So, the COP26 climate talks – a global ‘last chance’, many are saying – are underway. And the circumstances are less than propitious. The weather is gloomy as I open my curtains – but it is Glasgow in November, so that is hardly unexpected.
A day of transport chaos yesterday saw the west coast mainline closed, and the east coast alternative grossly delayed. I’m lucky to be here at all after an 11-hour train marathon; a whole lot of the Westminster bubble didn’t make it by train and instead came by car, taxi, or plane.
In our privatised, underfunded, underfunded systems in the UK, the failure of the railways hardly a surprise, even if the weather – storms and floods – did make it feel as though the planet was trying to tell us something.
COP26 in context
More seriously, the G20 meeting in Rome was widely seen to have failed, with Boris Johnson “lashing out” at leaders for not reaching an agreement on the phasing out of coal. The Global South – already struggling with the impacts of the climate emergency on top of centuries of extraction of their wealth for the North – is understandably worried. Gaston Browne, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda and chair of the Alliance of Small Island States, said, “This is a matter of survival for us”.
The mood at this moment feels very like that at the end of global climate talks 12 years ago. In December 2009, the world was poised, many hoped, for a climate action breakthrough. Instead, the climate campaigning world went into meltdown, as the Guardian described it, with COP15 in Copenhagen failing to make the expected commitment to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels.
The despair was deep, the damage to the green movement extensive. For several years progress stalled, and the issue largely fell off national and international radars.
COP21 in Paris in 2015 was almost the mirror opposite. Widely hailed as a triumph, it was greeted with tears of joy. The agreement to try to keep warming below 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels – while seen at the time as a surprise sop offered in response to the pleas of small island nations – has come to been seen as setting the essential goal. This is particular evident with the 1.1 degrees of warming already with us today having such disastrous impacts, in fires, floods, droughts, heatwaves, and visible damage to nature.
What will COP26 be remembered for?
So will Glasgow be remembered as more like COP15 or COP21? The good news is that it will be like neither. For a start, it’s clear that decisions on climate action are now not just on the table of international diplomats and negotiators.
It was always the case that COPs (committees of the parties – being those states that have signed up to the UN framework convention on climate change, in case you were wondering) were part of a process, rather than any kind of endpoint in themselves. But that’s more obvious than ever now.
Whatever Alok Sharma does or doesn’t secure from the chair, there will not be any kind of hiatus in the push for global climate action, or the kind of letdown we saw after Copenhagen.
That’s demonstrated by the fact that one of the key issues – known in the jargon as ‘enhanced ambition’ or more bluntly, ‘1.5 to stay alive’ – is not even on the formal agenda. This meeting is supposed to be finalising the details of delivery and measurement from Paris, as well as dealing with outstanding issues, particularly on finance for the Global South for adaptation (dealing with the changing climate) and mitigation (cutting emissions).
Nationally determined contributions on climate emissions
Nonetheless, you will hear a lot in the next two weeks about NDCs – ‘nationally determined contributions’ – the carbon emissions that each state is committing to cut that together have to ensure we stay below 1.5.
Humans have pumped around 2,500 gigatonnes of CO2 (GtCO2 – a gigatonne is 1 billion tonnes) into the atmosphere since 1850. The budget left is below 500 GtCO2. Currently, the NDCs already promised collectively add up to 2.7 degrees of warming – a very, very long way away from 1.5.
Emissions need to fall by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, but we’re currently only on track to stabilise by 2030. Essentially the drop in emissions caused by covid in 2020 is what we need to do every year.
The Paris talks established a ratchet mechanism – with an update every five years. Most countries have already announced their updated NDCs, with Australia and Brazil making theirs worse. Here in the UK, Carbon Brief analysis found that our targets were in line with 1.5, but that we lacked the policies to do it.
So we’re not going to get 1.5 in Glasgow. But what we’ll get is a world that’s focused, listening, and engaged. And that will continue from day ‘Glasgow plus one’ onwards.
We, the people, are leading the way
The people are leading. Not just the climate strikers and Extinction Rebellion and the many who’ll be out on the streets in communities across the globe pushing their leaders onwards at COP, but people’s assemblies in the UK and France, and in local communities calling for far more radical action than we are seeing from governments. Businesses are running to catch up to the people; governments are trailing a poor third.
Deciding climate action and delivering the dramatic system change we need to see isn’t just the business of officials and ministers. It’s the business of all of us.
Natalie Bennett is at COP26 with the Green Economics Institute.