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What Cop 26 is for
Slow Views

What Cop 26 is for

Friday 29 October 2021

If the future of this Earth depended on the cajolery of the UN’s climate conference, we’d all be screwed. But the trillions of dollars poised for investment in the environment should give us hope


Astronauts looking down on earth are almost always blown away by it. Here’s Nicole Stott, who spent 103 days in orbit and never tired of the view: “You start with this idea of what it’s going to look like and then you finally look at the Earth for the first time and you’re overwhelmed by how much more beautiful it really is… It’s this dynamic, alive place that you see glowing all the time.”

Apart from the innate beauty of the swirling cloud patterns and the oceans under them, there are concrete reasons to be awestruck by the sight of our planet from this distance. The space it hangs in is black and hostile. The sun is relentless, and the atmosphere is cigarette paper-thin. 

If only Congress had the same perspective. America might find it easier to get behind the idea of climate leadership. Instead, their president arrived in Rome today to consign the Trump years to environmental history at a G20 meeting and at Cop, with his own environmental plans hamstrung by the two wings of his own party. “The rest of the world wonders whether we can function,” he told reporters. The same doubts now hang over the Cop process he wanted to save.

Astronauts see better than most why the planet’s heating up. The sun is always shining on half the planet, and where it isn’t, the lights of a carbon-based human society show exactly where most of its waste gases come from.

And we know exactly what they do. 165 years ago Eunice Newton Foote of Seneca Falls, New York, worked out by experimenting with jars of air and CO2 that some of the sun’s energy reaching Earth was being trapped by the atmosphere on its way back out to space.

The greenhouse effect has been settled science for at least a century. The more CO2, the more warming. It’s that simple. Since 1958 Hawaii’s Mauna Loa observatory has been plotting CO2 concentration on the rising sawtooth graph known as the Keeling Curve, which puts the level now at 413 parts per million. Less curvy but more striking is a graph that shows the same metric since 4000 BC. It holds steady at 275-285 until the mid-19th century, then shoots up like a rocket. 

If this rocket isn’t tamed in the next 30 years humanity will have rendered much of its home planet unliveable. To the credit of our species we are working the problem. Thirty thousand people from 190 countries converge next week on the light source known as Glasgow to give the bureaucratic consensus process one last college try. 

The Cop analysis of the climate crisis rests on carbon budgets. They’re notional but based on the best climate science there is. They say 2.9 trillion tonnes of CO2 equivalent are all we can emit over and above pre-industrial levels to keep warming to 1.5 degrees, and of them 2.4 trillion have already been emitted

That leaves half a trillion tonnes to “spend” on heaving 6 billion people in the developing world into post-industrial prosperity. Four billion live in Asia, which remains dependent on coal for between half and three quarters of its energy depending on the country. All are being badgered on climate change by rich countries that delivered a post-industrial lifestyle for a sixth as many people with five times as much fossil fuel energy.

Why 1.5 degrees? Not because it’s desirable. We’re at 1.1 degrees of warming now and that has already been disastrous for extreme weather events (twice as frequent as in 1990), climate migration (21 million people on the move), crop yields, drought, wildfires, sea level rise, glacial retreat, polar melting and heat waves across large, formerly temperate areas of  the habitable earth.

Why 1.5 degrees? Because it’s the lowest remotely plausible number given that fossil fuels still account for more than 80 per cent of total global energy supply, and Asia is booming. 

The Cop approach rests on cajolery and targets: cajolery to persuade rich countries to stump up $100 billion a year to help fund clean energy transitions in poorer ones; and targets to set more targets – Net Zero targets for every country in the world by 2050. The trouble with the cajolery is that even when it gets results they’re not enough. The UK said this week the $100 billion-a-year goal had been met, but funding a clean energy transition for Indonesia alone would cost three times as much. The trouble with the targets is they’re targets; non-binding and more than a generation away, so no-one’s personal responsibility in 2021.

“Cop 26 simply can’t be another talk shop,” said Alok Sharma, the UK’s minister for Cop, in his preamble to the official programme. But it will be. That’s all it can be, even if everyone shows up, and the most important invitee, Xi Jinping, has already sent regrets. 

Which is not to say that Cop is pointless. It has proved a valuable forcing and shaming mechanism – forcing countries to produce and update their “nationally determined contributions” towards staying within that half-trillion-tonne budget, and shaming those, like India, that haven’t bothered. But if Cop was the planet’s only hope it would be screwed.

Fortunately, it isn’t. In Saint Nazaire on France’s Atlantic coast a spit of land once covered in oil tanks is now a vast, paved turbine park. The turbines, each the size of a house, sit on their bases in neat rows, like giant robots. Because they’re so big it takes an effort of will to imagine them being driven round by 80-metre blades at the top of towers taller than the London Eye out in the storm-swept Bay of Biscay, but that is where they’re headed. 

This is a Siemens yard, and Siemens is in it for the money. There are similar sites all round the Baltic and North seas, filling and emptying as the machinery is marshalled and shipped out. The business case for offshore mega-wind has been supported by subsidies and will need to be supported in the future, because the marginal cost of energy once it’s installed is so low that purely commercial investors have started having second thoughts about the returns. The same goes for Big Solar, but renewables still have by far the fastest-growing share of global energy supply, and that has as much to do with policy signals and falling prices as with Cop.

Reality check: renewables still account for only 3 per cent of energy used worldwide. Coal, oil and gas still dominate, in Asia overwhelmingly. Parts of the fossil fuel sector are saying “told you so” all the way to the bank as post-lockdown demand surges drive coal and gas price spikes into household budgets and retailers’ bottom lines.

There’s an energy crisis to add to the climate crisis. There’s also a general feeling that the UK government has botched its preparations for Cop. Businesses aren’t feeling welcome any more than they did at last month’s Conservative Party conference. Oil and gas companies have been denied any formal role. The agenda is vague. There are no concrete undertakings on the crucial challenge of pricing carbon appropriately, and the headline goal of sticking to 1.5 degrees is already out of reach: the latest update from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says we’re heading for 2.7 by 2100. 

Eight years ago Stephen Emmott ended his Ten Billion with: “we’re fucked”. He was accused of exaggerating, but so many trend lines have headed in the wrong direction since then that it would be easy to conclude we really are now. 

Instead, as an experiment, let’s park the panic and peer ahead through the telescope of optimism at the $35 trillion worldwide queueing up for ESG investments (the E is for environment). At the Hertz order this week for 100,000 Teslas. At banks in Seoul taking government clean energy pledges at face value and moving away from coal. At businesses in Australia urging their government, in essence, to be more like South Korea’s. And at the UK’s remarkable decarbonising of its power sector, mostly since Emmott said it was too late. 

Copenhagen in 2009 was a catastrophist’s convention. Paris in 2015 was an optimist’s convention. Cop 26 in Glasgow needs to be remembered as a trade fair for hydrogen tycoons and futurologists. And maybe a few astronauts. It would still be a talking shop, but it could be one that makes a difference.

Go deeper

Explore more of our Accelerating Net Zero journalism


Read some of our best Net Zero Sensemakers we’ve published in the run-up to Cop 26

Photograph taken by a crew member from the command module of Apollo 11, 16 July 1969. Courtesy NASA