Blog | A rookie’s view of COP26

This blog was written by Michael Nicholson, Head of UK Environmental Policy at the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP), who attended COP26 as an IEEP delegate. The statements expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the views of IEEP.

IEEP UK office was established in 1980 and focuses mostly on environmental and sustainability issues in and around the UK. Key topics covered by the UK programme are on the impact of trade and the environment, agriculture & land management, climate change & energy, industrial pollution & chemicals, natural resources & waste, green economy and water, marine & fisheries. For more information, contact Michael Nicholson.

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Let’s be honest. We were not going to solve climate change at COP26. We weren’t even going to get close. There are too many countries with wildly differing needs and expectations. No amount of words in a wonderful Scottish conference centre were going to change the reality on the ground in, say, Tuvalu or Barbados. Some say that hope is gone already and that it would be better to accept that reality. I’m not one of those [yet] but clinging to the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement is increasingly difficult and unlikely.

This was my first COP experience (and perhaps my last given my increasing unwillingness to get on an airplane) and what struck me most was the energy and guarded optimism of those in the halls of the Blue Zone. I noticed that nature and climate were being talked about in the same sentence, ‘two sides of the same coin’ as one person put it to me, which oddly enough seem to have been kept somewhat separate in the past. There was also a palpable belief that fossil fuels were on their way out and the time was now. This was surprising to me.

What was unsurprising was that the pledge to water down, or more accurately ‘phase down’, coal in the Final Conclusions of COP26 was preferred over phasing out coal entirely from the agreement. It is important to remember though that this was the first time that even the words ‘fossil fuels’ have been mentioned in an agreement of this type and whether it is phasing out or down; it is clear we are on a one-way trajectory. Indeed, this does now appear to be mainstream consensus within political circles and the main question now is how that transition happens and how quickly.

Rather unfairly in my view, India (and others) were criticised for its insistence on the last-minute word change. But, large domestic constituencies play a significant role in determining national policy and understanding how those communities who rely on coal for their incomes and livelihoods and how we transition away from that [as quickly as possible] is going to be crucial if we are going to make headway on the 1.5°C degree target.

‘Blah, blah, blah’

I’m reliably informed from seasoned COP veterans that we’ve been here before – lofty promises made, reports produced and somewhat murky, ad hoc delivery of those promises.

I can’t help notice that things may be different this time around. Energy prices for renewables are tumbling and the share of renewables in many countries are going up reasonably quickly. Despite a recent dip in mid-2021, renewable generation in the UK is now regularly over 40% and more than fossil fuels’ share of electricity generation. In Scotland, electricity from renewables is considerably higher. Net-zero targets have grown considerably from 30% of the world’s countries to 90% over the last two years; private investment is strengthening albeit a little hesitantly and slowly; and the levels of public awareness and support are at a record high. Indeed, in a Eurobarometer survey in July 2021, 93% of European citizens said that climate change is the single most serious problem facing the world.

But, let’s not kid ourselves. 1.5 degrees of warming is still a distant goal however much we say we want to keep it alive. The pace of change, is quite frankly, too slow.

“Implementation, implementation, implementation”

Former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, once proclaimed the importance of: ‘Education, education, education!” Putting words into action is what needs to happen: “Implementation, implementation, implementation.”

A pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30% up to 2030 from 2020 levels are welcome however, as IEEP warns, the lack of attention to the cuts required in agriculture and especially livestock, the largest single source of emissions, on both the production but especially the consumption side, seriously undermines that effort. A pledge on ending deforestation by 2030 is easier said than done and despite the Clean Skies for Tomorrow Coalition’s, commitment to boost green fuel usage to 10% in aviation, there was little or no discussion of reducing demand or ending tax breaks to the aviation industry as IEEP pointed out back in 2019.

Ensuring that the US, UK and the EU follow through on the bold and courageous promise such as the one to South Africa to help them end their reliance on coal or former Bank of England Mark Carney’s announcement on climate finance will be important indicators of how well promises are turned into action.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash