A year today in Glasgow sees the start of a climate change summit arguably even more important than the successful 2015 gathering in Paris.
The task for Glasgow is to close the massive chasm between the objectives of the Paris accord – to seek to limit global warming to 1.5C – and the commitments of countries. These current commitments would mean global warming of up to around 3C, which would be disastrous for people across the world.
The outcome of the US election on Tuesday will have huge ramifications for our planet. Joe Biden’s plan to stay in the Paris accord and invest $2 trillion (£1.5 trillion) in clean energy, jobs and infrastructure shows he is serious about the task ahead. But we should be under no illusions: whatever the outcome of the US election, we have a massive task ahead to make Glasgow a success. The UK government will need to strain every political, strategic and diplomatic sinew as the hosts of the Cop26 summit.
First, we need to show the power of example in our domestic action. When we passed the world-leading Climate Change Act, with cross-party support, in 2008, and became the first country to legislate for emissions reductions, it gave us moral authority on the world stage. Today, we should lead by example again by showing that the route to economic recovery from the Covid-19 crisis is by tackling the climate emergency.
When delegates gather in Glasgow in 12 months, they should be coming to a country that has in that time created hundreds of thousands of green jobs through an ambitious green recovery, in everything from retrofitting homes to building the zero-emission engines of the future to planting trees and green spaces.
The prime minister likes to invoke former US president Franklin Roosevelt who led America out of the Great Depression. This is the Rooseveltian project of today. But so far while our neighbours in France and Germany have committed tens of billions of euros to this idea, we have committed a tiny fraction of that. Where are the new jobs Boris Johnson promised?
The government also needs to acknowledge that it is way off track from meeting the climate targets it has set. It needs to match its rhetoric with a proper plan for what our future energy system looks like, how it will decarbonise the way we heat our homes, a plan for our transport system including committing to phasing out new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 and show how land use and agriculture can play a central role in tackling the climate crisis. A coherent plan also needs a ban on UK government financing of fossil fuel projects overseas and mandatory climate-rejected financial reporting for UK-listed companies.
Secondly, Glasgow needs to deliver on the international finance for developing countries. They must be able to come with us on the low-carbon transition in a global green recovery and build resilience against the impacts of climate change. Across the globe, we need to deliver on the $100bn (£76.3bn) of finance promised to countries on the frontline of the crisis a decade ago.
We should also be working internationally to co-ordinate and support green recovery efforts around the world, and address the crippling debt burdens and ruinous interest rates faced by many vulnerable countries following the pandemic. This should include working much more effectively through international institutions like the IMF and World Bank, energising like-minded countries, and using our presidency of G7 next year to drive the agenda.
Thirdly and most importantly, long-term goals of zero emissions as recently announced by China, Japan and South Korea, following other countries including the UK, represent a very welcome momentum in the climate fight, but they are not a substitute for action over the next crucial decade. Politicians must not be allowed off the hook by pointing to action later this century, when the science tells us we must act now, in the coming years.
The science tells us that commitments for the coming decade are the most important test of Glasgow. The world is on track for something around 56 gigatons of emissions in 2030, even with Paris commitments. That number needs to be 41 gigatons to keep warming below 2C and 24 gigatonnes in 2030 to be on track to keep warming below 1.5C. This is a daunting task, but it is not impossible.
The UK needs to significantly enhance our 2030 emissions reduction target this year as a lever for action. Tweaks are not enough. If we are to keep the possibility of limiting global heating to 1.5C, we need a major step forward this year and other nations, including the US and China, need to follow.
The numbers and the scale of the task should be dominating the thinking of UK ministers. They point to the importance of the greatest possible ambition for government. We can’t negotiate with the science. And we cannot pretend it doesn’t exist. Maximal ambition is what we need.
That is where social movements, businesses, academics and faith leaders come in. The focus of governments around the world on Covid is totally understandable. But we cannot allow this summit to come and go simply with business as usual. People across every country need to make their voices heard and ensure that Cop26 is treated with the weight it deserves.
We should all be asking Boris Johnson now to insist that world leaders come to the summit, either in person or, if necessary, virtually, depending on Covid – so that they know their reputation is on the line. They should feel compelled to act due to the volume of this global voice, and know that adequate is not good enough.
We do not choose the times we live in or the crises we face. But we owe it to future generations to make the next 12 months count in the fight against the climate crisis. The long-term future of our economies and societies hinges on the decisions and actions we take in the coming year.
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