IIn November, Boris Johnson will host the most important global gathering ever to take place on British soil. The outcomes of this UN summit on climate change, known as COP26, will help shape the destiny of billions of people for decades to come. For the UK it is also the first major stress test of its new role in the world after leaving the EU.
On the surface, the chances of success seem high. The US, China, the EU, the UK and 97 other countries have reported that their total carbon dioxide emissions by mid-century will be zero. The economy is aligned: Coal, oil and gas companies are increasingly underperforming, while renewable companies are booming. The rising costs of the climate emergency, coupled with the increasingly obvious benefits of an energy transition, are rapidly altering the calculus of what is possible.
But a closer look suggests that the chances of success may be substantially lower. The Glasgow summit is the first to take place after the historic Paris agreement came into force. These are the first talks of a new era. Formally, only a modest part of the Paris agreement, on carbon markets, remains to be negotiated: the agreement here will do little to reduce carbon emissions. Unlike previous UN talks, the possibilities of what this summit can achieve are open. The bad news is that the UK government does not yet have a clear plan on what Cop26 should do.
This is what could happen without a serious plan. Limited formal negotiations mean limited opportunities for countries to get what they want in one area by engaging in another. The bitter acrimony of the “global south against the global north” erupts from past summits. The new climate diplomacy between the United States and China attempts to salvage the EU-backed talks that collectively freeze failed hosts. Johnson is a spectator at his own historic peak. The opportunity to cut emissions is lost and the UK’s idea of a “global Britain” withers in wintry Scotland.
The UK government should build on the agenda by comprehensively reformulating what COP26 is for. Currently the government has five summit themes: clean energy, clean transport, nature-based solutions, adaptation and financing. This is not the inclusive approach needed as the host of conversations, nor is it logical. Why, for example, is health not on the list? What about agriculture, what cause a third of global emissions? The essential rethinking must be that Cop26 exists for one key purpose: to implement the Paris agreement. That is, a global plan to bring greenhouse gas emissions to an average of zero, often referred to as “net zero”, to stabilize the climate.
From this transparent reframing flow four essential characteristics of success. First, countries need plans that are consistent with the Paris agreement. By UN standards, countries should have already submitted updated and more ambitious commitments. But so far they are closer to a laughable 0.5% below 2010 levels by 2030, compared to 45% required by 2030, on track to net zero by 2050 to limit warming to 1.5 ° C. Reframing COP26 around the implementation of the Paris agreement makes the essential diplomacy needed to encourage improved short-term promises more likely may it be successful.
The second element is to firmly establish plans to decarbonize beyond governments. This is because all sectors in all countries must achieve net zero emissions. UK diplomacy, business and civil society could work towards a series of green announcements for Cop26. New global plans for all major sectors, including transportation, construction, cement, insurance, finance and agricultural commodities, to align with halving emissions by 2030, would show the world that zero Net is fast approaching, moving investment away from fossil fuels and toward alternatives.
The third task is for the UK to be friends with the less powerful countries. It is critical that the host open formal negotiations to help vulnerable nations. These are technical tasks, but should include a focus on helping adaptation to climate impacts. African countries want a tax on any future carbon market transactions to pay for this adaptation, particularly sea level rises affecting coastal cities in Africa. Similarly, the difficult question of historical polluters You have to accept payment for weather damage. Ignoring this broader climate justice agenda will likely backfire.
The final element is the thorniest: finances. A 2009 commitment by developed countries to provide $ 100 billion a year additional new climate finance, reaffirmed in 2015, has fallen short of $ 20-50 billion annually. A new financial package requires financing for the future, the energy transition and the adaptation of our societies as the climate changes, as well as closing the financial taps for the extraction and use of fossil fuels. Given the impacts of Covid-19, debt relief for low-income countries is essential, so that they can increasingly finance their own zero net future. Without this, and with no more money on the table, climate catastrophe looms.
Johnson won’t want to risk failure on the world stage. and that presents an opportunity. For global credibility, the UK government needs its own house in order – that should mean no new Cumbrian colliery or tax relief on domestic flights. You’ll also need eye-catching announcements to signal the end of the fossil age, the most obvious. ending the North Sea oil and gas licenses.
The UK government will not do this without pressure. The underlying drivers of change are climate activists and civil society in general. The cry of the global south a decade ago was “1.5 to stay alive.” That demand it is enshrined in 2050 net zero targets. The task now is to make politicians live up to their lofty words.
Simon Lewis is Professor of Global Change Science at University College London and the University of Leeds, and the author, with Mark Maslin, of The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism