COP26: We need heroic leadership and commitments in line with scientific advice, not more political theatre

As the first week of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP-26) comes to an end, the political theatre and platitudes of world leaders makes way to the armies of negotiating teams to thrash out the details of the evolving global climate agreement. COP26 President, Alok Sharma stated in his opening speech to the conference, ‘It is clear. There is no turning back. The world is firmly united in net zero resilient future.’

But is it?

COPs have always been a media circus. For two weeks a year, there is a notable spike in media coverage of climate change. The world turns its head. Civil society organisations have a platform to call for urgent and ambitious action. The Global South collectively have a louder voice to express how climate change is already affecting livelihoods, causing loss of life and destruction and that finance to support urgent adaptation and a low carbon transition is grossly inadequate. Be that as it may, once the COP is over, most of us get back to sleep walking towards climate catastrophe.

As cynical as this may seem, the performances seen at the 25 previous COPs have tended to be a showcase of multi-lateral jostling by the world’s biggest emitters to show willing but avoid commitment to anything that might affect economic growth. Whilst understandable, given the devastating impact of a sudden and unforeseen economic contraction, this has led to year-on-year emissions growth and inadequate commitments to emission reductions.

Greta Thunberg’s emotive Blah Blah Blah speech perfectly summed-up the past 30 years.

The role of the COP in negotiating the architecture for delivering on commitments is important. The COP also plays a critical role in the dissemination of information, institutional and capacity building for through the extensive side-event programme. But ultimately, the very real and urgent question for COP26 is, can global GHG reduction commitments be made that give us a more than 50% chance of keeping global average temperatures below 1.5C?

A 1.1C warming has already led to catastrophic extreme weather events such as those seen this year - extreme high temperatures, wildfires, inland and coastal flooding and drought. We are already living with the dire impacts of climate change.

 According to research published earlier this year, there is already a 1-in-6 chance the carbon budget – the total amount of GHG expressed as carbon remaining that can be emitted before it becomes more likely than not global average surface temperatures will exceed 1.5C – has been exceeded.

Net zero – where GHG emissions are decreased to zero or to a level that is matched by the intentional removal of from the atmosphere - by 2040 currently means there is only a 50% chance of not exceeding 1.5C. For 67% chance, it is estimated that total CO2e emissions (all GHG emissions expressed as carbon) must not exceed 230 billion tonnes. This is about 5 years of current emissions and net zero by 2030.

Commitments currently on the table at COP are insufficient keeping us within this remaining carbon budget. Negotiations so far have failed to commit to limiting warming to less than 1.5C.

But even if the necessary commitments are made, how are nations going to deliver on these? It’s not the target set, or the ambition of reaching those target that matters, but rather a realistic and achievable pathway. This means rapid deployment of low carbon technologies and infrastructure, phasing out (or even mothballing) high carbon technologies (such as coal fired energy generation), and transformation of patterns of consumption, particularly in the Global North.

At the peak of global lockdowns in April 2020, daily CO2 emissions decreased by almost 20% relative to the same period in 2019. And, overall, for 2020, global emissions fell by 7% relative to 2019, compared to a 1% increase year-on-year over the past decade. But these were exceptional circumstances, and the societal impact of a sudden contraction of economic activity was huge. Yet continued decreases at this rate is what is necessary. Researchers estimated that if this trajectory had continued, global emissions could potentially reach net-zero by 2035.

Historically, economic crises have led to short-term decreases in GHG emissions. But these have quickly rebounded. The 2008–2009 Global Financial Crisis led to a global CO2 emissions decline of –1.4% in 2009. But this was immediately followed by a growth in emissions of +5.1% in 2010. This was well above the long-term average. Emissions soon returned to their previous trajectory.

The exception to this rule was the economic crises caused by the 1970s and 80s oil crises which led to energy efficiency programmes and kick-started a shift towards alternative energy solutions. This historical example points to the importance of the recovery packages after a crisis, but also illustrates how a crisis can create the space for rapid diffusion of niche technologies.

Recovery programmes have the potential to lead to structural changes in the economic, transport or energy systems and allow niche technologies or business models to break through into the mainstream. Undoubtably there will be incumbent institutions and actors that will resist change, but crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic open the doors to opportunity.

Huge amounts of public spending is underway to deal with the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is essential this is seen as an opportunity for a net-zero transition by ensuring deep structural changes in infrastructure and industry are made. As individuals we all have a role to play, but ultimately, we are often locked into patterns of consumption which can be costly and difficult to break out from. Which is why not only, strong, but heroic leadership is required, and that goes against the grain of the past 30 years. This type of leadership can be seen at the sub-national scale. It now needs to take the global stage.

Want to dive deeper into the outcomes and reaction to COP26?
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