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Slow Views • The Tortoise Take

Glasgow, we have a problem

Friday 2 July 2021

COP26 is in trouble. With only four months to go, the broad goals are clear but no one is confident of progress towards achieving them and the big Biden dividend – US climate leadership after the Trump disaster – is nowhere to be seen

In four months, 20,000 people from 198 countries are supposed to converge on Glasgow to make the Paris Agreement happen; that is, to commit to 197 sets of nationally agreed carbon emissions reductions steep enough to keep climate change under control.

It is a grand goal, and it has to be achieved. Temperatures pushing 50 degrees C in the Pacific Northwest show the price of failure in a cool, rich region that might have thought itself immune. Boris Johnson, as host, has invested significant political capital in making COP26 happen despite Covid, and in making it a success despite the trust deficit that saddles him on the world stage.

Like the planet, he is running out of time. To succeed, COP’s organisers need to match ambition with clarity, preparation and concrete undertakings by a critical mass of countries well in advance of the conference itself. As things stand there is more confusion than clarity. Preparations have been hamstrung by videoconferencing and domestic politics, and concrete undertakings – especially of climate finance from rich countries for poorer ones – have been few and inadequate.

The mood music is gloomy. The COP process is the ultimate test of multilateralism. The G7 which Johnson hosted last month in Cornwall was a picnic by comparison, and by most assessments was a failure. It set out to produce a plan to vaccinate the world, for which 11 billion doses will be needed, but found a way to fund only a billion of them.

Pre-conference negotiations have not inspired optimism. Claire O’Neill, who was COP president before Alok Sharma took over the role, has worried that a lack of focus in virtual negotiations between the 198 states taking part means the conference might not happen at all.

Assuming it does, wrangling consensus out of all 198 delegations on more complex questions than how to vaccinate the world would be a Herculean challenge even if developed countries already agreed on broad priorities – and they don’t.

Japan cannot wean itself off coal. Italy has no spare money. Most ominously, the Biden Administration has so far been unable to translate good intentions into good policy. It has not yet endorsed the idea of a ban on new coal power in developed countries, or of a mandatory switchover from petrol and diesel vehicles to electric ones. Nor has it set a nationally defined contribution for emissions, or pledged enough to make the goal of $100 billion per year in climate finance for developing countries realistic.

The reason is clear. Republican senators, and one Democrat, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, are set against them all, trapped with their constituents in an information silo where it’s still mainstream thinking to reject mainstream science. 

Only Canada, Japan and Germany have actually announced more money. Yet meeting this $100 billion goal is a bare minimum to show earnest of intent in a process that depends critically on trust – trust among the nations of Africa, Asia, Oceania and Latin America that they will not have to bankrupt their economies for climate mitigation forced on them by the rich North.

Inspiring trust will be Johnson’s main task as host. He has not banked much of it with his European partners during the Brexit process, and it doesn’t help that Britain’s ambitious climate agenda has not been matched on his watch by plausible climate policies. The Public Accounts Committee – the body of MPs that oversees government spending – has said UK ministers have no plan to meet their legally binding climate change targets. According to the (non-governmental) Climate Change Committee, current UK policies on planning, farming, transport and heating are all inadequate in terms of cutting emissions.

The rest of the world will expect Britain to practice what it preaches, Lord Gummer, the committee’s chairman, tells Bloomberg. “And if we do that, then I think we can make a real success of COP26,” he says. “If we don’t, then it seems to me that it puts the whole process into jeopardy.”

This is not a counsel of despair. Not quite. Any response to climate change will require breakneck innovation and the UK can claim to be a leader in research and development funding having doubled its level of clean energy investment since 2015. More broadly, it’s much too soon to give up and cede the podium to NGOs that will – quite rightly – shine an unforgiving light on anything that looks like a failure of will or execution.

It is worth something that the conference’s ambitions have been clearly stated. They are:

  • to achieve net zero emissions by the middle of the century and keep 1.5 degrees of warming “within reach” by phasing out coal use with increasing speed, slowing deforestation, accelerating the use of electric vehicles and encouraging investment in renewable energy;
  • to adapt – to protect and restore natural habitats and ecosystems and save homes, lives and communities through warning systems, resilient infrastructure and agriculture;
  • to mobilize that $100 billion per year in climate finance, and unleashed trillions more from the private sector to fund a wholesale energy transition;
  • to finalize the “Paris rulebook”, which involves establishing robust carbon markets and putting in place “a universal system that encourages all countries to keep their commitments”.

There is no road map to realise these ambitions yet, but there is time to create one. Or at least, time has to be found. Next week’s G20 finance ministers’ meeting in Venice is especially important. There will be no better opportunity to get the first $100 billion pledged before November.

Somehow, between now and then, similar opportunities have to be found to complete the groundwork for breakthroughs on coal use in Asia (if not America); methane spillage and flaring in the oil and gas industry; transparency in carbon reporting; and effective certification and capping in carbon markets worldwide.

“We need to move faster,” says Sharma. “We really need to get going.” No kidding. In the last few days registration has opened for delegates to the conference who would not ordinarily have access to Covid vaccines but need them before flying to Glasgow. Uptake will be a litmus test of the developing world’s faith in the COP process. There could be a lot of no-shows. “Ultimately something will happen in Glasgow,” says O’Neill. “Whether it counts as a full COP, tbd.”

In the end how many people turn up is less important than how much carbon they remove from the atmosphere. On that front, failure is not an option. Just ask the doctors treating heat stroke in Vancouver.