COP26 Week 1: What has been dished up so far?

After a one-year delay due to Covid-19, the 26th Conference of the Parties finally kicked off in Glasgow last week, drawing a throng of world leaders, business leaders and climate activists. Will it deliver? Or is it more ‘bla bla bla’, the now infamous words of Greta Thunberg who has already written the conference off as greenwash. Is she right to do so?

‘Paris promised, Glasgow must deliver’ said the UK’s COP26 President Alok Sharma in his opening address. In light of ever accumulating and verifiable climate data and modelling, it really is, or should be, a make or break gathering of minds. The moment to turn ‘build back better’ mantras into concrete action. Without firm commitments and follow through action, runaway climate breakdown is inevitable. There is no wiggle room when it comes to climate science. ‘We made some progress’ simply won’t cut it. We either reduce emissions to the required level in time to limit warming to 1.5 degrees, or we risk flicking the first domino in a feast of frightful feedback loops.

So, what has COP26 dished up so far? Is it all hot air and haggis, or is there some meat to the bone?

Here are the key highlights from week one:

Stark warnings, impassioned pleas, and flimsy similes

UN secretary General Antonio Guterres issued a stark warning that ‘we are digging our own graves’; Biden apologised for the US having pulled out of the Paris Accord under Trump; Boris Johnson conjured the image of James Bond being strapped to a ticking timebomb, claiming Glasgow could be the moment humanity defuses that doomsday device; and David Attenborough gave an emotional speech, lamenting the decline in biodiversity he has witnessed over his lifetime, and urging leaders to stabilise CO2 concentrations and to turn ‘tragedy into triumph’. He also said our motivation should be hope not fear. Perhaps he is right. Fear has been used to great effect over the millennia to encourage obedience, but when it’s an issue so big, so global, and so seemingly out of our individual control, perhaps scaremongering only leads to anxiety, apathy, despair.

US rejoins coalition pushing for 1.5 degrees Celsius goal at COP26

The return of the world’s second-largest emitter and richest nation to the High Ambition Coalition, an informal alliance of small vulnerable countries and big Western states including the EU, is a real boost. The group ensured the 1.5C goal was a key plank of the Paris agreement, and the move marks a significant boost to attempts to focus the COP26 summit on the same limiting temperature rise.

More than 100 world leaders will commit to halting and reversing deforestation and land degradation by 2030

Backed by nearly £14bn in public and private funding, major producers and consumers of deforestation-linked commodities including Indonesia, China, Brazil and the US, have put their name to the deal, which aims to curtail the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Funding will be provided to developing nations as a priority, supporting projects that restore land degraded by land-use change for agri-food, other commercial activities, flooding, drought and wildfires. There will also be funding provided for initiatives that seek to ensure the rights of Indigenous communities are respected. However, when cattle and soya for animal feed are wiping out the Amazon and savannahs of Brazil, without tackling the drivers of destruction it is rather unrealistic to think cash alone will work.

India sets a net zero target… finally

India, the 4th biggest emitter after China, US and EU, set a net zero target, albeit for 2070. This is 20 years later than the UK, US, and other high-income countries, 10 years later even than Saudi and Russia and China. However, a year ago nobody would have believed India would set a target.

Countries representing 90% of world GDP are now covered by a net zero target. India will also update its National Determined Contribution (NDC) with a commitment to hosting 500GW of renewable generation by 2030. This should account for 50% of the country’s energy supply.

Australia and Saudi Arabia set net-zero goals just before COP26, with Australia’s PM stating that they will ‘do it the Australian way’ (some worry that means waiting until 2049 to take action!). Their plan aims to reduce emissions 35% below 2005 levels by 2030, but relies heavily on offsetting and hopes for future technology.

The Glasgow Breakthrough Agenda

More than 40 world leaders from nations representing more than 70% of the world’s economy have signed up to a new declaration aiming to deliver clean and affordable technology and solutions worldwide by 2030. The Breakthrough Agenda will assist in global efforts to halving emissions by 2030 and keeping 1.5C alive. The Agenda aims to make clean technologies to clean up polluting sectors affordable and attractive for all nations by 2030.

Clean Green Initiative (CGI)

A new UK-based initiative was launched with the aim to scale up private investment in low-carbon and sustainable infrastructure globally. It will deploy more than £3bn in climate financing over the next five years to support developing countries.

Mandatory transition plans for UK firms

Rishi Sunak said that his government will make the country “the world’s first net zero aligned financial centre”, touting its commitment to require most big firms and financial institutions to publish net zero transition plans. He said the UK Government has developed a science-based ‘gold-standard’ verification scheme to safeguard against greenwashing. The Treasury recently announced that large businesses will be required to report climate-risk-related information in line with the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) from April 2022. However, the government is not planning to make firm-level commitments mandatory (cue long sigh).

WBCSD calls for Corporate Determined Contributions (CDCs) at COP26 to capture business progress in the global climate recovery

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) launched the ’Business Manifesto for Climate Recovery’ aimed at helping business to deliver pragmatic and impactful solutions and be held accountable for their progress. The Manifesto consists of 12 action priorities framed around the imperatives to reduce, remove and report GHG emissions. Each action priority has associated policy requirements that are global in nature and applicable to policymakers in multilateral systems, and, where relevant, to national policymakers. WBCSD also called for the development of a new Corporate Determined Contributions (CDCs) to capture private sector progress in the global climate recovery.

Methane emissions in key nations to be cut by 30% by 2030

Earlier this year the EU and US spearheaded a new Global Methane Pledge, jointly stating their intention to slash methane emissions by 30% by 2030, against a 2020 baseline. Methane is an extremely potent greenhouse gas and sources include natural gas production. The pledge now has backing from more than 100 of the UN’s 193 member states. The G20 communique released in Rome pre-COP26 referenced methane, but failed to set firm targets for reduction so this is great news.

Philanthropy coming together with development funds, multilateral banks, and private banks

The Bezos Earth Fund is putting in $500m of seed capital to join the $1bn already pledged by the Ikea and Rockefeller foundations, with more than $8bn extra coming from multilateral banks and development agencies such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and US International Development Finance Corporation. The initiative, called the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet (GEAPP) aims to mobilise $100bn for renewable energy, other low-carbon technologies and green jobs. Separately, there was a big announcement from Bloomberg Philanthropies around its intention to ensure a quarter of all present coal power plants are closed by 2025, and the pipeline for all forthcoming plants is blocked. What power a philanthropic organisation has around this is unclear. Lastly, the governments of India and the UK have launched a ‘Green Grids Initiative’ that will convene national governments, policymakers, businesses, researchers and citizens’ groups in efforts to accelerate the construction of new renewable energy infrastructure. The specific focus will be international energy trading, to help overcome the intermittency of solar generation by connecting nations in different time zones.

Reasons to be hopeful?

We have failed to build back greener, with just a small proportion of pandemic spend going towards sustainable sectors. Rich nations will not deliver the $100bn international climate finance promise until 2023. Most countries are on course to breach Paris agreement targets through rising fossil fuel production. Around the globe, governments are subsidising the fossil-fuel industry with $11 million per minute! Are there really any reasons to be cheerful?

The private sector is pushing ahead with action to address climate change no matter what governments decide to do at COP26. I am not convinced that governments are ready to put in place the ambitious policies that would push all companies to radically decarbonise.

Whether or not COP26 is a success, actions will speak louder than words. It is hoped that the private sector will continue to ramp up its ambitions and set net zero targets supported by science-based milestones that are significant, real and credible.

At Alfa Energy Group we are hopeful, which is why we have committed to net zero ourselves and will continue to support each and every one of our clients to do the same.

To find out more about our net zero and wider sustainability solutions, visit: https://alfaenergygroup.com/uk/services/sustainability-consulting/ 

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Samuel Clements

Sustainability Specialist at Alfa Energy Group
Samuel is an experienced energy and sustainability professional with 10 years in the industry. Samuel has helped clients manage their energy requirements and implement innovative processes, software and technology to further their carbon neutrality journey, in areas ranging from smart grid and demand response, to electric vehicles, renewable energy and carbon credits. Samuel has a Masters in Leadership for Sustainable Development with Forum for the Future, and a Bachelors in Environmental Science.

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Samuel Clements

Samuel is an experienced energy and sustainability professional with 10 years in the industry. Samuel has helped clients manage their energy requirements and implement innovative processes, software and technology to further their carbon neutrality journey, in areas ranging from smart grid and demand response, to electric vehicles, renewable energy and carbon credits. Samuel has a Masters in Leadership for Sustainable Development with Forum for the Future, and a Bachelors in Environmental Science.