Perhaps it’s no coincidence that this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland—COP26—begins on the frightful day of Halloween.
These are scary times on the environmental front and the global risk of damaging climate change has never been greater. More chilling is the fact that the window for averting the worst is rapidly closing. The time to act is now.
So, this year’s 26th annual conference—the first was held in 1995—features world leaders from more than 190 countries and is the most crucial ever. Will the international community at last heed the urgency and aggressively act on reducing carbon emissions and slowing the rate of inevitable climate change?
The odds aren’t great. History shows getting nations to collectively agree and move forward on anything is the metaphorical equivalent of herding cats. In the case of doing good for the environment, there’s usually good intention, but weak execution. COP26 may be a last chance for world leaders to do what’s necessary before it’s too late.
Top Priority: Finalizing the Paris Rulebook
Top of the agenda in Glasgow is likely to be finalizing the Paris Rulebook that details how the 2015 Paris Agreement guidelines will be implemented and executed. Individual countries will be asked to present their respective Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), outlining efforts so far and future actions they’ll take to meet the global warming limitation goal of 2°C (3.6°F) and perhaps even the aspirational target of 1.5°C (2.7°F).
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said limiting warming to 1.5°C requires lowering global CO2 emissions by approximately 45 percent by 2030 and further added that “even limiting global warming to 2°C will require nothing less than transitioning to a carbon-neutral economy by the middle of this century.”
It’s difficult not to be cynical. Many are rightly asking: What has really changed in the 26 years since the launch of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change? Why hasn’t the Paris Agreement been ratified on an international scale? In fact, the UN’s recent NDC Synthesis report shows carbon emissions – the man-made cause of rising temperatures and extreme weather – are heading in the wrong direction.
“The available NDCs of all 191 parties taken together imply (there will be) a sizable increase in global GHG emissions in 2030 compared to 2010 of about 16 percent,” the report says. “According to the latest IPCC findings, such an increase, unless actions are taken immediately, may lead to a temperature rise of about 2.7C by the end of the century.”
Other forces are also working against action: There are groups and nations who seem to be trying just as hard to debunk climate change prognostications as those attempting to convince the world of its existence and dire consequence.
Climate activist Greta Thunberg in her usual no-holds-barred tone recently chastised world leaders expected to be in attendance COP26, curtly dismissing what she expects will be empty promises made on climate change action as, “blah, blah, blah.”
But, as the saying goes, there’s always hope, and so the stage is set for heated discussion at COP26. Some significant highlights and topics will surely include:
- The United States Re-Entry: U.S. President Joe Biden and half of his cabinet are reportedly attending COP26. The election of Biden puts America back in and provides a morale boost. Earlier this year the U.S. president pledged to double the US share of climate change aid by 2024 to $11.4 billion annually. He’s also set a new target for America to achieve a 50 percent to 52 percent reduction in greenhouse gas pollution from 2005 levels – although some are arguing the United States needs to be much more ambitious. After all, the country currently ranks highest by far in the world for per person CO2 emissions. But Biden should be a major player at COP26, and all eyes will be upon him to be a leading voice as America recommits to the cause.
- The Green Climate Fund: A promise made by wealthier countries in 2009 was to deliver by 2020 a total of $100 billion annually to poorer countries to help them cope with climate change. Funding is crucial and this is a telling year. In 2019, climate finance totaled $79.6 billion and countries such as Canada, Italy, the United Kingdom, Australia and Japan are among those specifically flagged as needing to pony up more. At COP26, will wealthier nations commit more bucks for a bigger bang?
- Fossil Fuel: There appears to be no end in sight for fossil fuel use. Nothing is more intensive and polluting than coal and there continues to be significant reliance upon it for two-thirds of the world’s electricity production. The use of coal and other fossil fuels is literally killing us. The World Health Organization (WHO) in a recent COP26 special report declared climate change as the single biggest health threat facing humanity and that “air pollution, primarily the result of burning fossil fuels, which also drives climate change, causes 13 deaths per minute worldwide.” Things are getting worse. The U.S. Energy Information Administration recently predicted “global energy-related CO2 emissions will grow 0.6 percent per year from 2018 to 2050.”
- Global warming targets: Where does the world stand in achieving the 2° – and 1.5°C ideal – for global warming? A much more detailed answer is forthcoming as COP26 bears witness to nationally determined contribution (NDC) presentations where nations reveal their individual plans. Considering the underwhelming reported results announced since the Paris Agreement, it’s not looking hopeful. The UN Environment Program estimates the world will need to cut carbon emissions by 7.6 percent every year for the next decade to prevent the planet from warming more than 1.5°C. Consider that a year of the COVID crisis resulted in a 6.4 percent CO2 dip largely due to forced shutdowns. Is it even possible to move to a more aggressive target?
- Sustainable food production: The UN estimates, “food systems cause as much as a third of greenhouse gas emissions, up to 80 percent of biodiversity loss and use up to 70 percent of freshwater reserves.” Sept. 23 saw the first-ever UN Food Systems Summit that gathered world leaders and challenged them to sustainably transform how food is produced, consumed and disposed of.
- The next decade of action is critical: History repeats itself here. The decade from 2011 to 2020 was likewise deemed critical in terms of putting CO2 stabilizing and reduction action in place to meet the 2°C global warming target. In that earlier projection, the expectation was that CO2 emissions would peak in 2011 then gradually reduce to 2010 levels by 2020 through annual reductions of 3.7 percent each year. At that rate a zero-emissions target would have been achieved by 2060. But emissions have annually increased since – the year of COVID in 2020 being the exception. So now here it is 10 years later, and the CO2 problem is bigger than ever.
The scenario today is that an annual reduction of 9 percent is required to achieve the 2060 target. That won’t happen because doing so will require the sort of extreme conservation measures typically seen in wartime. Now there’s a frightening future. What will those attending COP26 have to say about that?