As the eyes of the world fall on Glasgow for the COP26 summit, its significance cannot be overstated. COP26 has been billed as the last chance saloon for us to save the planet by delivering on the promises adopted in the 2016 Paris Agreement which present a tangible route for each country to meet their ‘nationally determined contributions’ (NDCs: agreed timetables for emissions reductions). The NDCs give each country a realistic and equitable path to reach its target, with less developed nations recognised as having a more difficult path to net-zero emissions. These NDCs are due to be updated this year to keep countries on track to meet the Paris targets, with some yet to submit their new proposals. This will be crucial in holding countries to account for the pledges they’ve made.
It is the first of COP26’s four goals that is overarching: to “secure global net zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach” . Reaching ‘net-zero’ emissions means adding no more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than we remove. But this terminology and the legislation which backs it up can often be manipulated by big polluting companies who instead of reducing their carbon dioxide emissions, try to offset them by planting trees. This has been characterised as ‘greenwashing’, with the effectiveness of tree planting as an immediate solution under scrutiny. Activists cite the potential for wildfires and the time trees take to grow before they can become effective carbon capturers as major concerns . By comparison, leaving fossil fuels in the ground gives a far greater certainty for the quantity of emissions reductions. Because of the urgency of the climate crisis, the central focus of world governments needs to be on emissions reductions and forcing these companies to transition to green energy- not just allowing for inadequate and unverifiable offsets.
It is important to consider what a world 1.5°C or 2°C hotter (in comparison to the period 1850-1900) would look like to know what we are fighting against. This year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading UN authority on climate science, published its sixth assessment report which gave a stark and frightening analysis. They predict that a world 1.5°C warmer would face increased precipitation, more extreme heat, droughts, higher sea levels, extinction of species and habitats and much more. But this has been common knowledge for decades- the crucial findings of the report are about how much worse the effects will be if a 2°C increase is allowed to occur. The IPCC predict that the additional 0.5°C rise would cause sea levels to rise by an extra 0.1 metres, putting 10 million more people at risk, coral reefs to decline by over 99% (as opposed to 70-90% at 1.5°C) and double the number of people to experience climate change-induced water stress. These are just a few of the many tangible effects that another 0.5°C of warming would cause and should serve as motivation for the world to act in the most ambitious manner possible.
The analysis of pathways to the 1.5°C target, however, makes for sobering reading. Limiting temperature rises to the more ambitious target will require CO2 emissions to decline by 45% by 2030 in comparison to 2010 levels and reach net zero by 2050. By comparison, the 2°C target require reductions of 25% by 2030 and net-zero by 2070. The report makes clear that pathways to 1.5°C require “rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure and industrial systems”. To keep to this target, by 2050 renewables should supply at least 70% of electricity, CO2 from industry should be at least 65% lower and an additional $830 billion per year spent on energy-related investments. As of 2020 only 29% of electricity generation was from renewables, showing the scale of the task ahead.
A common theme across all the projected pathways is a dependence on carbon dioxide removal (CDR); in particular bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) technologies. These technologies would be necessary to keep to temperature targets only in the cases where emissions don’t drop by enough or we overshoot targets and try to bring the temperature back down. But such technologies are in their early stages, with only five BECCS facilities in operation as of 2019 capturing 1.5 million tonnes per year of CO2; a miniscule amount in comparison to the 11 gigatonnes needed by 2050 in the most BECCS dependent pathway . It is not just the limitations in upscaling BECCS, but the impact other carbon capture methods could have on land, energy, water and nutrients that make the feasibility of CDR a huge challenge. And the jury’s still out on the effectiveness of CDR in reducing temperatures after they’ve peaked, meaning that the NDCs need to rely on what we can do now rather than on future technology with no guarantees.
For the world to change in the manner needed requires huge political will power, which is so far lacking. The current national climate pledges put the world on track for a 2.7°C temperature rise by 2100, a far cry from the 1.5°C goal of Paris . The Emissions Gap Report 2021 found that the figure could be reduced to 2.2°C if pledges were implemented effectively, but that most national climate plans focus on delaying action till after 2030. This is why it is absolutely crucial for world leaders to act now, rather than fob the public off with dubious promises on ‘net-zero’ aimed primarily at appeasing the fossil fuel industry. The new NDCs are predicted to only reduce predicted emissions in 2030 by 7.5% in comparison to the previous NDCs, when a 55% reduction is needed for the 1.5°C target. One potential solution to limit temperatures in this crucial eight year window is to focus on reducing methane emissions, the second largest contributor to global warming. Methane can warm the planet 80 times more than CO2 and stays in the atmosphere for a far shorter period, meaning that cuts to methane will have a far quicker effect. Stringent cuts to methane may therefore buy the planet a little extra time to cut CO2, which will only be possible with clearly defined rules and transparent processes to track progress.
It is clear that climate change will disproportionately affect the poor and those living in the tropics, which is why it is particularly important for the developed nations- those with the necessary resources and technology- to take the lead. But so far only ten G20 members are predicted to meet their previous NDCs (let alone their new ones) with the USA the most prominent of those predicted to fall behind. These countries are guilty of duplicity; using vague long term targets to pretend to the public that they care, whilst doing little to back it up with concrete policy. In a similar way, our media have made much of the USA’s pledged promise of $11.4 billion per year in climate finance contributions. Whilst this could end up being another empty promise- Barack Obama promised $3 billion, but only delivered $1 billion per year- it is also a drop in the ocean for what a country like the USA can afford. By comparison the total cost of the Iraq War was estimated to be $1.9 trillion. More recently the USA signed the AUKUS deal with the UK and Australia which will build submarines at a cost of $3.45 billion each, meaning three submarines will cost as much as their annual contribution to the Green Climate Fund. Once again it shows the mixed-up priorities of Western leaders. To paraphrase Tony Benn, there is always enough money to kill people but never enough to help people.
The spotlight of the Western media has however predominantly fallen on China, which is viewed as the determining factor for whether COP26 is a success or failure. There is some merit to this, with China producing an estimated 27% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but when measuring by emissions per capita, the USA are more than twice as polluting. This measure is a better indicator of how ambitious a country’s path to net-zero can be, as well as being fairer and showing who holds the greatest historic responsibility for a warming planet. China’s COP26 pledge not to build any more coal-fired power stations abroad has far greater significance than current pledges on climate finance, but it should be viewed only as a good first step. This pledge is in keeping with their current investment projects in ‘belt and road’ initiative countries, with 57% of China’s energy investment going to renewables in 2020- a jump from only 38% in 2019- but it crucially makes no reference to coal power inside China . It is also clear that their headline policy of ‘peaking emissions by 2030’ must be brought forward if we are to have a chance of keeping warming under the targets.
The build-up to COP26 has been long, with promises under scrutiny like never before and a groundswell of anger and frustration from populations across the world coming to the fore. If we are to avert climate disaster, people must continue to mobilise to put pressure on their leaders to act now whilst we still have the chance. No matter how bad things get- indeed we are already feeling the effects of climate change- we must continue to fight for a green and sustainable world, staving off every fraction of a degree rise that we can. In such bleak times it is easy to be defeatist, but instead we must be realist, preparing for the worst but fighting for something far better. Glasgow’s COP26 conference is indeed of huge importance in getting the world to turn the corner, but it should just be the beginning. The fight to save our planet from the monstrous greed of capitalism; from those as Noam Chomsky said, “are willing to sacrifice the literal existence of organised human life… so they can put a few more dollars in highly overstuffed pockets” must be continued at all costs.