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Opening bids

Opening bids

Day one of Cop 26 got off to better than expected. But are we seeing enough action from the mega-polluters: India, US, Russia and China?

If optics mattered to the planet, Cop would have got off to a bad start. As it is, day one was better than expected. 

Boris Johnson will fly back to London today on a private jet and yesterday he invoked a spy who drove a 4-litre Aston Martin. But in the end he’s just the host. What matters at Cop is what the mega-polluters say and do.

Three have yet to play their hand. Yesterday, one came through.

India

Narendra Modi is suddenly the new face of climate action. His announcement of a net zero target date for India was momentous. It’s 20 years later than Cop would like but vastly better than nothing and “better I think than what most people thought we’d get,” says Sam Alvis of the Green Alliance. 

The target is far off and non-binding, but it’s accompanied by four others that kick in much earlier, and by a big ask that could be as significant: 

  • Modi promised 500 gigawatts of new renewables by 2030. (500 GW is ten times the UK’s total current installed renewable capacity.) 2030 is also India’s self-imposed deadline for having half of all its energy come from renewables, emitting a billion fewer tonnes of CO2 equivalent a year, and achieving a 45 per cent cut in the economy’s carbon intensity. 

These are colossal undertakings for a country of 1.3 billion still dependent on coal for nearly eight tenths of its energy. 

  • Modi also called for $1 trillion in climate finance from rich countries for poorer ones, which is ten times the per-year sum spoken of by the Cop process since 2009 but never quite delivered.

The t-word was echoed by Prince Charles and is much more in line with the scale of the challenge. $100 billion a year for tech transfer to meet soaring clean energy demands from a surging population and to compensate countries for not cutting down their forests was always derisory (and Boris Johnson’s promise yesterday of an extra £1 billion was even more so). 

The subtext: get serious about climate finance and you could see that 2070 net zero deadline brought forward a decade or even more. 

CO2 emissions: 2.4 GT. Net zero target: 2070.

USA

There was nothing new in Biden’s 11-minute speech except an offer of $3 billion for countries facing death by drowning from rising seas. And back home, Joe Manchin of West Virginia said he still won’t vote for the social security-plus-climate bill Biden wanted to be able to boast about in Glasgow (more below). But if passed that bill would be transformative. Among other things it would

  • cover up to 40 per cent of the cost of new renewable power capacity;
  • pay $85 per ton to businesses burying their CO2 waste underground;
  • pay $180 per ton to anyone removing CO2 directly from the air; and
  • subsidise EVs made in America to the tune of $12,500 per car.

CO2 emissions: 4.9 GT. Net zero target: 2050.

Russia

Putin is a Glasgow no-show but he’s set a 2060 net zero deadline and – a bit like Johnson – is said to have undergone a personal climate conversion. “In one year we’ve managed to get from denialism to something like acceptance,” Vasily Yabokov of Greenpeace Russia tells the Moscow Times.

Siberian forest fires, snowless winters and melting permafrost are changing Russia’s sense of itself. And global capital markets are changing Russia’s prospects by cutting investment in oil and gas. Two key figures in Putin’s circle, German Gref of Sberbank and Anatoly Chubais, the veteran electricity oligarch, have been whispering in his ear about stranded assets and he seems to have been listening. 

CO2 emissions: 1.6 GT. Net zero target: 2060.

China

Xi sent a written message adding nothing to his previous pledges to pass peak coal in 2030 and hit net zero by 2060. This was expected but still bad. The emissions China is failing to cut by not following a pathway aligned to 1.5 degrees between now and 2030 are nearly equivalent to India’s total emissions. 

China and the US were on the same page in Paris. Not in Glasgow – yet. But Xi’s climate envoy is in town even if Xi isn’t. Xie Zhenhua is a veteran schmoozer, liked and trusted by his US counterpart John Kerry. There are 10 days and plenty of bilaterals to come.

CO2 emissions: 10.3 GT. Net zero target: 2060.


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nAture

Green shoots
At today’s world leaders’ summit, 101 countries will sign a commitment to end deforestation by 2030. Together they cover 85 per cent of the world’s forest. It’s a huge win for the planet and a big one for the UK presidency, which has pushed the pledge as one of several side deals on methane, cars and coal that it hopes to secure before the end of next week. Key signatories include heavily-forested countries such as Russia, Indonesia and Brazil. Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s commitment is particularly encouraging given the Amazon contains an estimated 100bn tonnes of carbon. To end the felling of forest for agriculture, £14bn of private and public money has been promised. But to meet the goals of Paris Agreement will require between $45 and $460bn a year. It’s also not clear how progress will be measured. As long as vast agricultural subsidies exist, the temptation to clear forest will remain.


eco-nomics

Manchin’s interest
President Biden dozed off during the speeches yesterday despite a thorn in his side – Joe Manchin, the senator from West Virginia who killed off a key element of his infrastructure package that would have rewarded American companies that shift to renewables and penalised those that don’t. Why? One reason is that Manchin faces a challenging re-election campaign (albeit not till 2024) in a state that largely voted for Trump. Another is his portfolio: in the last ten years, he’s made between $4.9 and $5.1 million from investments in coal. In the first three quarters of 2021, he took another $577,000 in campaign contributions from fossil fuel companies. Can handouts from coal companies compete with those in Biden’s $555 billion package for anyone switching to renewables and EVs? We’ll find out. Manchin’s playing hardball and has forced a delay in Congress but a vote has to come soon.


policy

A drop in the ocean
Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, kicked off her time at Cop by pledging a £1 million investment fund to help developing countries deal with the unavoidable loss and damage from climate change. Financing will be a key issue in Glasgow because rich nations haven’t delivered the $100 billion per year that they promised developing countries (more on that later this week) and such pledges could help build trust between negotiators. But Scotland’s amounts to a tiny fraction of what’s needed. One insurance company estimated that worldwide natural disasters led to $210bn of losses in 2020 alone, and the UN says by 2030, developing countries will need $300 billion to cope.


Engagement and activism

Cambo tango
The UK government knows it’s not a good look to be considering new oil fields while hosting Cop, but wouldn’t be drawn on Sunday on whether the Cambo oil field west of Shetland would be approved. Then yesterday Alastair Jack, the Scotland Secretary, said it should “100 per cent” go ahead because production was “priced in” to net zero plans. The Cambo project could yield 170m barrels of oil in its first phase. It’s due to be considered by the UK Oil and Gas authority but could also be rejected by MPs – if it comes to that. The environmental law firm Client Earth has warned ministers it would challenge any approval of the field that relied on outdated climate compatibility tests. The government was due to update its criteria for North Sea drilling this year in light of findings by the IEA and others that say any further exploration is incompatible with 1.5 degrees. That hasn’t happened yet.


Science and tech

Let’s get real
“Instead of launching another hyped-up internet app, why not develop solutions that can help save the planet?” That was the not-too-subtle dig from Israel’s prime minister Naftali Bennet towards tech-bros in his speech yesterday. It’s a good question. Should Silicon Valley really be building virtual worlds while the real one is – as Johnson said – at one minute to midnight? Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison (who ummed and ahed about coming to Glasgow) also nailed his colours to the tech mast. “Technology will have the answers to a decarbonised economy,” he told the conference. He was careful to add that clean technologies “must out-compete existing technologies if they are to be successful” and that “raising the cost of energy just impacts on those who can afford it least”. Which all sounds fair, except that solar and renewables are already cheaper than Morrison’s favourite fuel – coal – and have been for a while. What is Australia waiting for?

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

Thanks for reading.

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell

Additional reporting by Ellen Halliday, Phoebe Davis and Barney Macintyre.



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