COP26: Is there hope of finding a way forward to save the planet?
As president of UN climate conference COP26, Conservative MP Alok Sharma has a huge job to pull off in a little under two months’ time.
Five years after the historic Paris Agreement saw world leaders commit to reducing carbon emissions, the rules around how they should do that are expected to be signed off under the UK’s watch. A damning report released by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in August highlighted the urgency with which those rules need to be agreed; the ongoing disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic is threatening to jeopardise the legitimacy of any decisions made.
Kate Crowley, co-director of the University of Edinburgh-based Edinburgh Climate Change Institute, says the summit, which kicks off in Glasgow at the beginning of November, is supposed to be “The COP”, a real game-changer in how the world pulls together to address global warming.
“That’s partly because the science is telling us that the changes we’re seeing are outpacing our ability to cope with those changes, and if we don’t ensure the targets we have put in place are met we’re going to be facing a very serious situation,” she says. “It’s five years since the Paris Agreement; countries should be coming to COP and presenting what they have done, what they have achieved and how they are going to meet their targets. That’s what we want to see at this conference.”
The Paris Agreement saw all 196 signatories agree that global warming should be limited to close to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels through a focused reduction in carbon emissions. Many legislatures made bold proclamations in the aftermath of that summit, with the Scottish Government pledging to reach net zero by 2045 – five years ahead of the rest of the UK.
Yet the IPCC report warned that so far good intentions are falling well short of the mark, with increasingly extreme heatwaves, droughts and flooding expected as a result. COP26 provides an opportunity to focus action around that, but Mary Church, head of campaigns at Friends of the Earth Scotland, says because the nations that are worst affected by climate change are least likely to be represented, there is a risk that the event could have the unintended consequence of exacerbating global inequalities.
The question that arises from that is will the conference be legitimate due to barriers to participation? If a third of the parties are excluded or are at a major disadvantage it’s not a true conference
“One of the big fears around this summit in particular is access and participation, and equality between the different parties,” she says. “That’s always an issue at any COP, but at this COP in particular it’s going to be a real worry because of the COVID situation.
“Sixty countries are on the red list – they are all developing countries that are on the frontline of the climate crisis. It’s challenging for them to send full delegations at the best of times and if you’re in the global south [remote access] gets interrupted by things like power cuts, inequitable access to energy, poor connectivity.
“It’s clearly not going to be an equitable COP in terms of in-person participation and online is never a good way to do international diplomacy. The question that arises from that is will the conference be legitimate due to barriers to participation? If a third of the parties are excluded or are at a major disadvantage it’s not a true conference.”
Civil society coalition Stop Climate Chaos Scotland is looking at ways of addressing this imbalance, offering to be the mouthpiece for counterparts in the global south that cannot attend. The organisation’s COP26 project manager, Katherine Jones, says it is looking to fill empty shop fronts in Glasgow city centre with banners and artwork from international groups and has also managed to secure a more formal arrangement for Pacific Islanders who cannot make the event.
“I had a really interesting email from the Pacific Islands Climate Action Network, who said it’s not so much exhibition space they need as someone to represent their voices at COP,” Jones explains. “We started by trying to find any Pacific Islanders who live in Glasgow and found a couple – they will go to COP and we will support them as they become the advocate and representative of the islanders. That reverses a little the power dynamic.”
However, Jones notes there is only so much that can be done by proxy and agrees with Church that any decisions taken in Glasgow could be problematic as a result.
“There’s always an asymmetry but in this case there’s a real worry that there will be almost no ability for those countries to have a say,” she says. “If you dial in you have much less say than the people in the meeting. A lot of people are saying they shouldn’t be running the decision-making part of the COP if not everyone can be there. I’m really torn on that. This is a really, really important time – we need to get the Paris Agreement sorted – but a bad decision is worse than no decision.”
Conservative MP Alok Sharma is president of COP26
It is against this backdrop that Sharma – and the UK delegation as a whole – must convince all participants to reach political consensus on issues as vexed as carbon trading. Though the ultimate goal of carbon markets is to reduce emissions overall, they are controversial because they allow companies and nations to sell on their excess if they have cut more than was expected of them. The parties failed to reach agreement on the issue in both Katowice and Madrid meaning, says Church, that there is “huge pressure” to find a way forward in Glasgow.
That will be particularly problematic for the UK because the pressure also creates a platform for civil society organisations like Friends of the Earth to make their complete opposition to carbon trading known. At the same time, says University of Stirling academic Annalisa Savaresi, the UK’s own record on dealing with the climate emergency will make it difficult for the Westminster government to try to steer negotiations from a position of moral superiority.
“The COP presidency has to facilitate political consensus and the host country puts itself at the front of the process,” Savaresi says. “It’s a big thing because everyone can see you at this moment and the UK is getting a lot more visibility because it is COP president, for good or ill.
“The UK is the first country in the world to adopt climate legislation [the target to cut emissions by 78 per cent by 2035 was enshrined in law in April] and everyone is interested to know about that. There are lots of interesting enforcement questions that are being asked [but] we are very off the mark with current commitments and the job of the UK is to convince everyone to step up. That’s a very difficult job.”
Particular attention is likely to be drawn to the UK government’s willingness to sign off developments such as a deep coal mine in Cumbria as well as the Cambo oilfield in the waters west of Shetland. Despite this, Chris Stark, chief executive of the Committee on Climate Change, an independent statutory body that advises the UK and devolved governments on emissions targets, says these announcements are likely to be seen as “missteps” in the UK’s decarbonisation journey and should not detract from “the great story we have to tell”.
“The reason we’re hosting it here is that the UK is doing better than most of its competitors and the UN wants to use the UK as an example,” he says. “That doesn’t mean it’s doing well – we are nowhere near finished the job -–but we do have a better story to tell than any of the other G7 countries.
“[Announcements like] Cambo are missteps on that journey, but if we stand back from that there’s a collective effort to move towards these goals that was not there three or four years ago. Hopefully we will see that reflected in political announcements from the Scottish and UK governments in the weeks before COP.”
There has been much disagreement between Holyrood and Westminster about the role the former should play at the event, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson initially saying he did not want to see First Minister Nicola Sturgeon “anywhere near it” before last month suggesting she would have “a huge role” to play.
Either way, the SNP’s recently signed co-operation agreement with the Greens could allow the Scottish Government to steal a march on its UK counterpart if the parties use the hype generated by the deal to make some well-timed policy pledges – although Scottish ministers will have been dismayed by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg’s criticism of their record on climate change. The campaigner, who is still to decide whether she will attend COP26 in Glasgow, recently told the BBC she does not consider Scotland to be a world leader on climate change. Commenting on the Scottish Greens’ deal to enter government, she added that some politicians were “less worse” than others.
Her comments chime with Stark’s observation that the Scottish Government is “very good at setting goals but not so good at acting on them”. Nevertheless, he notes that hosting COP in Glasgow provides Holyrood’s leaders with the opportunity to put forward political plans “in a much more progressive way”.
“What’s the plan for greening homes and decarbonising them? That’s become a totemic challenge and having a plan in place for that would be number one [for me],” he says. “We have industries that use a lot of fossil fuels. They aren’t in a position to carry a lot of cost, so we also need a plan to maintain industries rather than lose them. I would have a plan for the power system, a plan for industry, a plan for homes and a plan for transport. There’s time to announce those in the next few months.”
The pandemic and climate change have a common area of focus and that’s vulnerability – the people who are going to be the worst affected by the pandemic are those that will be worst affected by climate change
Crowley is also optimistic about what the summit can achieve on a broader scale, pointing out that while COVID-19 could derail some of the decision-making processes it could also inform how governments choose to tackle the climate crisis from here on. If one emergency can be dealt with as a matter of urgency, she says, there is no reason another one cannot be too. Realising that is where the ultimate strength of COP26 could lie.
“The pandemic and climate change have a common area of focus and that’s vulnerability – the people who are going to be the worst affected by the pandemic are those that will be worst affected by climate change,” she says.
“They are the poorest members of the community, those that struggle, those that are vulnerable. In a sense, if we are clever and understand these things then leaders will put two and two together to build resilience. It’s all part of how we are going to go forward into the future.
“There are very few topics globally where leaders come together to try to figure out a solution, but 196 countries around the world signed [the Paris] agreement and that’s kind of amazing. I have a lot of faith in COP26.”