Business dismayed by watered-down Cop26 outcome

UK's shadow business secretary says 'keeping 1.5°C alive is frankly in intensive care'

Protesters move through restricted Blue Zone area of Cop26 summit in Glasgow, Scotland. Getty Images
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Business groups called for more action on climate change after the Cop26 deal was watered down in the final moments of the two-week summit after last-minute objections from India and China over a commitment to end the use of coal.

While 190 countries managed to reach a deal late on Saturday night, with consensus on how to enforce the 2015 Paris climate agreement, the final decision left Cop26 President Alok Sharma close to tears over a change in the wording of the deal.

A push led by China, and backed by India, resulted in the language being changed from accelerating the "phase out" of unabated coal to "phase down", a move that not only disappointed politicians in the UK, Europe and vulnerable countries but also businesses.

Shadow business and energy secretary Ed Miliband said that "keeping 1.5°C alive is frankly in intensive care", with a "chasm" between what was agreed in Glasgow and what still needs to be done to slash emissions.

The final decision came after a fortnight of negotiations that resulted in a series of deals by countries and businesses on cutting methane emissions, curbing deforestation, switching to electric cars, driving investment in clean technology and phasing out coal power.

While UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Cop26 had delivered a mandate to cut the use of coal-powered generation that was backed up by real action from individual countries, he conceded that delight at the progress achieved was tinged by disappointment that the deal did not go further.

"Sadly, that's the nature of diplomacy," he said. "We can lobby, we can cajole, we can encourage, but we cannot force sovereign nations to do what they do not wish to do."

Tony Danker, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, said that despite the best efforts of many, negotiators, “activists and businesses will have to keep working beyond Glasgow to keep the 1.5°C target alive”.

“While profound movement on methane reduction and deforestation – alongside the historic US-China bilateral agreement and Indian Government’s setting of net zero targets – represent huge strides forward, more must be done in the next twelve months under the UK’s presidency,” said Mr Danker.

“Pressure will surely fall on negotiators to come back to the table in Cairo to strengthen Nationally Determined Contributions and, in particular, address the stubborn issues of reducing coal use, the development of carbon markets, limiting fossil fuel subsidies and delivering necessary transition finance for nature loss and damage.”

However, Mr Johnson said the watered-down language in the Glasgow Pact's coal pledges does not "make that much of a difference".

"It is an immense thing to get a commitment from 190 countries to phase down or phase out coal," he said.

"Whether the language is phase down or phase out does not seem to me, as a speaker of English, to make that much of a difference. The direction of travel is pretty much the same."

However, business leaders were less convinced, with John Denton, secretary general of the International Chamber of Commerce saying the agreement “is, most certainly, not a cause for celebration”.

“From our initial reading of the Glasgow texts, we are deeply concerned that the operational rules for emissions trading lack sufficient bite to enable the creation of international carbon markets capable of rapidly decarbonising the global economy," Mr Denton said.

“The implementation of these rules will need to be carefully executed – and we would urge detailed consultation with the private sector to maximise their potential value in both environmental and economic terms.”

While Mr Denton said the outcome of the global summit provided the best chance at this time to keep alive the target of keeping warming below 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, “a concerted effort will be needed in the coming months to stop it from slipping out of reach”.

Unlike previous Cop summits, the Glasgow summit had a significant business presence, with Jules Kortenhorst, chief executive of RMI, a Colorado think tank, saying he had seen “more chief executives in the last eight days than I have at the previous eight years of Cop”.

Mr Danker agreed, saying Cop26 was “truly pioneering” in terms of the contribution of business.

“Over the past few weeks, businesses have shown that they are committed to moving from laggard to leader on climate and to bring fresh impetus, innovation and ingenuity to delivering net zero. Regardless of the political outcome of Cop26, business stands ready to go further and faster to play its part,” Mr Danker said.

However, Mindy Lubber, chief executive of Ceres, a US non-profit organisation said “private sector action alone is not enough” to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement.

While former Bank of England Governor Mark Carney managed to cajole banks, investors and insurers representing $130 trillion in assets to decarbonise their businesses by the middle of the century, the key test is whether financial institutions actually stop financing fossil fuels.

Christopher Kaminker, global head of sustainable investing at Lombard Odier, said while only a small proportion of the new Glasgow Financial Alliance to Net Zero "would be specifically "dedicated to green solutions ... the transition to a net zero economy requires not only investment in low carbon technologies, but also the large-scale realignment of the wider economy and, by extension, of investment portfolios – and it is here where the GFANZ alliance may become hugely impactful".

Meanwhile, there was recognition at Cop26 that countries struck by catastrophic climate events will receive help. However, wealthy countries failed to meet a pledge to provide a timetable for the delivery of $100 billion in climate finance to developing countries, a failure that casts a shadow on the result, putting the pressure on Cop27 in Egypt next year to solve that issue.

“The availability of climate finance for developing economies has been a constant fissure throughout Cop26. For the future of the Paris Agreement, it is vital that the world’s richest economies remedy this fault line without delay,” said Mr Denton.

“This agenda cannot wait until Cop27 – the UK government should use the remaining six weeks of its G7 presidency to set the ground for a massive new financing plan to enable climate-friendly growth throughout the developing world.”

Meanwhile, the boss of one of Europe's largest steel producers called for an international tax on carbon to ensure that the industry cuts its environmental impact, but issued a warning against greenwashing.

Martin Pei, the head of Swedish steel company SSAB, said that many of the attempts to claim steel is green are nothing other than branding.

"There are so many green steel initiatives and many of them are only greenwashing. They are not doing anything; they are selling certificates," he said.

He called for transparency so that companies could not continue to make the same product but brand it green.

The global metals industry is one of the largest emitters in the world, and cutting carbon is notoriously difficult.

Updated: November 15, 2021, 1:20 PM