A Fair COP?

5 Nov 2021

DRD Partner, Pete Bowyer, chair of the Advisory Board of Climate Home News and a veteran of COPs dating back to Copenhagen in 2009, takes a look at the chances of success at this year’s COP26 as we end the first week of the Conference.

We’re approaching the halfway point of COP26, and Boris Johnson has described the world as being 5-1 down at half time in the battle against climate change, but that COP26 gives us an opportunity to equalise. If that is the case, we can expect to be in for a hell of a second week in Glasgow.

The good news

Unfortunately the reality is unlikely to match the rhetoric, but let’s start with the good news. The UK Government went into COP26 with four priorities: “coal, cash, cars and trees” (they clearly struggled to complete the alliteration) and has helped push through progress on three of these four fronts so far.

On coal, and despite being red-faced a new coal mine being approved in Cumbria, the Government secured agreement by more than 40 countries to phase out coal production, although excluded from that list were the major users: China, US, India, South Africa and Australia. However, the US has agreed to end its public financing of all international fossil fuel projects, a major step forward.

Cash, in a post-COVID-19 world, has been harder to come by, but even so solid progress has been made. Former Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney announced an agreement by 450 financial institutions controlling $130 trillion of private capital that had signed up to 2050 net zero investment targets. Governments, however, have been stingier. The poorest nations on earth, with some justification, argue that it is they who face the brunt of climate change, and yet they have done least to cause it. Back at the 2009 Copenhagen COP, rich countries committed to providing $100 billion a year by 2020, but have miserably failed to do so and that deadline has now been pushed back to 2023.

On trees, more than 100 countries have pledged to end deforestation by 2030, including Brazil. The promise includes almost $20 billion of public and private funds to support this initiative, although some sceptics have warned that previous deals failed to slow deforestation at all and have demanded rigorous checks. Boris Johnson, however, was typically upbeat, saying the agreement would “end the role of humanity as nature’s conqueror, and instead become nature’s custodian.”

Finally, cars. The summit has yet to reach the issue of transportation, but look out for a major announcement next Wednesday when leaders from the car market who have committed to 100% zero-emission vehicles sale by 2040 or earlier, will host a headline event.

"That’s not to say that the outcome of COP26 will be disastrous, only that it will not go far enough"

The not so good news

OK, so that’s the good news but in many ways it’s also the low-hanging fruit. The tricky bits are less glamorous, but more critical and can be summed up in two words: rules and ambition. Let’s start with the rules.

I can well recall the euphoria in the auditorium in Paris in 2015 when that deal was eventually done, but the truth is that was relatively easy. In essence, all that was agreed was a framework deal to limit world temperatures to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial averages, but the rules to implement that agreement were left for the future. Since then, of course, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading authority on climate science, has notched down that limit to just plus 1.5°C, making any deal even harder to implement successfully.

The principal area of disagreement is around Article 6 on the design of a new global carbon market which remains contentious after five years of negotiations. The devil as always is in the detail, and that revolves around how to avoid double-counting of traded emissions targets, carrying forward Kyoto units to offset reductions and ensuring that trading does actually lead to emissions reductions, rather than just transfers. All remain thorny issues, and whereas some progress might be expected an agreed global traded carbon market looks beyond the realm of the possible.

At the other end of the scale, there is a lack of ambition to reach anything other than a run of the mill agreement at this COP. That’s been most obvious in the list of notable absentees from the opening Summit including Xi Jinping of China, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, all of whom are needed to reach an ambitious agreement. In the run up to the Copenhagen COP in 2009, as a young(ish) communications adviser to Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary General, I urged him to ride the wave of optimism, generated largely then, as now, by the world’s youth, and bring world leaders together to broker a deal. I had naively confused political belief with political judgement, but Kofi was wiser and stayed away from what he knew would be a disastrous outcome to that Summit.

That’s not to say that the outcome of COP26 will be disastrous, only that it will not go far enough. To accord with the science, countries must commit to reducing fossil fuel emissions through their so-called ‘Nationally Determined Contributions’ (NDCs) to net zero by 2050. The Paris Agreement also required countries to ratchet up their ambitions but China (the world’s biggest polluter) remains focused on its previously announced 2060 net zero goal whilst India has set a 2070 deadline (which was hailed by many as a significant achievement in itself). Russia has yet to bother setting any formal goal.

The United Nations Environment Programme warned, in its Emissions Gap report analysing NDCs published just last week, that the world is on course to warm by around 2.7°C with hugely destructive impacts leading the current UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres to point out that in reality, “the emissions gap is the result of a leadership gap.” Despite valiant efforts, that leadership gap has yet to be filled in Glasgow and it remains extremely unlikely that a striker will come off the bench next week to score the four goals in the second half that Boris says we need to equalise in the fight against climate change.