Remember Cop25? If so, it’s probably not for the right reasons. The last UN climate summit, held in Madrid in 2019, was characterised by squabbles among major polluting nations and ultimately a disappointing lack of action.
Now on the cusp of Cop26 in Glasgow – postponed for a year due the Covid pandemic – there is an even narrower window to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement, designed to curb even greater climate extremes.
Countries must commit to dramatically reduce their planet-heating emissions to keep global temperature rise to an increasingly ambitious 1.5C since pre-industrial times, or “well below” 2C. Currently, the world has heated about 1.1C.
Pre-Paris deal, the world was heading for temperature rise close to 4C, and while this has dropped, it is still tracking to hit more than 3C this century. The World Meteorological Organisation reported on Monday that greenhouse gas concentrations hit a record high last year, and increased at a faster rate than the annual average for the last decade, despite a temporary reduction during Covid lockdowns.
While it’s clear more action cannot come fast enough, there have been glimmers of good news since the last summit.
No longer a shred of doubt on climate crisis – and experts are crystal-clear on what must be done
Since 2013, the vast majority of scientists (97 per cent) have agreed that the climate crisis is being caused largely by humans burning fossil fuels.
That figure is now even higher. Research published last week by Cornell University revealed that 99.9 per cent of studies now say the climate crisis is human-driven, on a par with scientific certainty in evolution.
It echoes an assessment in August by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading authority on climate science, which for the first time called it “unequivocal” that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.
The path to reducing emissions is also being laid out in even more clear-cut terms.
The International Energy Agency, which has analysed the world’s energy use for the past half century, said in May that there was no place for new oil, gas and coal projects if the world were to reach its net-zero emissions goal by 2050.
In a first-of-its-kind blueprint, the Net Zero Roadmap also called for a worldwide end to the sale of new fossil fuel boilers by 2025, new petrol vehicles by 2035, and transition to a global emissions-free electric grid by 2040.
Every bit of action matters, the IPCC notes. “We are not doomed,” Dr Friederike Otto, an IPCC report author and associate director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, told The Independent earlier this year.
Clean energy is growing fast
Renewable energy from solar and wind combined made up 1.7 per cent of global electricity power in 2010, the research non-profit, World Resources Institute, reports. In 2020, this figure was 8.7 per cent – a much greater leap than energy experts predicted.
The cost of renewables has dropped dramatically over the past ten years as technology has improved and production has ramped up. The cost of solar photovoltaics (PV) fell 85 per cent from 2010, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.
Emissions pledges are being updated
While still mostly existing on paper, more and more countries have been putting forward increased “Nationally Determined Contributions” (NDCs), countries’ pledges to reduce emissions.
The original NDCs are not enough to keep to the 1.5C goal, so the Paris Agreement has a “ratchet mechanism”, meaning each nation must come up with a bolder target for reducing emissions every five years. Cop26 is the first major test of how well the Paris deal will hold.
Currently only the Gambia has put forward an NDC compatible with 1.5C, according to Climate Action Tracker. Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco, Nepal, Nigeria and the United Kingdom have set “almost sufficient” NDCs.
Overall, some 131 countries have put forward or are in the middle of of upping emission-reduction targets, encompassing close to three-quarters (72%) global emissions.
If the plans are fully enacted, then it “opens the window” to meet Paris goals, a new report says, holding temperature increase to 2–2.4C by 2100. But the report noted that what’s important now is concrete action – particularly this decade.
(Baby) steps by world’s other largest polluters
The world’s largest polluters are failing to do enough, fast enough, to meet the Paris goals. But there have been small steps in the right direction.
New plans have trickled out ahead of Cop26. Chinese President Xi Jinping announced at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in September that the the country, the world’s largest polluter, would no longer build coal-fired power plants overseas.
“China will step up support for other developing countries in developing green and low carbon energy and will not build new coal-fired power projects abroad,” he told the gathering of world leaders. However there was no commitment to reduce China’s booming domestic coal production.
In 2020, China announced it will “strive” to peak carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.
Russia, the fourth largest emitter whose economy is heavily reliant on fossil fuels, also set a 2060 target.
Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s top oil producers, said this weekend that it aims to reach “net zero” emissions by 2060 – but again with no indication that the kingdom will slow down oil and gas investment overseas. Fellow petrostate the United Arab Emirates pledged to a 2050 target for net zero.
The US is back in the game
Joe Biden won last November’s election partly on the back of his bold vision to chart a greener future for America amid ever worsening climate extremes.
He rejoined the Paris Agreement abandoned by Donald Trump; held a virtual climate summit for world leaders at the White House and announced at UNGA that the US would double climate finance funding for poorer nations.
He also installed an army of climate experts across government agencies and dispatched special envoy John Kerry on a world tour to drum up ambition to slash planet-heating emissions.
But his domestic agenda to reduce emissions is taking a battering by members of his own party, raising questions on how strong a negotiating position the US president will have when he arrives in Glasgow.
Regular people rise up
Global climate protests have taken on a new urgency and are being driven by young people in all corners of the world.
While the pandemic slowed momentum, recent weeks have seen renewed pressure from the streets calling on businesses and government to act.
A Pew survey last month of 17 advanced economies across North America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region found deep concern about the climate crisis among populations. The polling discovered that most people were willing to change how they live and work if it would make a difference to the climate crisis.
This renewed energy isn’t just on marches and sit-ins, people are taking their demands to the voting booths.
In countries across Europe there is rising support for politicians who say they are willing to meet the challenges. Months after catastrophic floods stunned Germany, for example, the Green Party won its most votes ever, coming close behind the country’s two largest parties.
In the US, the Congressional Progressive Caucus is holding firm on demands for initiatives to address the climate crisis after rallying their supporters behind Joe Biden during the presidential primaries and in the election against Mr Trump.
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