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The outcome of COP26 – what does it mean for geoscience?

Flo Bullough and Megan O’Donnell share their reflections on the second week of international negotiations at the 26th UN Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow.

The second week of the long-awaited 2021 UN climate conference has culminated in the announcement of the Glasgow Climate Pact. This international agreement strengthens global ambitions to mitigate the effects and impacts of climate change.

Perhaps most importantly, and for the first time in three decades of UN climate summits, a global commitment to ‘phase down’ the use of unabated coal for power was agreed. Alongside formally agreeing to the cessation of ‘inefficient’ fossil fuel subsidies, this marks an important and historical step-change, with the potential to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the fossil fuel industry.

While finance targets were regrettably not met by the time leaders convened at this COP, the Glasgow Climate Pact sets out ambitions to rectify this, specifically to limit loss and damage from climate impacts and to support nations as needed with adaptation.

Another landmark success of COP26 was the resolution reached on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. Article 6 governs the ‘accounting’ of global carbon emissions, and if agreed incorrectly, would render much of the Paris Agreement ineffective at limiting the damaging effects of climate change.

Have agreements made at COP26 brought the world in line with the aims of the Paris Agreement?

The major impacts of climate change in a world warmed by 2°C are now well understood; sea levels will rise, extreme weather will become intense and frequent, ocean chemistry will change affecting marine life, air quality will decrease, and food security will be impacted. One of the major ambitions of the Paris Agreement is to limit global warming to well below 2°C (ideally to 1.5°C) in order to avoid the most catastrophic and dangerous of these impacts – however before COP26 the world was still far short of the mitigation and emissions reductions needed to keep global temperatures at or near 2°C.

In practice, the Paris Agreement works by requiring countries to declare actions they will take to limit their greenhouse gas emissions every five years. These collective declarations are called NDCs or nationally determined contributions, and reflect global commitments to limit the effects of climate change as well as building resilience to its impacts. The Carbon Brief has calculated that if all countries met their latest NDCs then warming is predicted to reach between 1.8°C – 3.3°C by 2100. This could be further minimised if nations were to achieve their Net Zero pledges (1.4°C – 2.6°C). In addition, several non-obligatory commitments made during COP26 such as the Global Methane Pledge, the Powering Past Coal Alliance and numerous Net Zero promises could prevent as much as 0.1°C of additional warming if implemented in full.

Although decimals of a degree may not seem like much, it is worth noting that without the COP mechanism, global emissions reduction targets would not be obligatory and we would most likely still be on a path to warm the planet by up to 4°C by 2100 with dangerous and life threatening implications. Progress made at this COP to encourage counties to refresh their NDCs on a more frequent timescale will also increase pressure on many to make continued increases to pledged emissions cuts.

Progress in the side-lines

While formal agreements and pledges are critical to the momentum of UN climate conferences, some of the most significant announcements in the second week of COP26 took place on the fringes.

75% of all climate resilient infrastructure is yet to be built, and there can be no just energy transition without the development and deployment of lower-carbon construction materials such as steel and cement. Increasing the recycling circularity of minerals and materials is critical, but will only take us so far, and doesn’t account for the uptick in demand for virgin materials not yet in circulation as economies grow and develop.

Despite the challenges with these ‘hard to abate’ industries, conversations in COP26 side events reminded us that progress is being made to innovate climate solutions for these mega-industries. Swedish steel manufacturer SSAB announced that they are pioneering a method for making steel without fossil fuels by 2026. The steel industry accounts for around 7% of all global carbon emissions, with 90% of those originating in the blast furnace, where the ability to replace fossil fuels could be transformative.

Concrete is the second most in-demand commodity after water, and accounts for a further 7% of emissions. The International Council on Mining and Metals reiterated the importance of aligning concrete production with industrial scale carbon capture and geological storage to mitigate emissions during an event where they announced their own Net Zero pledge covering 28 member companies.

Denmark and Costa Rica made history with the launch of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA) – committing to a complete phase out of oil and gas production and no new licenses for exploration in collaboration with 11 other nations and organisations.

Multiple events reminded us of the necessity of carbon sequestration in the subsurface for abating industrial processes, but also for negative emissions reductions technologies such as bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) and direct air capture and storage (DACCS) both of which remove already-emitted CO2 from the atmosphere. Professor Myles Allen from the University of Oxford spoke about the need for both nature-based and long term geological storage solutions for negative emissions. He noted that nature-based solutions such as afforestation and soil carbon enhancement are essential but also have planetary limits which make long term subsurface storage of CO2 critical. However major questions remain about how financing can be secured for the development of subsurface storage which requires a lead time to develop the required infrastructure. A number of speakers across different sessions called for the separation of targets related to emissions and targets related to negative emissions through carbon dioxide removal to ensure that technologies for both received the attention and financial support required.

It was also interesting to see that carbon sequestration is being explored far beyond the North Sea basin and government representatives from resource-rich countries such as Nigeria and Indonesia are exploring storage capacities for CCS with help from capacity-building projects run by the UN and Universities in developed countries.

The state of play of the carbon capture and storage industry (2009 projected vs. 2010 – 2020 reality).

Recent research suggests that carbon sequestration needs to be deployed at 100x its current rate to meet global climate targets. CarbFix, based in Iceland, showed how their innovative CO2 capture and mineralisation process can lock CO2 into rocks less than 2 years after being stored.

The concept of delivering a ‘just’ energy transition for all stakeholders was a frequently debated theme during the second week of COP26. Practically, this means that the costs and benefits of a transition are equally distributed, with particular relevance to emerging fossil fuel economies such as Nigeria and Uganda as well as established industries in fossil fuel producing nations such as Norway and the UK.

Enabling a just transition requires striking an economic, social and political balance that will look different depending on the energy context. In less developed economies, where the greatest impacts of climate change are felt, but historical fossil fuel production has contributed the least, a just transition may take the form of softer policies towards fossil fuel production and industrial development. This would require a greater burden of emission mitigations to be borne by more developed economies, as well significant financial support for less developed nations facing the most severe impacts of climate change. In historical fossil fuel producing nations, a just transition could take the form of support for transitioning skills and infrastructure from polluting industries to a less carbon intensive ones. In the UK, this will be particularly important for the North Sea fossil fuel industry, associated jobs and especially for reliant communities.

CarbFix show off their basalt cores with CO2 trapped by mineralisation.

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.

Catch up with our COP26 video series highlighting the role of geoscience in international climate policy

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