poor together to pledge to decarbonise their economies.
Those national targets – known as nationally determined contributions, or NDCs – have since been proved to be inadequate to hold the world within the temperature targets. If fulfilled, they would result in 3C or more of warming, which would be disastrous.
It was clear that the NDCs agreed in Paris were inadequate, so a ‘ratchet mechanism’ was built into the agreements, by which countries would have to return to the table every five years with fresh commitments. Those five years were up on 31 December 2020, but the pandemic postponed the next scheduled COP.
All countries are now being urged to revise their NDCs in line with a 1.5C target. This will require a cut in emissions by 45% by 2030 compared with 2010 levels, and from there to net-zero emissions by 2050, if the world is to have a chance of staying beneath the 1.5C threshold.
However, taken together the NDC pledges offered so far would only result in a cut in emissions by 16% compared to 2010 levels by 2030. So there is much more that needs to be hammered out at Glasgow.
The big issues
COP26 marks the Paris agreement’s sixth anniversary. The big issues to be sorted out at Glasgow concern include extracting decarbonisation pledges from biggest emitters of carbon dioxide, China and India. Carbon trading needs to be reformed. Climate finance and green investment need better definitions and oversight. Rainforests need protecting.
Above all, the overarching goal is to hammer out a binding commitment from world leaders that the average temperature of our planet does not increase by more than 1.5C from pre-industrial levels. Any rise above that would threaten further massive melting of icecaps and may trigger runaway and catastrophic temperature rises. Small islands and low-lying coastal regions are likely to disappear beneath the waves.
COP26 opened on Sunday with the big speeches and declarations, and a message from Pope Francis calling for radical decisions that offer concrete hope to future generations.
The conference followed on directly from the G20 meeting held in Rome last week, at which neither China nor Russia, according to Mr Biden, two of the group’s most-polluting members, failed to show up with any plans to cut their use of fossil fuels.
The substantive part of the conference started on a positive note, with a pledge to end deforestation by 2030. The main culprit here, Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil under whose watch the Amazon rainforest has seen dramatic losses, agreed to sign. Other countries such as Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo have also signed up to the agreement, in return for a funding package worth a total of $19 billion. The deal covers around 85% of the world’s forests. Another positive has been the first-ever commitment made by India to achieve net-zero carbon emissions; however prime minister Modi set his country the target of reaching that goal by 2070, twenty years later than the emissions target for the planet as a whole.
The big aim of COP26 will be to ensure enough progress during the talks on emissions cuts for 2030 to ‘keep 1.5 alive’ – phasing out coal (a big problem for Poland!) cutting methane; aiming to end the use fossil fuels for transport; getting business, financial institutions and local authorities to set out their plans to cut emissions in line with the 1.5C target.
Goals set in Glasgow will affect everyone. The responsibility will fall on governments, on business and on individuals. COP26 will highlight the technological advances that are needed to move swiftly away from fossil-fuel dependency in energy production, transportation and the built environment. There will be an economic cost to be borne by everyone – people in developing countries whose economies will not be able to grow as quickly as those of the rich world did, people in rich countries who will have to go without the luxuries and convenience that they had become accustomed to.
For our businesses, the pledges signed up to at COP26 will turn into ever-tougher targets to be met in the years and decades ahead, often at the cost to investments intended to increase profitability. Shareholders, on the one hand, are expecting returns on their investment – but not at the cost of the planet. Ever tougher targets mean more stringent reporting and due diligence; from packaging, energy-saving, waste management and greener transport, the knock-on effect of COP26 on the way you run your firm will be noticeable.