COP26: Reflections on the first week

While there was progress at the COP26 summit of leaders, there is also concern that agreements are not far-reaching or urgent enough.

COP26 reflections
Boris Johnson COP26 summit. Photo by No 10 on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The sight of world leaders jetting into Glasgow after a short-stay G20 getaway in Rome, while hundreds of attendees were stranded at Euston station was an inauspicious start to COP26. The feeling of ‘do as I say, not as I do’ was certainly being felt before the conference had even begun.

In some ways this was reflective of the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, where his deeds on reaching Net Zero and tackling climate change have largely not met the rhetoric. There have been some instances of progress, with the commitment to heat pumps made in the recently published (albeit much delayed) Heat and Buildings Strategy, likely to make a small dent in the transition away from fossil fuelled boilers. However, these positive signs of progress remain patchy and inconsistent.

Sabotaging the green agenda

In fact, at times it could even be argued that he has not only ignored the green agenda, but proactively sabotaged it. Earlier in the year, for instance, his Government removed the Green Home Grants and closed the Non-Domestic Renewable Heat Incentive with nothing to take its place. Far from providing a stimulus to the energy transition and the green economy, he looked to stagnate it.

Worse was to come. You would not have known from Rishi Sunak’s Autumn Budget that COP26 was around the corner, with the dearth of support for the renewable energy and clean technology sector compounded by the cut to domestic air passenger duty. The obfuscation around whether Johnson will waive through new coal mines is now well documented too.

Of course, Johnson spent the lead up to COP26 looking to divert from his own shortcomings domestically, by shifting the onus onto other countries, saying that they must “make the bold compromises and ambitious commitments needed.” In many ways this was classic Boris Johnson expectation management for his own political expediency. Rather than putting in the hard graft of diplomacy to come to ground-breaking international agreement, he instead sought to give himself cover by starting the blame game early. No doubt he would have also claimed a great victory if COP26 had been deemed a success.

Vacuum of political leadership

That vacuum of political leadership has been felt at times in Glasgow, but that doesn’t mean to say that the conference is without leaders. It must not be forgotten that, as well as being a congregation of governments around the world, COP is also the world’s largest exhibition for organisations working in and around the environment, climate and the renewables sectors. The depth of knowledge, experience, passion and innovation is on display and gives huge encouragement. Progress is certainly being made in many areas, irrespective of political lethargy.

We should not lightly dismiss the agreements that have already been reached, however. The pledge to halt and then reverse deforestation and land degradation by 2030 was signed by governments covering over 85% of the world’s forests, including Brazil, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Over a hundred countries agreed to cut methane emissions by 30% by the end of this decade. And more than 40 countries pledge to phase out coal power by 2030 for major economies, and 2040 for developing nations.

Sceptical population

Not without justification, people will be sceptical about these announcements. China’s absence from COP26 has hard-wired pessimism into proceedings, and there have been similar agreements reached before on things like deforestation with seemingly little impact. There is a sense too that the commitments made so far are neither far-reaching or urgent enough to bring about significant change in this critical decade.

With one more week of COP26 to go, there is still time for future-changing agreements to be reached. Indeed, as we saw in Paris, negotiations can go right down to the wire. Yet I fear this won’t be the watershed moment many hoped for – instead, it looks likely that one of the last, great moments to avert the path our planet is on will be lost.

Behind the scenes. Photo by IAEA Imagebank on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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