Will world leaders embrace the opportunity to announce radical plans to avert the climate crisis at the forthcoming COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, or will it be a litany of false promises, back-slapping and as Greta Thunberg said recently “blah, blah, blah” that changes nothing?
What is COP26?
COP26 as its name suggests is the 26th of these annual meetings. But what are they, what are they supposed to do and how effective have they been?
COP stands for Conference of Parties, an unnecessarily cumbersome name for the list of Governments (“Parties”) that signed up to the various conventions initiated at the UN’s Earth Summit in 1992. These treaties include The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) with 197 signatories, and similar treaties on Desertification (UNCCD) and Biodiversity (UNCBD).
The first COP meeting, COP1 was held in Berlin in 1995. They are annual opportunities for everyone involved in taking climate action, including Governments, NGO’s, trade unions, businesses and campaigners to meet, review and negotiate global action.
Let’s just stop for a moment and consider that timeline. To begin with 1992 when the potential for climate disaster was first officially recognised was a very long time ago. To put it in perspective Boris Yeltsin was the Russian Leader, Bill Clinton had just been elected US President and South Africa was still two years away from holding its first non-racial democratic election. It was the year of the Barcelona Olympic Games, the very first year of England’s Premier League and the year that Washington last won the Super Bowl, yes, it’s that long ago!
The point I’m making here is that it was a generation ago that the world woke up to the need to do something about man made climate change. And of course, a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, there have been science deniers and entrenched fossil fuel lobbies battling to maintain the status quo and there has been an awful lot of talk but little real action.
Copenhagen, Cancun and Paris
During all that time COP has been meeting, most famously in 2015 where the acclaimed Paris Accord was agreed, more of which in a moment. But let’s not forget that there were accords previously. At COP3 we had the Kyoto Protocol that President Clinton failed to get ratified and which other signatories largely ignored.
Then you may remember the Copenhagen Agreement from COP15 in 2009, that’s right already 14 years after the first COP meeting, which set a goal of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, and the Cancun Agreements at COP16 that brought together national plans under one banner.
Then there is Paris, signed in December 2015 at COP21 and widely regarded as the most significant step forward, the Centre for Energy and Climate Solutions describes it as reaffirming
“… the goal of keeping average warming below 2 degrees Celsius and articulates two long-term emission goals: first, a peaking of emissions as soon as possible (with a recognition that it will take longer for developing countries); then, a goal of net greenhouse gas neutrality in the second half of this century.”
President Trump famously withdrew from the Accord, so during the period of his Presidency the US took no formal actions to reduce emissions and while President Biden has re-joined there are five wasted years right there.
Action or Inaction
But is America any worse than anywhere else, have any of the large CO2 emitting nations made an effort to reduce their emissions in the last 5 years?
Why do we need to reduce emissions?
Currently, the world outputs 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases annually. Carbon Dioxide (CO2)is the most significant of these. The burning of fossil fuels for energy whether electricity generation or to power industry and transportation is the major contributor; coal, oil and natural gas all release CO2 into the atmosphere when burned.
Put simply greenhouse gasses prevent heat from escaping the atmosphere. As a result, the global temperature is warming: 7 of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2014.
The results can be seen across the globe, polar sea ice is melting, sea levels are rising, desertification is increasing, wildfires and flood events are on the rise, hurricanes are becoming stronger and permafrost is melting releasing methane (another greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere. The net effect is that the planet is changing making it more inhospitable to humans, wildlife and plants. By reducing emissions, ideally to zero, we will minimise the potentially catastrophic effects of a warming planet.
After the US, China is the most significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and is often blamed by the West for doing nothing. However, in the last few years the Chinese have started to take climate change seriously. In 2020 it announced its intention to become carbon neutral by 2060. Its long-awaited 14th Five Year Plan, published in March 2021, included 2025 energy and carbon intensity reduction targets, as well as a mid-point non-fossil share target. To get to these targets China is already investing heavily in hydrogen, hydroelectric and nuclear power.
You could argue that China is one of the few major economies that is actually facing the challenge head on. Yet Climate Action Tracker (CAT) reports as of 15th September 2021 an overall rating of Highly Insufficient. In other words, while China is making an effort it is not doing nearly enough. Coal for example is still the country’s major power source.
But don’t let that make you feel smug about the actions of the west. If we look on our own doorstep in the UK, despite the recent pronouncements of the British Prime Minister, CAT reports that “there remains a significant gap between the United Kingdom’s ambitions and its present level of action – in other words the UK’s actions need to be significantly ramped up.”
Under Biden the US is making strides forward, but CAT still reports that “The US is still not meeting its fair-share contributions to climate change and in addition to strengthening its targets and policies also needs to provide additional support to others.” Therefore, it currently has an Insufficient rating.
Other nations are no different whether it is Australia, Russia, India, South Africa, Indonesia, Thailand, Norway, New Zealand or the whole of the EU, wherever you look their policies and practical implementations of emissions reducing technologies have been Insufficient, Highly Insufficient or Critically Insufficient since COP21 and the Paris Agreement.
Surprise announcements or real-world actions?
So why do we think that COP26 will make any difference? President Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry was upbeat about world leaders making fresh commitments in his briefing to The Guardian on October 11th 2021. Saying that they would be “sharpening their pencils” to make “surprising announcements”.
We can only applaud his optimism; however real-life experience tells us something different. We have had 26 years since that first COP meeting and what has changed, there have been announcements and initiatives, Paris was hailed as a game changer, but if you look at the evidence there isn’t a single nation on earth that is facing climate change head on, making the structural changes that are needed to keep the global temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius, (as originally agreed let’s not forget at COP15, twelve years ago).
We are still emitting 51 billion tons of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere every year despite every previous agreement.
Forgive my cynicism but I predict there’ll be a lot of blah, blah, blah and a much vaunted Glasgow Agreement following the “surprise announcements”, but just like Kyoto, Copenhagen, Cancun and Paris unless governments actually take action, nothing will change and disaster will creep ever closer.
What do you think, will COP26 finally make a difference?