Good COP, bad COP? Saving the planet is put on hold

A man at a demo holds up a banner reading There is NO Planet B (the B replaced by a bee)
No Planet B(ee). Protesters make clear the threat of climate change, but not all governments are listening. Photo credit: Lewis Parsons on Unsplash

What does final agreement at the 26th United Nations Conference of the Parties, known as COP26, mean for areas of the UK such as the Sussex coastline –  threatened like so many island nations by climate change – and for the world’s future generations?

First, there was disappointment that China and India secured a last minute change from a commitment to “phase out” coal to one to “phase down” coal and that the deal fell short of limiting temperature rise to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels. However, countries agreed to come back next year with strengthened plans. 

The UK frontman, Boris Johnson, who spent decades flirting with climate change denial, claimed he had a “road to Damascus conversion” on becoming prime minister. However, the existential threat which climate change represents was already known to national and international policy makers in the late 1980s, as a speech made by Margaret Thatcher to the UN general assembly in November 1989 demonstrated.

In the intervening decades, governments of all political persuasions, both here and abroad, have failed to take the necessary action, with greenhouse gas emissions continuing to rise exponentially, hence the temperature rise of 1.1C above pre-industrial levels. 

Barack Obama (a politician no longer seeking re-election) spoke the truth when he said: “We are nowhere near where we need to be”. Under the COP21 Paris Agreement of 2015, 169 countries committed to try to limit warming to “well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius”. 

The main focus of the joint Presidency (UK with Italy, chair of the G7) has been the hope for more robust “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs) on greenhouse gas emissions from participating countries to reduce emissions by half of those in 2010 by 2030, so that 1.5C remains achievable. 

However, the final agreement from COP26 is too weak on this. An estimate by Climate Action Tracker, published on 9 November shows that the national climate pledges made at COP26 are likely to deliver a median estimate of 2.4C by 2100, with catastrophic consequences. 

The UK Prime Minister pledged action on “coal, cars, cash and trees” as he sought a series of side deals. 

More than 40 countries have pledged to phase out coal and fossil fuels from power generation. 

Major countries said they would phase out coal by the 2030s and poorer countries in the 2040s. However, the world’s most coal-dependent economies, including China, along with the US, India, and Australia, are not part of the new commitments. Although there was a pledge negotiated by John Kerry, the US Special Presidential Envoy on Climate, that the US and China – who together account for over 40% of global emissions –  will “work together” to boost climate co-operation over the next decade.

There is also text on phasing down “unabated” coal (burnt without carbon capture and storage) as well as ending inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels. This will be the first time in 30 years that coal and other fossil fuels will be mentioned in a UN climate document. 

A related side deal, which had significant developing country support, to end international public financing of all fossil fuels by the end of 2022 (diverting the cash into clean energy instead) is also important. 

Another positive move relating to fossil fuels was a deal to cut emissions of methane (a potent greenhouse gas) by 30% by 2030. Supported by both the US and the EU, this attracted signatures from over 100 countries, excepting China, India and Russia, all major methane emitters.

Leading manufacturers, along with 24 countries, agreed to sell only emission-free vehicles by 2040 “or earlier”.

However, this initiative stalled, as the governments of the US, China and Germany (all major car manufacturers) were unwilling to agree, and this also deterred Volkswagen, Toyota, and BMW from signing. Road transport accounts for a significant 10% of global emissions.

People in a street in Asia wade through their flooded street.
Severe floods are becoming more frequent as rising global temperatures disrupt weather patterns. Photo credit: Misbahul Aulia on Unsplash

A group of 450 banks and insurers have committed $130 trillion to tackle climate change between now and 2050.

The group is chaired by Mark Carney, former governor of the Bank of England and a UN Special Envoy on Climate Action and Finance. The support from private finance is important, because of its scale. At present, financial regulations constrain our pension funds and insurance companies from making green investments.

In terms of public funding, as long ago as 2009 poorer countries were promised $100bn a year by wealthier nations by 2020, to help transition to cleaner energy and mitigate the impacts of climate change, but this target has yet to be met. 

It will now be reconsidered every two years, with richer countries agreeing to consider at least doubling the annual amount for adaptation and the prospect of a trillion dollars a year fund from 2025. Disappointingly, a deal to provide a “loss and damage” fund was kicked into the long grass. 

Over 100 world leaders agreed to reverse deforestation by 2030. 

This deforestation deal included the absent leaders Xi Jinping of China and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, as well as Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. The latter has presided over the destruction of much of the Amazon rainforest, so may have no intention of respecting the pledge. Indigenous rights activists were sceptical, saying they needed evidence not words. 

The world’s best known climate activist, Greta Thunberg, delivered her verdict on COP from the sidelines of the meeting. It was, she said, “a failure….a PR event for the status quo….” 

The former Irish President, Mary Robinson, chairs an independent group of global leaders known as The Elders, who have been highly critical of the COP process. She said younger generations will be “guaranteed to witness the total destabilisation of life as we know it”. A pity then that Greta’s voice and those of other young activists were effectively marginalised.

So… good COP or bad COP?

China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India and some in the EU (with Merkel’s effective departure creating a vacuum) were not willing to act fast enough to keep temperature rises to 1.5C. 

The UK’s credibility as host has also been on the line. The government is still issuing oil and gas licences such as that for the Cambo oilfield in the North Sea and has failed so far to stop plans for a large new coal mine in Cumbria. The UK also lacks a convincing strategy to match its rhetoric at COP on net zero. The view that the Prime Minister “talks the talk” but does not “walk the walk” seemed prevalent.

Some people maintain that new fuels and technologies such as “green hydrogen” (produced by splitting water via electrolysis powered by renewable energy) rather than COP26, will get us to net zero. Green hydrogen does indeed have huge potential, but it takes time, as well as massive public and private investment in new technologies, for it to be developed and adopted widely. 

Time is in very short supply when it comes to saving coastal regions such as those of Sussex and protecting the future of our children and grandchildren from dangerous climate change. Let’s hope that COP27 in Egypt in 2022 can do better.

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