Will COP26 be a climatic “tipping point” as Boris Johnson wants, or more “blah blah blah” of the kind that Greta Thunberg condemns?
At first glance, things don’t look promising, for one simple reason: the previous 25 of these gigantic conferences have failed to turn off the greenhouse gases that are driving global temperatures up.
Despite three decades of chatter, the planet is now at least 1.1 ° C warmer than its pre-industrial level and on the rise.
Even if they all keep their current promises to reduce emissions, we will still be on track for a dangerous 2.7 ° C increase by the end of the century.
For this conference, however, expectations of real progress are higher than usual.
This is partly due to the fact that the risks are hitting at home. Floods killed 200 people in Germany this year, heat waves hit cold Canada, and even the Siberian Arctic was burning.
And scientists now have the evidence to say that it is unequivocal that human activity is behind climate change and this is making violent extremes more likely.
It is also clearer than ever that avoiding the most damaging temperatures means halving global carbon emissions by 2030, a deadline that is getting close enough to focus minds.
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And we’re seeing something unimaginable even a few years ago: an unprecedented flurry of countries and businesses, some more plausibly than others, pledging to zero by mid-century.
This means that any greenhouse gases they are still releasing by then should be balanced by an equivalent amount absorbed from the atmosphere, for example through tree planting.
So will Glasgow be the place where the world moves towards a zero-carbon future?
In truth, it is never likely that a single encounter will ever achieve this goal.
COPs were set up specifically for governments to tackle climate change, and the annual conference cycle remains the only forum to tackle the problem collectively.
But they operate by consensus between nearly 200 countries which all have very different perspectives.
“Try to keep 200 cats,” an official once told me.
Many of the oil- or coal-rich nations have been downright hostile to the entire climate agenda and have gone to great lengths to slow it down.
Others who are poor and vulnerable see rising temperatures threatening their very existence and are desperate for help.
At the first COP I mentioned, in the deep chill of a Montreal winter in 2005, the pace of the talks matched the glacial climate.
Negotiators argued overnight about “square brackets” that marked unresolved and impenetrable points in a text that was never intended to leave a trace.
When they finally reached a deal at dawn – and I noticed then UK environment secretary Margaret Beckett with tears in her eyes – I asked a veteran observer what was being celebrated.
“They decided to keep talking,” he said, without irony. “So the process continues.”
And the lectures went on, more or less productively, and at nine that I’ve seen so far, there were some painful scenes.
In Nairobi in 2006, I heard a frustrated German minister ask why anyone bothered to introduce themselves.
In Bali in 2007, the exhausted and exasperated senior United Nations official began to cry openly.
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And in Copenhagen in 2009, clunky hosting triggered strikes that nearly brought the talks to a head.
Yet a former British government adviser who was at the center of those negotiations in Denmark believes that the COPs, despite all their faults, are an essential mechanism.
Without them, according to Professor Mike Jacobs – now the University of Sheffield – “emissions would have increased even more than they are now.”
He says having “a simultaneous and collective commitment” forces governments to stay focused on the problem.
And this led to the COP standing out as a rare success story: Paris in 2015.
The French government, backed by a carefully cultivated alliance, has inaugurated the Paris Agreement, the first agreement of its kind to tackle climate change.
This was a pivotal moment because never before have all countries agreed to act together to limit the rise in temperatures to 2 ° C or, if possible, to a target below 1.5 ° C.
COP26 Climate Summit – The Basics
- Climate change is one of the most pressing problems in the world. Governments must promise more ambitious gas cuts for warming if we are to prevent greater global temperature rises.
- The Glasgow Summit is where change could happen. You have to watch out for the promises made by the world’s biggest polluters, such as the United States and China, and whether the poorest countries are getting the support they need.
- All our lives will change. The decisions made here could affect our work, how we heat our homes, what we eat and how we travel.
Read more about the COP26 Summit here.
Yes, the toughest small press has remained unresolved and the deal is entirely voluntary: no country is obliged to reduce its emissions faster than it would like.
But the prof. Jacobs believes that creating a global picture has generated a sense of momentum, which in itself has been significant.
This is because more and more governments around the world are now setting their own targets for renewable energy or phasing out gasoline and diesel cars, and this sends a message to businesses that the agenda is serious.
So investments in wind and solar energy have recently been so huge that their costs have plummeted, which in turn makes a zero-carbon transition more feasible.
And provided the Glasgow talks don’t crumble, that sign of a greener direction should attract even more attention.
It could be a “tipping point” where big investors start shifting their trillions of dollars off fossil fuels – a few days ago Europe’s largest pension fund announced it would do just that.
Already the giant automakers have to gear up to go electric, and even shipping companies – long accused of dragging their feet – are under pressure to clean up.
Plans to decarbonise even the most polluting industries – with so-called “green concrete” and “green steel” – are becoming more common.
But the speed of this response is the key question for COP26.
At present, given all the commitments made so far, greenhouse gas emissions are actually set to increase by 16% by 2030, rather than decrease by 45% as science requires.
And if the picture remains unchanged after a fortnight of chatter, the bankruptcy charges will come thick and fast.
A second challenge is funding for the poorest countries, hit hardest by rising sea levels, floods and droughts, and needing help to go green.
They have long felt disappointed, seeing unfulfilled promises, including a key commitment that has been seen as a key issue of trust, for assistance worth $ 100 billion a year to be delivered by now.
Professor Saleemul Huq, adviser to the Bangladesh Prime Minister, is among the cynics of the whole process.
“This annual holiday is redundant: it’s not that climate change is a problem only once a year.
“It happens for everyone now, every day, not in the future – it needs attention all the time.”
So what does Professor Huq expect?
“I assume they will eventually get a rabbit out of the hat, but you reporters have to check out the details of what’s being announced – is that really what they say it is?”
Ultimately, conferences provide a focal point for climate action, but they can never lead to overnight transformation.
The observer in Montreal was right: it is a process.
And in the sign of the expectations managed for Glasgow, we talk about the next appointments: COP27 in Egypt, and COP28, perhaps in Qatar.
The COP26 world climate summit in Glasgow in November is seen as crucial if climate change is to be kept under control. Nearly 200 countries are being asked for their plans to reduce emissions and this could lead to major changes in our daily lives.
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