With COP26 taking place in Glasgow, pessimistic views are already sounding, suggesting that climate action is already too late and that runaway climate damage has been locked in. Whether this is a deliberate ploy from the host UK government, to present a wholly negative picture and to lower the bar, before announcing a climate plan to much acclaim, remains to be seen.
According to the official COP26 website, this year has four clear aims:
- Secure global net zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach
- Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats
- Mobilise finance
- Work together to deliver
But COP 26 isn’t about the science, or about the aims of the conference. We know what these are – we know what countries have to do to, in order to reduce emissions. No, COP26 is being presented as a narrative to us, with recognisable tropes and characters. What we have to do is recognise what we’re being offered, and see, just as in a pantomime, that we are complicit with the actors and get ready to boo and cheer at the right moments.
Narratives to look out for: saviours and villains
The number one narrative has to be that of the saviour and the villain. The saviour who wants to ‘do good’, but is thwarted by evil powers, until the perfect moment, when they come swooping in to save the day. Things to look for will be the subplots – anything that distracts from the hero countries’ plans to dramatically and urgently reduce emissions.
Watch out also for the ‘all seems lost’ moment – this is when many characters think that the villains have won and it’s pointless to continue. Also be alert for the blame game – optionally ‘the Shell game’ – where the heroes want to act, but are held back by mysterious forces, whom the audience boo as they enter the stage.
It will be important to identify any actual promises. What are countries promising that they will do to reduce emissions? Why haven’t they acted urgently already? Are we being set up for the second half of the performance? Who will not show their hand until finally revealing that their reductions will be hugely lower that of other countries?
COP26: the overture
The Paris agreement in 2015, which was hailed as a defining moment in a global unified response to climate change, is now six years old and many countries have been criticised for not making the necessary policy shifts. In a recent study by Climate Action Tracker, only one country was identified through their methodology as being compatible with the 1.5 Paris Agreement.
Article 2 of the Paris agreement focuses on the urgent need to limit the increase to 1.5°C relative to pre-industrial levels:
“Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change”.
As of today, we are at 1.2°C higher than pre-industrial levels.
The first half: how much progress has the UK made?
The UK government published its net zero strategy on 19 Oct. Some critics viewed these plans as not being ambitious enough and not being supported by adequate funding. The Treasury warned about the tax increases needed to help pay for the plan.
The independent UK climate change committee (CCC) response to the UK net zero strategy, published in the last few days, has been largely favourable. Their chair, Lord Deben, commented that, “The Net Zero Strategy is a genuine step forward. The UK was the first major industrialised nation to set Net Zero into law – now we have policy plans to get us there”. The CCC praised the UK for its reduction in emissions over the last 30 years: “The UK has a leading record in reducing its own emissions: down by 40% from 1990 to 2019.”
With continued reductions, reviewed at five-year intervals, and with the correct investment and enabling policies, the CCC seem satisfied that the UK should reach net zero in 2050, helping to keep the global temperature as low as possible.
“The UK has pledged a Nationally Determined Contribution of a 68% reduction from 1990 to 2030, on the way to Net Zero in 2050.”
Interval: why do emissions and temperature matter?
These reductions make the difference in reducing global temperatures. As NASA has indicated, every degree of increase makes a difference. NASA also identify that, “The impacts of climate change haven’t been spread evenly around our planet and they won’t be in the future, either. Temperatures increase at different speeds everywhere, with warming generally higher over land areas than oceans”.
A rise of 1° equates to 7 percent more moisture in the air, which only adds to the risk of floods that happen in Yorkshire and the UK. In the past few days, we have seen heavy rainfall across the UK, and floods in Scotland, highlighting the need for drastic action, not just to reduce emissions, but to bring them down to zero.
The second half: pay no attention to that man behind the curtain
We need to be careful of goalposts being shifted to enhance a UK’s climate response, and instead stay focused on what is being promised for 2030 and the target 1.5 degrees. As in The Wizard of Oz, we need to be aware of the puppeteer telling the story and moving the pieces.
As outlined in the 2018 special Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on global warming, “Every bit of warming matters. Every year matters and every choice matters”. Abandoning efforts to limit to 1.5 degrees entirely and focusing on 2 degrees instead, is a dangerous principle and narrative. Every fraction of a degree is worth fighting for. It will never be too late to stop climate change, as every effort mitigates the impact somewhere on the planet.
As Sir David Attenborough recently commented on Twitter, “Staying below 1.5 degrees is the only chance we have of avoiding these tipping points and stabilising our world again”.