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This week at COP26 – what does it mean for geoscience?

Flo Bullough and Megan O’Donnell share some updates from the first week of the 26th UN Conference of the Parties in Glasgow.


Delivery of the Paris Agreement requires coherent and strategic management of the subsurface to deliver decarbonisation targets and to prevent conflicting use of the space. Geological technologies, skills and knowledge are essential to the characterisation and stewardship of the subsurface resources needed to meet international climate goals. Read Meeting the Paris Agreement: the critical role of Earth science.


COP26 will set out how the world aims to limit climate change and reduce emissions in line with global climate goals. Decisions made during this summit can affect the future of work, homes, travel, land use and will need to be ambitious, and deliverable, if we are to protect ourselves and our planet from the impacts of climate change. 

World leaders gathered in Glasgow on Monday and Tuesday to confirm their ambition to limiting global warming to ‘well below’ 2 degrees in line with the Paris Agreement. As part of this, more than 100 countries announced they will cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030 as part of the Global Methane PledgeThis ambition could help the world avoid 0.3 degrees of warming by 2040, and in the race to limit global warming to <2 degrees every 0.1 of a degree will count.  

In a speech to world leaders, Sir David Attenborough recognised that the youngest generations have done the least to cause climate change, yet will be the most affected by its impacts and called on world leaders to be ambitious.  

Sir David Attenborough among world leaders at COP26 in Glasgow on Monday 1st November.

On Tuesday, aims to make sustainable solutions the most accessible, affordable and attractive option for the power, road transport and steel sectors, with low carbon hydrogen available and affordable globally by 2030 were announced as part of the Breakthrough AgendaThis will mean a scaling up of renewable and low-carbon power supported by energy storage solutions to balance variable supply with demand. Zero emissions road transport will be met through battery and electric vehicles, with six times greater raw material demands than a standard vehicle. Steel is the second greatest industrial contributor to climate change after the fossil fuel industry and low- or near-zero emissions steel will be a transformative commitment. 

Over 130 leaders, accounting for more than 90% of the world’s forests, committed to work together to stop and reverse deforestation and land degradation by 2030 in the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use. 

Wednesday was Finance Day, where it was announced that companies, banks, insurers and investors will need to adjust their business models, develop credible and actionable plans for the transition to a low-carbon, climate resilient future. The GFANZ (Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero) aligns $130 trillion of private investment with net zero emissions – helping speed up the transition to net zero and supporting those most impacted. To ensure that the transition to a new energy economy is equitable and just, developed countries committed to supporting developing nations with $100 billion per year for climate change mitigation and emissions reductions projects.  

On Energy Day, coal power was largely consigned to history as 190 countries, banks and organisations committed to phasing out the single greatest contributor to climate change in the Powering Past Coal Alliance. This is the first time a COP has prioritised an end to financing fossil fuels. This could shift ~$17.8 billion a year in public support out of fossil fuels and into the clean energy transition. It is expected the majority of coal power will be replaced by growing green Hydrogen capacity globally and will be supported by the Breakthrough Agenda’s commitment to global hydrogen availability by 2030. 

As negotiations continue and further climate mitigating commitments are announced, some organisations have already begun to model what impact existing pledges will make to projected scenarios of global warming.   


COP26 outcomes in brief: 

  • Global Methane Pledge – 30% less CH4 emissions by 2030 
  • Breakthrough Agenda – sustainable solutions available, accessible and affordable for power, road transport and steel sectors with low-carbon hydrogen available globally by 2030
  • Glasgow Leaders Declaration on Forests and Land Use – stop and revers deforestation of 90% of the world’s forests by 2030 
  • Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero – $130 trillion of net zero aligned private finance 
  • $100 billion for developing nations – developed nations commit to supporting developing nations with climate change mitigation and net zero solutions 
  • Coal to Clean Power Transition / Powering Past Coal Alliance – phasing out of coal power by 190 countries, banks, and organisations 
  • National Climate Education Pledges – 23 countries agree to putting climate at the heart of national curriculum
  • Climate Content Pledge – 12 of the U.K.’s biggest media outlets pledge to use their content to educate audiences about the climate crisis 

It’s been a busy week at COP and beyond the headline grabbing announcements, there has been a fascinating schedule of events and discussions to attend. Our delegation has been attending sessions where the role of geoscience is key to understanding and delivery.

The Geological Society’s delegation at COP26 (L-R: Dr Sarah Gordon, Dr Alicia Newton, Dr Nick Gardiner).

To set the scene, our Director of Science and Communications, Dr Alicia Newton attended an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) event where the latest climate science and projected future impacts were presented at COP for the first time.  

IPCC: the state of the climate and impact of future scenarios 

The IPCC present their latest findings at COP for the first time.

The human influence on climate is now unequivocal – the impacts can be felt in every inhabited area of the planet and humans are contributing to more intense and frequent climate extremes. Some of the impacts of climate change are already unavoidable, so any emissions reductions that these negotiations can deliver are critical to limiting impact, damage and loss.  

  • Sea level is now rising iat 3.7mm per year, which intensifies tides, storm surges, etc.  
  • Ocean acidification is happening faster than any other time in the last 2 million years with devastating impacts on barrier reefs and food chains.  
  • The IPCC’s intermediate emissions scenario suggests a global average temperature rise of 3 degrees C. It’s very unlikely that we will be able to stay under 1.5 or even 2 degrees under existing policies and practices. 
  • But what will these unavoidable impacts look like? 
  • Monsoons will intensify, subtropics will experience drought and low soil moisture in many regions, especially those that only get winter precipitation. Lots of warming in high northern latitudes and across continental interiors.  
  • Ocean surface pH is due to drop below 8 by 2050 under all warming scenarios. 
  • The Arctic is likely to have no summer sea ice beyond 2050 under most scenarios. 
  • Sea level rise will be over 0.5 metres by 2100 in all scenarios 
  • At this point, we are committed to several metres of sea level rise by 2300 but can delay reaching 2m by limiting warming to 2 degrees.  

One of the hardest components of meeting the Paris Agreement is transitioning industries that are hard to decarbonise. These include steel and cement, both with significant geoscience implications.  

Decarbonising steel and cement  

Steel  

Earlier in the week a number of representatives from the steel industry, including ArcelorMittal, met to discuss ‘Leveraging a just transformation of the global steel sector’.  

Steel is one of the major hard-to-decarbonise sectors due to its high-power needs and the use of coal as a chemical reactant, currently used in production of 74% of the world’s steel. Global steel is at a crossroads and the investment decisions made in the 2020s will be crucial to the transformation of this industry, and this transition needs to start urgently.  

The audience heard from the panel that low-carbon steelmaking technologies are ready to be deployed now and the project pipeline of announcements is growing. But also that there are currently no steel companies working on large-scale CCS projects, seen by many as critical to decarbonising this industry.  

Hydrogen-based steel making can reduce emissions in this sector by up to 90%. ArcelorMittal are looking into using hydrogen as a power source, where affordable. Green hydrogen (using electrolysis rather than methane reformation) is the aim in the long-term. The key is to keep the transition in steel economic as plants can incur losses very quickly.  

There was also lots of interesting discussion around steel moving towards a circular economy through the re-use of scrap. This combination of scrap steel and low-carbon energy sources creates the lowest carbon footprint for steel. 

Cement 

A number of speakers and panels raised the decarbonisation of cement, another hard-to-decarbonise sector with high natural resources demands through its use of aggregates and the role of coal in cement production.  

Building construction is set to increase but this is an opportunity to change the way we are doing things in construction. Including reviewing building design and looking at circular economy opportunities in the cement supply chain incorporated into planning.  

One of the major focuses of the week was the role of international finance in delivering the Paris Agreement, and getting just and equitable investment to the right projects in the right places.  


Green finance 

On finance day we heard the following announcements and talking points.  

  • UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced that 130 trillion dollars have been pledged by the private sector to meet net zero, but what is needed to turn it into real action and impact? And a renewed pledge of 100 billion to support developing nations with transitioning their economies as well as commitments to a greener finance system.  
  • The UK will be the first every net zero country for finance  
  • We heard from Minister Yatani of the Kenyan government about the challenges of transition for resource-rich countries. 40% of Kenya’s GDP is sourced from natural resources such as agriculture and mining but also the changing climate and loss of biodiversity is having a huge impact on the country.  
  • The President of the World Bank raised the issue of needing to work out how to close the coal mines whilst considering the lost market for coal for those who can’t afford more expensive forms of energy. This issue of a just and equitable transition for all is critical and is being discussed extensively at COP.  
  • One of the continued challenges will be matching the financial pledges with net zero projects and developing systems and frameworks to validate projects, including in the developing world, to assess their alignment and impact with net zero targets.  
Mark Carney addresses delegates at COP26 on Finance Day.

The UK Government confirmed it will make it mandatory for large companies to disclose information in alignment with the recommendations of the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), becoming the first G20 nation to enshrine it into law. 

What does this mean for geoscience? Mandatory TCFDs  require robust climate change scenario analysis; something that relies on a good understanding  the physical risks posed by climate change on a business and by the business on climate change, but also the broader risks posed by e.g. the supply chain etc. on that organisation.  Geoscientists are critical, especially to understanding and quantification of the physical risks e.g.. flooding, subsidence, drought, resource security that will underpin TFCDs. Additionally, many stranded assets relate to natural resources, a major employer of skilled geoscientists.  These skills and the asset sites could be re-deployed elsewhere but this requires some innovative thinking. 


Transitioning away from coal  

As part of the coal announcements during the world leaders summit that kicked off the conference a high-level panel discussed what is needed for this phase-out.  

  • ¾ of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the energy sector and coal is a substantial part of this – making it a priority for progress.  
  • Currently, 80% of global electricity comes from fossil fuels –  we need a massive increase in new renewable energy capacity to support the transition away from coal 
  • Kwasi Kwarteng, Secretary of State for the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy spoke about the sense of urgency and the need for the transition to clean power to go at 5 times the current rate. As part of the phase-out, OECD countries will end unabated coal by 2030 and the rest of the world by 2040.
  • Here in the UK, 9 years ago 40% of our electricity came from coal, today it’s less than 2% and will be completely phased out by 2024. 
  • Representatives from the World Bank and other financial institutions set out their plans to mobilise investment into clean energy alternatives.  
  • And Jennifer Granholm, the U.S Energy Secretary spoke of the need to create economic incentives to transition where there is an absence of political will, as this can create an economic opportunity and pathway to cleaner energy opportunities.  
Kwasi Kwarteng Secretary of State for the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy speaks during a plenary session at COP26.

What we haven’t heard yet? 

Delegate Nick Gardiner highlighted that there has still been precious little discussion on the enormous amount or critical raw materials that will be needed to deliver the energy transition and how this can be managed with the lowest carbon footprint possible. We’ll be keeping our eyes peeled for update on this next week. 

There was mention of the very important role of skills in delivering the energy transition at a Bellona Europe event on Friday by the Director of the Aldersgate Group who noted that STEM skills will be in high demand to deliver the transition but that some skills will drop in demand while others increase. We need a low carbon skills strategy to help manage the coming changes while also mainstreaming the teaching of climate change and sustainability in the curriculum.  

Check back next week for more COP26 updates, and find out more about our work in this area on our website.

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