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Not Desperately Cool

Not Desperately Cool

One of the central aims of Cop26 is to assemble a set of Nationally Determined Contributions towards global emissions reduction (NDCs). Are they ambitious enough?

One of the central aims of Cop26 is to assemble a set of Nationally Determined Contributions towards global emissions reduction (NDCs) that are ambitious enough to keep alive the goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. It’s a tall order, but at least there’s room for improvement. 

Agreeing on the concept of NDCs was one of the main achievements of the Paris climate conference six years ago. Looking back, it’s not hard to argue that achievement was overblown. As originally conceived, NDCs were essentially homework assignments on emissions reduction. They were to be updated and made more ambitious every five years. First drafts were due by the original date of Cop26 (November 2020), with all the details and most of the marking left to the countries themselves. 

On the plus side, they were flexible enough to allow for the vast range of speeds and levels of development among the countries taking part.

On the minus side…

  • they were not binding;
  • it turned out they were not ambitious enough;
  • since they set their own baselines and chose their own metrics there was no way of comparing them systematically with each other; and
  • in many cases they were non-existent.

This is not a newsletter of doom. A message that came through loud and clear from our latest Accelerating Net Zero Coalition advisory board meeting, which happened yesterday, was to accentuate the positive in the great climate debate – not in a pollyanna-ish sense but in the sense of recognising the opportunities of the energy transition as well as the daunting threat of climate change itself. In that spirit it’s worth noting that 

  • when the process of developing the NDCs began there was nothing like them in existence;
  • unsurprisingly therefore, there has been progress, and there could be more before the delegations gather again in Glasgow in 50 days’ time;
  • China, the world’s biggest polluter, has produced an NDC involving a net zero deadline that falls ten years later than the 2050 target of most western countries but is still a monumental goal;
  • there is only one unambiguously bad apple in this process – Australia – and it accounts for barely 1 per cent of global emissions. 

The story of the development of NDCs is on an upswing after a trough:

The trough. Because of the pandemic the first NDC deadline was extended to December 2020. By that time only 75 of 191 countries had submitted papers. These did not include China, India, Saudi Arabia or South Africa. They covered barely a third of the global economy and represented between them a 0.5 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030 compared with a 45 per cent reduction needed for the world to have a hope of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. They needed to be 90 times more ambitious. 

Alok Sharma, the UK minister responsible for Cop26, gave his guests an extension and earned a lot of air miles flying the globe drumming up NDC enthusiasm. The extra time has made a difference.

The upswing. As of early August, following a new deadline in late July, 58 per cent of countries in the Cop process had submitted NDCs. They included China, Nigeria and Malaysia and between them represented two thirds of the global economy, ie a doubling in scope in seven months. The latest American NDC, based on a target of a 52 per cent cut compared with 2005 levels by 2030, is actually more ambitious that the EU’s, based on a 55 per cent cut compared with 1990 levels. This is because the US started cutting later and has further to go. 

There are still big flaws in the process:

  • Loose rules allow reluctant cutters to make steadily increasing emissions look like cuts. For example, as the Economist explained last month, Brazil has updated its NDC, keeping the goal of a 43 per cent cut compared with 2005 levels by 2030 – but unilaterally changing its audit of 2005 emissions with the result that it can now let them rise by a third between now and 2030 and still call it a reduction.
  • Some NDCs are ambitious compared with the status quo ante but most are still not ambitious enough for 1.5 degrees. Adair Turner, chairman of the Energy Transitions Commission, said last week he expected that those presented in Glasgow would represent “nothing like the scale of emissions reductions that we need”.
  • Except in a handful of cases like the UK, where national legislatures have enshrined NDC targets in law, they’re still non-binding.

Despite this Australia, by far the world’s biggest coal exporter, cannot bring itself to enter into the none-too-demanding spirit of Cop. Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government has filed an NDC but it’s half as ambitious as America’s. His resources minister, Keith Pitt, boasts of continuing to export coal long after 2030 even though 63 per cent of Australians want a moratorium on new mines. Expect cold shoulders at Glasgow, and shrugs from Pitt.


Price point
Everyone seems to agree on the importance of repricing carbon. Activists, intellectuals, oil majors, you name it. They say the price needs to be at $80-$100 a tonne to incentivise sequestration and punish pollution. The question is now to make it happen globally and the consensus is that the current ad hoc patchwork of national fossil fuel taxes won’t cut it. Enter Mathias Cormann, the Belgian-born former Australian finance minister who now leads the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and says it should be in charge. He made the proposal behind closed doors to OECD finance ministers in Slovenia at the weekend, says Politico, which also floated the idea that he did so at the behest of the US. Why might he have done this? The EU has a plan for a carbon border tax that would have some of the effects of a big step up in carbon prices, but only for exporters to the EU, like the US, so Washington doesn’t like it. Eyes on the prize, guys. Lower emissions. Whatever works.

Science and Tech

Thorium power
We’ve mentioned China’s flirtation with thorium power before. Now it’s more than that. A nuclear plant powered by thorium instead of uranium is about to start tests on the edge of the Gobi desert that could prove the viability of a half-century-old technology that leaves less nuclear waste than conventional fission plants and exploits a metal China happens to have in abundance. The caveats: the thorium fuel actually morphs during fission into Uranium 233, which is highly radioactive and could be used in bombs. Also, the technology mixes the nuclear fuel with molten salt at upwards of 500 degrees C, and no one knows quite how corrosive this could be for the reactor vessel. Technologically this is obviously one to watch; geopolitically, too. It could put China for the first time in the position of exporter and proliferator of a machine no one else builds.


Norway’s election
A “Red-Green” coalition appears best placed to govern Norway after yesterday’s parliamentary election. Jonas Gahr Støre, the millionaire leader of the Labour party, is now tasked with bringing together a cluster of left-leaning and centrist parties after a campaign that saw both ends of the political spectrum divided over climate and the issue of whether Norway can continue to extract the oil that accounts for 14 per cent of its GDP.  Winning the support of various climate-conscious factions may require, at a minimum, a moratorium on new exploration in parts of the Arctic and even a pledge to shut the industry down by 2035. Labour has so far rejected that approach, advocating a gradual withdrawal from fossil fuels instead. But its stance could shift: this is a country where oil revenues pay for the subsidies on electric cars and environmentalists are kingmakers. Anything could happen.

Engagement and activism

A record number of land and environmental activists were murdered last year, according to a report by Global Witness. Of the 227 recorded killings, 65 took place in Colombia, where criminal organisations have been targeting rural communities that participate in coca crop substitution programmes. In the Philippines, which also witnessed a rise in attacks, opposition to mining, logging and dams has been met with military force by the increasingly repressive regime of President Rodrigo Duterte. Duterte has put mining front and centre in his Covid recovery plan and this year reversed a ban on open-pit mining. In the Philippines and indeed the rest of the world, members of indigenous communities are disproportionately likely to be murdered for defending natural capital. Last year, 37 per cent of lethal attacks related to the environment were against indigenous people.

Do share this around, and let us know what you think of it.

Thanks for reading.

Giles Whittell

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