In advance of Cop 26, there remains a yawning gap between countries’ pledges and policy action. Britain is making a last-ditch effort to narrow it
Cop 26 is days away and the heat is on. Rail strikes, complaints from corporations, and activist disruption should be the least of world leaders’ concerns. As it stands, half of the G20 have failed to submit a target for climate action that beats their pledges at Paris (see below). Those pledges put the world on a course of 2.4 degrees of warming by the end of the century. On current policies, it’s 2.9. Closing this “implementation gap” – between promises and concrete action – requires demand for fossil fuels to peak by 2025, colossal investment in clean energy and a relentless focus on energy efficiency. It also needs leadership.
Late in the day, the emperor has decided to put on some clothes. The UK government has finally started providing some policy detail, with a strategy due today on how to achieve net zero. Here are a few key items it’s expected to announce:
Power. When it comes to decarbonising energy, the UK has already earned some bragging rights. A strong carbon price has effectively pushed coal off the system and replaced it with gas. As a result, the carbon intensity of the UK energy system halved within the space of four years. Now Kwasi Kwarteng, the business and energy secretary, faces a new quandary: how to wean the country off gas?
He’s taken the nuclear option. The forthcoming net zero strategy promises to agree on funding for a new nuclear power plant, due to be announced before 2024, as well as a fleet of mini-reactors built by Rolls Royce. The UK’s existing reactors will be retired by 2035, but construction has so far started on just one new plant: Hinkley Point C. Putting nuclear at the core of the strategy shows Britain is taking a cue from France on energy security, preferring to depend on stubbornly expensive, home-grown nuclear rather than Russian gas piped via Nord Stream 2. There’s also talk of quadrupling Britain’s production of offshore wind power.
Heat and buildings. £3.9bn has been pledged towards decarbonising all new heating systems in the UK by 2035 (though it’s unclear whether that will constitute a legal ban on gas boilers). Households will be entitled to a £5,000 grant as part of the boiler upgrade scheme to install low-carbon heating systems or heat pumps. Currently the cost of an installed heat pump is around £10,000, so the government has also put £60m into an innovation fund to try and reduce their cost and size. Hydrogen heating has been sidelined for the moment, with a decision on its role due in 2026.
Is it enough of an incentive for rapid change? Pre-announcement, environmental consultancy E3G put the spending gap for greening buildings at an eye-watering £11.7bn over the next three years. The Committee on Climate Change says that 600,000 pumps will need to be installed per year by 2028 to meet net zero. What’s been offered pales in comparison.
Finance. The UK’s chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has countered reports that “he’s not really down with the green stuff” by laying out new standards for environmental reporting. Every investment product will now have to detail the environmental impact of the activities it finances, while certain firms will be expected to publish transition plans consistent with the country’s decarbonisation goals.
All told, it’s a set of measures worthy of replication. But there are still plenty of stormclouds hanging over negotiations at Glasgow.
The Budget. “This all needs to be backed up by the comprehensive spending review,” says Ed Matthew, head of campaigns at E3G. “The Treasury and the BEIS [Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy] have to work hand-in-glove. If they don’t, a lot of the policy ambition of the BEIS will be undermined.”
Joe Manchin. The US Senator for West Virginia has threatened to oppose climate-focused parts of President Biden’s much-touted infrastructure bill. If it fails to go through, Biden may well land on Scottish soil with an empty hand. (More on this below).
Chinese action. We’re told that the Chinese will be sending a sizeable delegation to Glasgow. But again, that same question: what will they bring with them in terms of specific policy? Pretty much any announcement – a new target for peaking emissions, for example – would be warmly welcomed by the home team.
Join us at Cop26 for a series of ThinkIns at The New York Times Climate Hub in Glasgow
Who should pay to save the rainforest?
How far can we go with the technology we already have?
Talk is cheap. What should CEOs actually do about the climate crisis?
Too slow, too many cars – can we change the electrification roadmap?
How do we kick start the renovation revolution?
Less talk, more do
She speaks; they listen. It’s only been a few days since the Queen was caught on an open mic complaining about countries that “talk, but they don’t do” on climate change. As if to compensate, the private sector will pledge nearly £10 billion in clean energy investments at a pre-Cop summit today at Windsor Castle. Spain’s Iberdrola will commit £6 billion for offshore wind capacity off East Anglia, the FT reports. Portugal’s EDP says it will spend up to £13 billion on new wind capacity on- and offshore, subject to winning Scottish leases. Viridor says it’ll spend £1 billion decarbonising five waste recycling facilities. Not all the pledges are new and many depend on subsidies, but as convening power goes, this is green.
Science and tech
Lab meat beat?
Is lab-grown meat a bit like controlled fusion – always 30 years away? A useful NYT explainer suggests it might be. From a climate perspective the need to reverse the steady growth in traditionally-reared meat production is clear. Meat and dairy between them account for 14.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. But lab-grown meat may not be the answer. Unlike plant-based alternatives, it consists of cultured cell lines that taste like meat because they are meat, but they have to be grown into complex tissue on artificial scaffolds. Scientists have failed so far to do this on a scalable basis and one Berkeley-based researcher who’s been on the case for two years says “it’s hard to find an angle that wasn’t a ludicrous dead end”. The potential benefits are huge, and not just in terms of climate. Lab-reared meat could see off antibiotic resistance and most food-borne disease. But the current price of lab-grown burger meat is $100 per pound.
Manchin in the middle
The framers of the US constitution wanted senators to know their own minds, stand up for their beliefs and wield real power to check an overbearing executive. That is not what’s happening in West Virginia. Biden’s flagship climate legislation is likely to be gutted to mollify Joe Manchin, Democratic senator for the coal-rich state that isn’t rich because coal-fired power is being priced out of business by renewables. Rather than recognise what’s happening, Manchin is leveraging his vote to insist that his own party scrap the bulk of a plan to phase out what remains of America’s coal and gas-fired power capacity and replace it with renewable and nuclear alternatives. Another thing the framers expected of senators was far-sighted wisdom. Manchin has abandoned any pretence of that in favour of deference to local interests that help pay his campaign bills. By diluting the Biden climate plan he could torpedo Cop as well. “They will look ridiculous if they show up with nothing,” another Democratic senator tells the Guardian. “It would be bad for US leadership, bad for the talk and disastrous for the climate.”
Engagement and activism
The “green carpet” was well and truly rolled out on Sunday for the inaugural Earthshot Prize. Headed by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, the prize will run yearly from now until 2030 and awards £1 million to projects that work to address the key impacts of climate change, air pollution and waste. The award ceremony was a glitzy affair with climate-minded celebrities including Emma Watson, Sir David Attenborough and Emma Thompson making an appearance. The guests were told to not buy a new outfit, and the royal couple setting an example and turning up in outfits they had worn to previous events. Behind the glamour, there were genuine and inspiring ideas from across the globe that will benefit from the prize money and the platform that comes with it. Sensemaker is particularly interested in the award for the AEM Electrolyser, a project set up to make clean hydrogen in Thailand, and a scheme in Costa Rica paying local citizens to restore natural ecosystems that has led to a revival of the rainforest.
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