Good COP or bad COP?

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Incremental progress was made in Glasgow, but change needs to happen faster. The climate does not wait for politics, and it remains headed for an ever deeper crisis, writes Stuart Haszeldine, Professor of Carbon Capture and Storage.

COP26 President Alok Sharma holds back tears during the closing session of the summit, as he apologises for how the negotiations unfolded

I’d never been to a COP before. I have followed previous summits by traditional and social media, but being there in person produced a lot of revealing moments.

An important realisation is that there are at least four COPs operating in parallel universes, which do not always overlap.

First, there is what I had previously thought of as being the actual COP: the work in windowless rooms where suited government officials decide on global futures by negotiating compromises and referring to instructions transmitted from far-away leaders.

Second is the COP of bubbling energy from non-governmental organisations, citizens groups and motivated academics struggling to gain attention for their carefully crafted policy positions, reports and wisdom gained over years of experience at the (metaphorical) coalface.

Third, the intellectually hungry, clustering from one hybrid presentation lecture to the next, seeking the newest insights, latest academic big reveals, and emerging evidence trends to convert into policy demands.

Fourth, the deeply committed, seriously activated, and mildly interested citizens outside the COP campus. Some with superglue and theatrical placarded slogans, others with warm clothing and a small bag containing lunch for the march.

The biggest surprise for me was that there is remarkably little interlock between all these groups. The negotiating rooms are an artificially lit bubble, where the chants, speeches and music from outside passion create only a faint echo.

Professor Stuart Haszeldine at COP26

On the ground

It’s easy to be seduced and misdirected by the media circus at COP seeking a story, especially as bad news attracts much more attention than good news. This is not helped by the grandiose statements of political leaders seeking a virtuous platform to parade their claimed success.

Promoted as the last chance to tackle the climate emergency, COP26 saw politicians from the UK and other states do what they could to stoke national and international media interest. Creating momentum is essential to build confidence that negotiated outcomes are inevitable – and gain more support amongst the suited veterans.

In the first days, we saw a well-choreographed suite of statements from the great and the good, who duly departed leaving their staff to engage in the trench warfare of climate diplomacy from pre-set positions. That was followed by another series of agreements in week one of the summit, which seemed pre-prepared to trumpet messages of success from niches of climate mitigation.

These good deals included:

Rolling back coal in global electricity generation

A commitment to decreasing coal use to zero was signed by 190 states and cities. However, this does not include China, Australia, India or Russia – the largest and most committed coal extractors. Although far-away dates of delivery at 2040 and 2050 produce only a small decrease of warming to “keep 1.5C alive”, a crucial and important precedent has been set, in that decreasing fossil fuel production is being tackled for the first time.

Decreasing methane emissions

A pledge was agreed to cut methane emissions by 30 per cent over the next decade. This follows a recent IPCC report that called for urgent action to decrease production and leakages of methane, each tonne of which creates 38 times greater warming than CO2 over 100 years. The easiest targets are tackling borehole and pipeline leaks, and reducing numbers of ruminant farm animals. This is the biggest immediate action to come out of COP26, which in sufficient quantity could decrease global temperatures by 0.4C in 2050.

Carbon markets

The infamous Article 6 of the Paris rulebook – relating to carbon trading – is now agreed sufficiently to enable commercial trading of carbon stores. This allows countries that have overachieved their goals to sell items such as carbon reductions, renewable energy, or additional forest, to underachieving countries. For the first time, this unlocks transnational finance for more ambitious national contributions and international action on long-term carbon storage.

Reporting more frequently

Recognising that increased offers to voluntarily decrease CO2 emissions are woefully inadequate, the CoP requested that declarations of actual progress be presented as part of an annual cycle starting autumn 2022. That may not influence very big emitters, but could enable greater ambition from mid-level emitters like Japan, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia and Mexico. Rather than waiting five years between report cards, this will act as a yearly gauge of success to expose those who are moving too slowly.

Greenpeace activists hold a protest in the COP26 action zone

Staying on course

Now that the negotiating is done, what is the verdict on COP26? If it is judged by grand words and political handshakes of the opening days, then of course there has been no quick fix, and no re-design of the global energy and finance system. And very clearly the world remains in dire peril.

But when considered as part of the process established in Paris in 2015, then COP26 keeps us on course. Think of it as being the most recent segment in the arc of negotiating history. Cop26 has consolidated gains made in previous years, and has made new progress on finance, international carbon markets and radical coal decrease, and has implicitly started to address all fossil fuels.

Could Glasgow have made more progress? What if Minister Clare O’Neill had been retained as expert and insightful COP President? What if the dog had not eaten the PM’s year-long homework on his stated green masterplan focused on “coal, cars, cash, and trees”, and what if leadership had been from the front rather than from behind?  What if coronavirus had not debilitated global trade and communication? What if the UK had not kept practically all its Covid-19 vaccines and had not decreased overseas aid, damaging cooperation?

We will never know.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson addresses delegates at COP26

Looking forward

The UK team that has worked over the past year to create this COP meeting has made significant gains in the rulebook and has opened new agendas. The UK presidency of COP for the coming year now has a unique diplomatic and climate leadership opportunity. Focusing the work still to be done by the UK and others before COP Egypt means grasping those gains.

Priorities could include supporting the ambition of small island states to push back on coal extraction and on the use of all fossil fuels. The new ability of climate finance to legitimately cross borders creates opportunities to make development bank and loan deals, which could move emerging economies and China into cleaner air and lower CO2 emissions.

Innovative deals to help fund South Africa out of coal and to buy back Indonesian coal plants, and the domino effect on surrounding African and Indonesian states this would bring, are just another two examples.

Pressure on China, Australia, Brazil, New Zealand and India to move much faster away from coal and fossil fuels may need to be coupled with help with development. Another option is placing carbon taxes on imports to the UK and EU from countries that continue to use coal.

Acting faster

The strength of the COP summit process is the concensus agreement of all participants. But it’s also its biggest weakness, as the pace of progress is set by the slowest participant.

Perhaps the most important learning from the negotiating rooms in 2021 is that the pace there is too slow and climate does not wait, and neither do business and industry. Civil society globally now clearly sees a problem and expects leadership and answers, neither of which are coming fast enough from the top. It’s unsurprising that NGO and civil groups are angry and disappointed, because winning negotiations too slowly is still a failure.

Protesters march through the streets of Glasgow during the Global Day of Action for Climate Justice during COP26

The world is still on track to pass through 1.5C warming globally during the early 2030’s and head towards 2.7C average warming before 2050, hence former US President Barack Obama advising that we need to “stay angry, get engaged and keep pushing”.

Rather than waiting for top-down decisions from politicians and national negotiators, it’s clear that bottom-up change is happening and is unstoppable in rich and developed industrial economies. That is driven by businesses from the very large to the very small, and by participation, innovation and energy from the grassroots.

The University of Edinburgh has a great deal more to offer in education, advice, partnership and evidence. Universities can be slow, ponderous and risk-averse, but it’s through institutes such as the Edinburgh Climate Change Institute, Edinburgh Futures Institute, Scottish Carbon Capture and Storage, and the new Edinburgh Earth Initiative, that we can do much more, much faster.

Picture credits: Stuart Haszeldine – Stuart Haszeldine; all others – Jeff Mitchell/Getty

This piece originally appeared on the Edinburgh Impact website.