After an unpromising start, the COP26 climate summit began with leaders acknowledging the urgency of the problem of climate change and warning that action is needed
1 November 2021
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The COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow, UK, kicked off today with an undeniable sense of urgency. A series of speeches underlined how scary the climate situation has become.
The UK’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, likened climate change to a “doomsday device” that urgently needs defusing. Nevertheless, Johnson’s speech was infused with his usual upbeat boosterism, with the phrase “we can” cropping up repeatedly. Like Prince Charles, who also spoke, he emphasised markets, private finance and technology as potential solutions.
In contrast, UN secretary-general António Guterres was far harsher, highlighting the many missed opportunities and broken promises over recent years. The key to understanding his frustration is in the name COP26: this is the 26th annual meeting the world’s leaders have held to try to stop dangerous climate change. Guterres accused world leaders of “treating nature like a toilet” and complained that “we are digging our own graves”.
World leaders have left it terribly late to get a real handle on this problem. According to the World Meteorological Organization’s new report, State of the Global Climate 2021, the last seven years were the warmest on record. For the first time, the 20-year global average temperature is 1°C above pre-industrial levels – a worrying marker point when we are supposed to be trying to limit warming to 1.5°C.
While countries have made various pledges to cut their emissions in the past year, the pledges still leave us on track for a 16 per cent rise in emissions by 2030, as opposed to the 45 per cent reduction we actually need. So the question is whether the articulate acknowledgements of the problem will translate into meaningful action.
It must be said that the lead-up to the conference hasn’t gone terribly well.
The first setback happened at the G20 summit, which took place over the weekend. The UK government wanted to get some sort of strong new commitment on lowering carbon emissions from the other countries, and for a while, it seemed it might happen. Several journalists were shown leaked draft texts of a final communiqué, which contained a promise to secure additional emissions-cutting pledges ahead of 2030. That would have been a real step forward, and journalist Robert Peston described this as a “notable breakthrough”. But something must have changed behind the scenes, because the final version of the communiqué – officially called the Rome declaration – said nothing of the kind. A timeline for phasing out coal power was also removed, and all in all, the communiqué said little of note. Maarten van Aalst at the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre called it “disappointing”.
Sunday also saw an outbreak of black comedy. Many people were catching trains from the south of the UK to Glasgow, but crucial services were cancelled due to bad weather, stranding some travellers on stationary trains. Many people wound up flying to COP26, a mode of transport that releases far more greenhouse gases than trains. It was a terrible look: not only is the UK’s transport infrastructure not resilient to the extreme weather it now sees, people had to take domestic flights to get to a climate change conference. The whole thing was made even more embarrassing by the recent decision of UK chancellor Rishi Sunak to cut air passenger duty for internal UK flights – a move that the UK Office for Budget Responsibility estimates will lead to an extra 410,000 passenger journeys per year.
On a more positive note, the UK government announced today that it is going to give a chunk of money to developing countries to help them roll out sustainable, green technologies. The commitment is for £3 billion over the next five years, which is double what the government gave in the period 2017-2021. This is welcome news, although there is a dark irony here. Earlier this year, the UK government cut its overseas aid budget from 0.7 per cent of GDP to 0.5 per cent, breaking a manifesto commitment. This amounted to a cut of about £4 billion per year. So, while this new commitment of £3 billion over five years is in some sense an improvement, it is happening in the context of a significantly larger cut in international aid.
What to watch for
Today and tomorrow is the World Leader’s Summit phase of COP26. Many national leaders will be making speeches. Probably the most dramatic contribution so far came from Narendra Modi of India. The country didn’t submit an emissions plan ahead of COP26, but the fact that Modi is attending in person suggested he had something in mind. Accordingly, Modi announced that India will target net-zero emissions by 2070. That is two decades after the 2050 deadline the summit is aiming for, but it is nevertheless an advance. What India does will matter enormously, because it is one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases: either the third or fourth-largest, depending on whether you count the European Union as one emitter or split it up. The question now is how other leaders will respond to Modi’s new pledge. The next 24 hours or so will tell.
Quote of the day
“We are in roughly the same position, my fellow global leaders, as James Bond today.” UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in his speech that world leaders were like super-spy James Bond, faced with a world-ending bomb that needed to be defused and wondering which wire to cut. It was a typically Johnsonian analogy – that is, squarely targeted at British nostalgia. But Bond was an interesting person to evoke, given what happened to him in his most recent outing, No Time to Die. I won’t spoil it, but it is spelled out here if you want to know, and it doesn’t half cast that line in a different light.
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