Reflecting on COP26

Six of our regular writers reflect on some of the themes of COP26 – successes and disappointments

Photo by Matt Palmer on Unsplash

Each day during COP26, the conference in Glasgow focused on a particular theme, and on each day, we have published articles related to that theme. All can be found on our home page. Now that the conference is finished, some of our writers reflect here briefly on the outcomes of the conference in relation to six of the themes.

These are personal perspectives, since we cannot possibly do justice to everything which happened in a vast and complex agenda. We have, where we can, tried to highlight things to celebrate as well as the disappointments.

Finance

COP26 faced two big financial issues. The first is the promise by developed countries to support less developed countries, and especially island states, to enable them to adapt to global warming. More controversially, they also want compensation for damage already suffered. Without support from developed countries, the less developed ones already face flooding, desertification, and crop failures, leading to mass starvation, migration and war.

However, the commitment at COP15 in Copenhagen to raise $100 billion a year for this by 2020 has not been met, and is now deferred to 2023. There is still a reluctance among the electorates of developed countries to recognise and pay for these transfers. The UK has promised to double its contribution by 2025, but the collective commitments at Glasgow are probably insufficient, and may not be honoured, although there is a promise to meet again next year to report on progress. There is also concern that 75 percent of the money is in the form of loans, which put impossible pressures on less developed nations.

The second issue was how to mobilise the finance sector, and to shift investment to sustainable activities. Mark Carney’s announcement that all the world’s major banks have signed up to the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, potentially making $130 trillion available for decarbonisation, shows financial institutions recognising the issues (and the potential profits of more sustainable strategies). However, there remain questions about the timescales for action, accountability, and the dangers of ‘greenwashing’, where firms, or whole systems, overstate the sustainability of their activities or conceal unsustainable activity.

Stephen McNair

Transport

According to COP26, road transport accounts for 10 percent of global emissions. It comes as no surprise that that figure is rising faster than any other sector. So it’s good news that over 100 countries, states, cities and organisations signed the Glasgow Declaration on Zero-Emission Cars and Vans to end the sale of internal combustion engines worldwide by 2040.

Focusing on road transport, the government announced in Glasgow that all HGVs will be zero-emission by 2040. This complements the plan to phase out all petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2030. Recent statistics from Forbes show the UK is on track to achieve this. Electric vehicles (EVs) are selling like hot cakes, already outstripping diesel. EVs will likely make up the majority of car sales in this country as soon as 2023.

More locally, Zap-map shows the East of England is behind the curve on the number of EV charging points compared to the rest of the country, but the figures continue to improve. On the public transport side, a Norfolk firm has started manufacturing electric double-decker buses that are set to trial next year. East Suffolk is halfway through a year-long trial of a small electric bus. Katch connects residents in Framlingham and Wickham Market with the train station at Campsey Ashe. Meanwhile, Cambridge is going further and has been testing an electric autonomous bus, currently with a safety driver, on a two mile route.

The Aurrigo autonomous bus undergoing trials in Cambridge. Was it designed by committee?

COP26’s goal was to “commit to selling only zero emission vehicles by 2035 or earlier”. Just five years ago, at the signing of the Paris Climate Accord, that number seemed almost an impossibility. Now it’s looking like the UK and other OECD countries may exceed it. The challenge will be for these countries to support the global south to meet their goals too.

Anna Damski

Nature

COP26 produced the Glasgow leaders’ declaration on forests and land use.  It’s been signed by 141 nations including Brazil.  Greenpeace was quick to point out that the declaration was unlikely to change anything.  It’s entirely voluntary, and gives little in the way of figures and targets. East Anglia’s lack of trees, and the many excellent projects addressing this problem, will not be affected by the declaration. Nature had a day at the conference, but it wasn’t the main thrust.

The figures that did appear in the declaration related to the targets of temperature change.  The document justified its existence by the need to limit the global average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. Far more than by the declaration, nature will be affected by the extraction and use of fossil fuels.  And the conference’s final statement, alas, will do little to reduce them.  The change from phasing coal out to phasing it down was the last stage of a process traceable over several drafts. 

So fossil fuel business will go on as usual, as will many other businesses, and nature’s day will not count for much.

Aidan Baker

Education

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 4.7  states, “By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles.” How much progress did COP26 make towards achieving this goal?

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi announced a new Sustainability & Climate Change Strategy to be created with teachers ready for April 2022. It will offer teachers enhanced materials to teach about the climate emergency through Science, Geography and Citizenship. A ‘National Education Nature Park’ will be established, to “bring together virtually” the entire estate of all educational establishments in the UK for young people to mutually learn about ‘geospatial planning’ and biodiversity. While it is a wonderful idea for young people to participate in monitoring growth and change in the park and uploading their findings to a digital mapping service for all to share, there are thousands of city schools with absolutely no green space who need to know how they can participate. The government also plans to create Climate Leaders Awards together with young people to help them make an impact in their local communities.

We have yet to see if this will be enough to meet UN SDG 4.7; or satisfy Teach the Future; or indeed, be reason to celebrate for all the young people’s groups demonstrating for more urgent action on the climate emergency.

Jenny Rhodes

Gender

Women are disproportionately affected by climate change because of historic inequality, women’s roles in society and their lack of participation in decision-taking processes. UN Women claims that 67 percent of decision-making roles are held by men, most of whom are white. That disparity was noticeable in the leadership at COP26. Alexandra Ocasio Cortez of the US Congress said, “The leadership that got us here won’t be the leadership that gets us out.”

Women and the climate crisis
Following flooding in Bangladesh, women search for dry shelter. Photo by UN Women Asia and the Pacific on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Importantly at COP26, leaders acknowledged the importance of gender equality and how much more significantly women are affected by the climate crisis. The Chair of Gender Day, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, urged countries to make commitments to implement the 2019 UNFCCC Gender Action Plan COP25 and deliver the goals of Feminist Action for Climate Justice. She announced a UK grant of £165m to support gender equality issues with two new programmes to boost women’s climate leadership and support those most vulnerable to climate change. Canada, Bolivia, Germany, Nigeria, Sweden and the US all announced they would also work on gender initiatives.

While women’s voices are beginning to be listened to, critics point out that none of the initiatives include anything to do with sexual and reproductive rights, even though gender-based violence increases when there’s major disruption to communities. Women and children comprise around 80 percent of those displaced by climate disasters. Sophie Rigg, Senior Climate Advisor at ActionAid UK, also argued that “the [new] funding should not be part of the diminished UK aid pot which has already faced harsh cuts this year impacting progress on women’s rights. The UK Government needs to step up and provide new and additional funding for the communities at the sharp end of this crisis.”

Elana Katz

Cities

The issue of cities was highlighted on Thursday 11 November. Cities present a particular challenge, as the concentration of people and activities there will raise temperatures more than in rural areas. To make matters worse, many major cities around the world, from Kolkata to New Orleans (and even London) are in low-lying areas, and therefore vulnerable to rising sea levels. By 2050, it’s expected that 68 percent of the world population will be living in cities. Urban transport and the associated air pollution levels are a major concern.

The transport sector is one of the largest emitters of energy-related CO2. According to the report from TUMI Transport Outlook, if nothing changes, the emissions will be 30 percent higher in 2050 than in 2020. As a global population, we need to halve our transport emissions in the next eight years, by 2030. By 2050, all transport should be zero-emission, thanks to:

  • dramatically increased cycling, with high-quality cycling networks (as in Amsterdam or Copenhagen) integrated into urban development;
  • improved urban public transport, both in terms of coverage and convenience;
  • electrified rail transport;
  • shifting freight onto rail from roads.

As the conference neared its planned end, clearly not enough progress had been made. Laurence Tubiana, the French diplomat who crafted the Paris agreement and is now chief of the European Climate Foundation, said: “It’s really important that we come back next year, and in 2023. That must be central to any outcome in Glasgow.”

Sarah Patey

Conclusion

It is good that COP26 happened. Countries are trying to work together, and there is very widespread recognition of the challenges which face us. There is evidence that public attitudes are changing in the UK, where recent polling shows the highest ever numbers of people (40 percent) rate the environment as one of their three most important issues.

Glasgow has moved things forward from the Paris agreements of 2015. The cumulative effect of the long-term promises do not bring global warming down to the 1.5 degree target agreed in 2015, though they are now closer. In the short term, we are far from what is needed, with targets for the next decade leaving us on course for a devastating 2.4°C warming. So, it is positive that there has been agreement to meet again next year to push things further forward.

The problem is that it is still far from clear that the scale and speed of the response is adequate to meet the challenges. Tackling these is a severe test of our systems of governance at global, regional and national levels. Electorates in developed countries, and their governments, are reluctant to undertake the sacrifices which the crisis requires, and would like to believe in technological solutions which minimise those. Large developing countries like India and China still want fossil fuels to fund growth, and won a disappointing last minute concession on this. People in less developed countries, in general, have less opportunity to make their voices heard, even in a fora like COP, where they were present, but perhaps less influential. For many of them the choices are hard and existential.

It is tempting for us in the UK to congratulate ourselves on our achievements, which are real. But it is important to remember that we export much of our carbon creation. Manufactured goods that we import from China create carbon there, not here, and we don’t count the costs of long-distance shipping and flying of our imports. COP should remind us that we all depend on each other, and we will sink or swim together.

Once past the promises and the negotiated texts, we still face the issue of accountability. A global challenge calls for global governance, but if anything, the world is fragmenting into smaller units.  A world of nation states can only respond by voluntary agreement. How, after the promises are made, can we gather appropriate, reliable data to measure what countries are actually doing? Above all, what is to be done, by whom, when a country fails to meet its promises? These are some of the issues which will return when COP meets again in Cairo next year.

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