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by Andrew Learmonth
01 November 2021
COP26: More than hot air

A member of Extinction Rebellion’s Blue Rebels joins climate change pilgrims in Glasgow

COP26: More than hot air

For the last week or so, George’s Barbers on Dumbarton Road in Glasgow - just a ten-minute bike ride from the Blue Zone - has been offering ‘COP26 specials’.  

“World leader discounts”, a notice board in the window promises. 

Rob Kane, who runs the shop, says he’s not had any bookings yet, but he’s still hopeful.

His best bet for business will be 1 and 2 November, when all the presidents, prime ministers, chancellors and other heid bummers fly into town. 

Unlike EU summits where officials spend weeks working on a deal before the heads of state to come in at the end for the photoshoot, COP26 will see the leaders here at the beginning. 

They’ll make some speeches and give the negotiators their marching orders. The goal is straightforward: hold the rise in the earth’s temperature to 1.5°C.

Glasgow is, as US climate envoy John Kerry has said repeatedly, the world’s last best hope.

It’s perhaps only now, in the final countdown to COP26, that Glasgow has begun to understand exactly what being the world’s last best hope means in practice. 

The conference itself will bring 25,000 people to the city, including representatives from the 197 countries that have signed up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and 130 world leaders. 

Another 150,000 protesters could take to the streets on 6 November. 

And, while the fortnight of talks go on inside, there will be constant noisy protests outside.

Expect civil disobedience. Police officers have reportedly been told to expect between 150 and 300 arrests a day.

For the next two weeks, there will be no life as normal for Glaswegians. Roads will be closed, some schools and nurseries will be shut, just getting from one side of the city to the other could be a struggle. 

Two cruise ships have been brought in for those delegates unable to get a hotel room. The handful of beds and couches still available are going for eyewatering amounts on short-term letting sites.  

A single room at Smiths Hotel in Finnieston, a 15-minute walk from the venue, is being offered at £14,000 for the two weeks of the event. For the two weeks after COP26, the price drops to £903.

Adding to the chaos is the risk of widespread industrial action across council services and transport.

The GMB union has recently confirmed refuse, cleansing, school caretakers and catering services will take a week-long strike from 1 November, the first full day of the UN conference.

Despite having an extra year, there’s chaos too in the organisation of the actual summit. 

Two letters have been sent to the Cabinet Office from sponsors of the summit, raising concerns over plans for the event. Companies that stumped up millions of pounds have described it is being “mismanaged”  and things are “very last minute”. They are blaming “very inexperienced” civil servant for delayed decisions and poor communication.

And that’s before we even worry about Covid. Ten days before the start of the summit, Professor Devi Sridhar, Chair of Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh and a key advisor to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, has concerns. 

“Not underplaying at all the significance of climate change, but I’m concerned about impact of #COP26 in Glasgow on COVID control as we head into winter. Probably worst timing ever in a pandemic,” she tweeted.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited the Moray East offshore wind farm, being developed in the Outer Moray Firth, 14 miles off the coast. When it’s developed, it should be able to fulfil approximately 40 per cent of the total electricity demand in Scotland.

He spoke to journalists (over Zoom) during the visit and was asked about COP26, following reports the summit was in “deep trouble”. 

Johnson insisted he wouldn’t be limiting his ambition. 

“If you look at COP, the agenda is very, very clear and it’s incredibly exciting,” he said.

“What you’ve got is countries representing 70 per cent of the world’s GDP have now committed to reducing to net zero by 2050.

“You’ve got countries coming forward with bigger and bigger nationally determined contributions for reducing CO2. 

“And we’ve set out clear objectives on raising cash to support countries on the road to net zero, supporting developing countries, and you saw what happened in Carbis Bay [at the G7 summit] where we raised $100bn. 

“[The UK has] a target for moving away from coal by 2040, and stopping the overseas financing of coal, as well as domestic consumption of coal, a target for moving away from hydrocarbon internal combustion engine vehicles by the 2030s.”

“And then a target for planting millions of trees around the world and protecting the loss of biodiversity,” the prime minister added. 

Keeping the increase in the planet’s temperature to 1.5 degrees, would, he admitted, be a “difficult thing to achieve, but it’s very, very clear what the COP is there to do, and I hope that the leaders of the world will rise to it”.

Johnson added: “What we won’t do, let me just stress, what we won’t do, we will not reduce the level of our ambition for COP, in order to set a target, an ambition that we know we can meet.

“I’m going to be as ambitious as possible for COP26 in Glasgow. I want the world to recognise the extent of the challenge, and I want everybody to try to rise to meet it in the way that I just set out with those ambitions. We must, must, must be as ambitious and as tough as possible and that’s what we’re going to do.”

At the Paris climate summit in December 2015, 196 nations agreed to hold global temperature rises to “well below 2°C” with an aspiration to limit rises to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. 

However, the pledges on emissions made at the summit– known as nationally determined contributions, or NDCs – were not enough. If we stick with them, we can expect catastrophic heating of at least 3°C.

The Paris Agreement included a “ratchet mechanism”, which means countries need to return to the negotiating table every five years with fresh targets to meet the temperature goals. 

While Covid means it’s taken six years rather than five for the return to the negotiating table, these new targets are why Glasgow is so important. 

The goals for COP26 are straightforward. The first is to “secure global net zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach”. 

To do that, countries are being asked to come forward with those new ambitious NDCs.

The scale of the challenge is massive. According to the recently published International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2021 report, meeting net zero by 2050, keeping the median temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, would mean a cut to global emissions by at least 40 to 45 per cent by 2030. 

That’s going to require significant change, sacrifice even. It means accelerating the phase-out of coal, curtailing deforestation, speeding up the switch to electric vehicles, and huge investment in renewables.

The second goal is to deal with the change that’s already happening, already having devastating effects on parts of the world.

Those parts will need to adapt. They’ll need to protect and restore ecosystems, build defences, warning systems and “resilient infrastructure and agriculture to avoid loss of homes, livelihoods and even lives”.

The third goal is finance. To be able to achieve the first two goals, developed countries must make good on their promise to mobilise at least $100bn in climate finance per year by 2020. 

The problem is some nations aren’t enthusiastic about the level of sacrifice being asked of them. Including many of the G20 nations.

At the time of going to print, we don’t know if Xi Jinping will come to Glasgow. We know for sure Vladimir Putin won’t. 

He’s in a tricky position. In the northern part of Russia and Siberia, climate change has led to the tundra and the permafrost thawing, cities are vulnerable, and methane is being released into the air after 40,000 years of containment. But it’s a country whose economy is based almost entirely on oil. 

Meanwhile, China still considers itself to be a developing country, which needs to be given some leeway to allow itself to continue to develop. Beijing has deployed more renewables than any other legislature in the world, but the country also relies on an extraordinary amount of fossil fuel.

A huge cache of documents recently leaked to Greenpeace UK’s team of investigative journalists, Unearthed, who then passed it on to BBC News, revealed that governments around the world were trying to limit the asks of any final agreement at COP26. 

The charity got its hands on more than 32,000 submissions made by governments, companies and other interested parties to the team of scientists to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Saudi Arabia and Australia were among the countries calling for commitments on oil and coal to be watered down. 

There was also pressure from others to cut down the finance commitments. 

Meanwhile, Brazil and Argentina, two of the biggest producers of beef products and animal feed crops in the world, argue strongly that a section of the draft report which recommends reducing meat consumption should be removed.

There’s also, as US climate envoy John Kerry has admitted, some scepticism about Washington, after Donald Trump formally withdrew America from the Paris Agreement. 

“I hear from country after country: How do we know we can count on America? How do we know that another president is not going to come along, someone like Trump, who does the same thing again?” he told the New Yorker. 

His answer is that this is too big, too serious and that frankly given the scale of private sector investment in alternative, renewable energy, there’s just too much economic activity being generated to walk. 

“I don’t think any politician would want to turn it around, frankly, but, also, I don’t think they could,” Kerry added.

Boris Johnson’s visit to the Moray windfarm clearly had a lasting impact on the Prime Minister.

At the recent Conservative party conference he pledged that offshore wind farms will generate enough electricity to power every home in the UK within a decade.

“Your kettle, your washing machine, your cooker, your heating, your plug-in electric vehicle - the whole lot of them will get their juice cleanly and without guilt from the breezes that blow around these islands,” he said.

Electrification is the key to any agreement. But it’s going to be difficult to get there. Especially for the developing world.  

In that leaked submission to the IPCC, India - already the world’s second biggest consumer of coal - warned that the fossil fuel will likely remain the mainstay of its energy production for decades because of what it described as the “tremendous challenges” of providing affordable electricity. 

The UK Government’s recent net zero strategy said that while renewables would be a key factor in the transition, there would need to be other energy sources too. 

The plan included one new large nuclear plant by 2024 and a new £120m fund will also develop technology for possible future reaction. 

“It would be entirely unsurprising if this is going to get quite intense, quite fraught, and go to the wire,” Peter Hill the chief executive of the UK’s conference presidency team told our sister publication, Civil Service World.

“And I think all our team are prepared for a good few days of surviving on caffeine and chocolate and whatever else it is gets them through the night.”  

Read the most recent article written by Andrew Learmonth - SNP minister's 'disappointment and loss' over Derek Mackay texting scandal

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