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Will the 26th climate conference of nations, the COP26 in Glasgow (from Sunday 31 October to Friday 12 November) be the turning point where world leaders will finally find the courage to deliver what it needed to tackle the climate emergency or will it once more be the usual ‘much ado about nothing’ high-level media circus?

The official climate negotiators will have the difficult task of turning the aspirations of the 2015 Paris Agreement into near-term global policies to limit warming to maximum 2 degrees Celsius (and preferably to 1.5 even), compared to pre-industrial levels.

There have been some positive developments which should make us optimistic about a possible leap forward but there are also some worrying signs on the global horizon which might predict a worse outcome.

Let’s start with the positive developments:

Now for the negative stories which will impact the climate negotiations

  • Despite all the ‘Build Back Better’ rhetoric during the COVID pandemic, the world has still not understood that all the ecological, economic and health crises are interconnected. Vaccine apartheid is still raging.
  • According to the latest report of the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), the concentration of greenhouse gases reached a new record of 413.2 parts per million in 2020 with methane and nitrous oxide concentrations also soaring.
  • More frequent extreme weather events are hitting all continents and the ripple effects of these events are having an amplified impact on economic losses for society (see recent report by Potsdam Institute)
  • Levels of global government debt have been rising (see this infographic) leading to fears of inflation and calls for new austerity policies.
  • New geo-political tensions have caused distrust between China and the United States, which could impact the COP talks (AUKUS, the security pact between the US, the UK and Australia, and retreat of the US military in Afghanistan).
  • Rising energy prices and the new narrative of the ‘greenflation’ which points to the clean energy transition as the culprit of these price rises.
  • The world spends US$423 billion annually to subsidize fossil fuels for consumers, according to a recent report by UNDP: ‘The amount spent directly on these subsidies could pay for COVID-19 vaccinations for every person in the world, or pay for three times the annual amount needed to eradicate global extreme poverty’.

Bad reports for global climate policies demonstrate the challenge for COP26

Ahead of COP26, several organisations and think tanks took stock of the progress of global climate policies. Two of the most critical reports were issued by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The first UNEP report published on 20 October, the Production Gap report, measures the discrepancy between what governments have already planned in terms of planned fossil fuel projects and what would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius.

The main messages of this Production Gap report are the following (extract from the press release):

  • “The world’s governments plan to produce around 110% more fossil fuels in 2030 than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C, and 45% more than consistent with 2°C. The size of the production gap has remained largely unchanged compared to our prior assessments.
  • Governments’ production plans and projections would lead to about 240% more coal, 57% more oil, and 71% more gas in 2030 than would be consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5°C.
  • Global gas production is projected to increase the most between 2020 and 2040 based on governments’ plans. This continued, long-term global expansion in gas production is inconsistent with the Paris Agreement’s temperature limits.”

 The second UNEP report, published on 26 October, the Emissions Gap Report, evaluates the updated national plans (Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs).

The main messages of this Emission Gap report are the following (from the press release):

  • Latest UNEP Emissions Gap Report finds new and updated Nationally Determined Contributions only take 7.5% off predicted 2030 emissions, while 55% is needed to meet the 1.5°C Paris goal
  • Latest climate promises for 2030 put the world on track for a temperature rise this century of at least 2.7°C
  • Net-zero commitments could shave off another 0.5°C, if these pledges were made robust and if 2030 promises were made consistent with the net-zero commitments

Conclusion: to COP or not to COP?

It is hard to see how Glasgow will deliver what is absolutely needed as even the bare minimum to have any chance of turning the Titanic. There will most likely be prolongations of the negotiations and a weak compromise but all in all, what we expect really, is what Shakespeare already wrote in ‘Macbeth’: ‘Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow … It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’. Or, in less literary words, I expect that the end result of the COP26 summit will be ‘net zero’.

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