With the UN warning earlier this week that greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have hit an all-time high, the pressure on the upcoming Cop26 climate conference to deliver tangible commitments from the world’s leading powers to cut carbon emissions has never been greater.
Speaking on the eve of the Cop26 international climate summit that opens in Glasgow on Sunday, John Kerry, US President Joe Biden’s climate envoy, warned that this is the world’s “last best chance” to stop a climate catastrophe.
In Britain, his words were echoed by a team of international scientists, who in a signed declaration issued on the eve of the summit, set out in stark terms the extent of the climate challenges the world is facing.
Warning that the scientific case for urgent climate action was “unequivocal”, they pointed to the fact that the world is now 1.09°C warmer than it was in the early industrial era. This had resulted in sea levels rising, and had contributed to weather extremes, such as heatwaves, excess rainfall, wildfires, flooding and droughts. The scientists insisted that “there is no doubt” human activity has been responsible for warming the ocean, atmosphere and land, and that urgent action was required to halt this trend if the world was to avoid potentially catastrophic consequences in the decades to come.
As if to underline the urgency of the issue, the UN warned that greenhouse gases in the atmosphere were higher than ever despite the drop in global emissions that had been caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Notwithstanding pledges by some of the world’s leading industrialised nations made at previous climate summits to cut carbon emissions, the UN’s World Meteorological Organisation has found that concentrations of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere have risen at a faster rate during the last year than over the previous decade. And this is despite the downturn in the global economy caused by the pandemic.
But if the scientific arguments in favour of world leaders taking tougher action to tackle the impact of climate change appear compelling, the prospects of the two-week Cop26 summit producing the necessary reductions is not looking promising, as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is hosting the summit, himself admitted earlier this week.
In order to get rising temperatures under control, one of the summit’s main goals is to limit warming to 1.5°C by the end of the century, which scientists argue, can only be achieved if world leaders agree to a steep reduction in global emissions by 2030, with the aim of reaching global net zero by around 2050.
But Mr Johnson, speaking at a press conference convened for young children to raise climate concerns, warned that it was “touch and go” whether the summit delivered the desired results. He said it was “very far from clear” that the necessary commitments would be forthcoming at Glasgow, even though the meeting was arguably the most important the UK has had “in our lifetimes”.
The omens for the summit producing the required outcome have certainly not been promising after the Queen was forced to pull out of hosting a reception for world leaders after being given medical advice to rest. In addition, Glasgow has been hit by a number of industrial disputes that will disrupt the city’s transportation system.
The prospects of the summit resulting in lasting commitments from world leaders to meet the UN’s ambitious climate goals have also been hit by the absence of a number of key leaders, with both Chinese President Xi Jingping and Russian President Vladimir Putin unlikely to attend.
The absence of the Russian and Chinese leaders certainly underlines the deep divisions that have emerged over the climate debate, with most Western powers accepting the need to cut carbon emissions while other countries, especially in the developing world, argue that their own economic development should take precedence over meeting climate targets.
In this context coal burning has emerged as one of the most contentious issues, which is seen as one of the biggest contributors to global warming. In Britain one of Mr Johnson’s strongest claims to global leadership on climate change is his commitment that coal will no longer be used to generate electricity in the UK from October 2024.
But with 6,600 coal-fired generating units still operational worldwide, Mr Johnson’s hopes of persuading other countries, particularly in the developing world, to follow suit are not promising. Global coal use was about 4 per cent higher in the last quarter of last year than in the same period in 2019, and hundreds more coal plants are being planned in countries such as China, India and Indonesia.
In this context it is therefore vital that Cop26 makes progress on the pledge by developed countries, initially made in 2009, to provide $100 billion a year to help developing countries respond to the climate challenge. According to the latest figures produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a club of mostly rich nations, only $80 billion was raised in 2019, with warnings that this year’s total could also be “well short” of the target unless other commitments are forthcoming at Glasgow.
The prospects of a major breakthrough being achieved at Cop26 have also been undermined by wrangling between western powers over the best means of achieving climate goals.
The recent debate in Europe over Russia’s controversial Nord Stream II gas pipeline has, for example, revealed divisions between countries like Britain – that are concerned it will make Europe too reliant on Moscow for its energy needs – and other European powers like Germany, which believe access to Russian energy is vital as European economies make the transition to greener economies.
Nevertheless, there are some grounds for optimism that the summit will not be a complete failure. In terms of providing support for developing nations, the Biden administration has already agreed to increase its annual contribution to $11.4 billion a year by 2024, while President Xi promised to end support for new coal power projects overseas.
In 2019, when Britain won the right to host Cop26, commitments to net zero emissions covered only about a quarter of the world’s economy. Now 84 per cent is covered by such national commitments.
The challenge now is for Cop26 to maintain the momentum on these achievements.