Features / Miscellaneous / Policy

A new focus: Climate & Ecology

In September 2020 the Geological Society put in place a new strategy; aiming to become an inclusive and thriving Earth science community advancing knowledge, addressing global challenges, and inspiring future generations.

Dan Lunt, Climate & Ecology Theme Lead.

As part of this strategy, the Society seeks to advance multidisciplinary Earth science to inform global issues through a high profile and varied programme of science events and activities centred around five key themes that are predicted to dominate the future of geoscience. Dan Lunt has been selected to guide and advise the Society’s activities across the Climate & Ecology theme.

Dan contributed to the Society’s recent Climate Statement and was a Lead Author on the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) climate report, AR6. In this blog, Dan writes about his personal reflections on the recent international summit, COP26, where representatives of countries from all over the world descended on Glasgow for the annual climate conference.


I was very fortunate to be able to attend COP26 in November last year, with access to the heart of the summit, the “Blue Zone” where the negotiations took place, provided by the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute.  This was my first COP meeting, so I had little idea what to expect.  However, several key aspects were clear before the negotiations even started, and set the stage for COP26:

  • At COP21 in 2015, 196 countries signed the “Paris Agreement”, committing to keep global warming to below 2 degrees, and ideally to 1.5 degrees.
  • In summer 2021 it was reported by the United Nations that global warming had already reached 1.1 degrees, and that immediate and far-reaching cuts in emissions were needed to meet the Paris targets. 
  • The vast majority of global warming has been caused by the richest countries in the world, whereas it is the poorest countries that have been feeling, and will continue to feel, the largest impacts.  These impacts include, for example, that the World Health Organisation estimates that by the middle of this century, a quarter of a million people will die every year directly due to global warming.
  • Twelve years ago in Copenhagen, the richest countries in the world had agreed to pay $100 billion per year of “climate finance” to the poorest countries by 2020, but this target had not been met. 
  • Many countries rely on fossil fuels, the main cause of global warming, to provide energy for industry, transport and housing, and many others receive much of their national wealth though the fossil fuel industry. 

So, the stage was set for 2 weeks of tense, but crucially important negotiations.

The Blue Zone of COP26 felt something like a “trade fair”, with many countries extolling their green credentials in flashy “pavilions” in the exhibition centre, with the most flashy pavilions invariably from those most embedded in the fossil fuel industry.  In addition, the UK government had arranged a series of “Presidency events”, with the great and the good from around the world taking part in panel discussions, on issues such as zero emissions transport, the global transition to clean energy, and sustainable buildings.  However, the “core” of the summit was a series of largely behind-closed-doors meetings between the many different negotiating coalitions, such as the “G77 plus China” group, the “SIDS” group (Small Island Developing States), or the LDC group (Least Developed Countries).  These negotiations occasionally, and increasingly through the two weeks, came out into the open in a series of “Plenaries”, chaired by the President of COP26, Alok Sharma, in which representatives of these coalitions, and other individuals, made statements about their view of the negotiations.  These statements were often extremely powerful; in particular from the leaders of some of the most vulnerable countries in the world; for example, the representative from the Maldives – “We did not cause the climate crisis. Our islands are eroding, and the saltwater incurses further and further. We are losing families and friends.”; or from Kenya – “If you want to know about climate change, ask your child. We have not inherited the Earth from our forefathers, we have borrowed it. The youth have given us one last chance.”.

As the summit progressed, successive drafts of the final agreement – the so-called “Cover Decision” – were released on the UN website, and then debated, and then re-released.  Countries argued over the fine wording – should nations be “requested” or “urged” or “invited” to comply with various requests?  Should a “dialogue” or a “facility” group be set up?  Finally, after two weeks of tense negotiations, the “Glasgow Climate Pact” was finally agreed, a day after COP26 was supposed to finish, making it the 5th longest COP on record.    

For me, it appears that there were a mixture of successes and failures:

Successes

  • At times it looked like nothing could be agreed, with coalitions sticking to the mutually incompatible “red lines”; so, it was somewhat of an achievement that the Glasgow Pact was signed at all.
  • A major achievement was that the “Paris Rulebook” was finally agreed.  This sets out in excruciating detail the technical details on regulations around carbon markets, and regular reporting of climate data by all countries.
  • Many countries updated their pledges to cut emissions in the short-term and also their longer-term commitments to net-zero.
  • Instead of countries being required to update these pledges in another 5 years time, they will now be required to update them every year.  This strengthening of the so-called “ratchet mechanism” is seen by many as likely to result in greater cuts to greenhouse gases.
  • Several groups made statements on climate-related issues such as deforestation, methane, and coal, and other new groups were formed, such as the “Beyond Oil and Gas” coalition.
  • There was a pledge put in place to “at least double” adaptation finance from 2019 to 2025.
  • As a scientist, I was really pleased to say that I did not encounter any “climate skepticism” in all the time I was there.  The science was not being questioned, there were just disagreements about how to respond.  This is apparently a marked change from some previous COPs.  In addition, the UN IPCC climate report was front and centre in the final Pact, with full recognition of the impacts of climate change, and the need for accelerated action in “this critical decade”.

Failures

  • As at many previous COPs, much of the negotiations, and the main sticking points, were around “climate finance”.  There are broadly three types of climate finance, with richer countries giving poorer countries funds for Adaptation (adapting to climate change, for example funds for building flood defences), Mitigation (reducing emissions, for example funds to renewables and away from coal), and Loss and Damage (providing disaster relief, for example funds to compensate for past or future losses due to droughts or floods).  Many countries were hoping for a “Loss and Damage facility”, but instead the issue was kicked down the road by instead setting up a “Dialogue”.
  • In an early draft of the Pact, there was a commitment to “accelerate the phasing out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels”, in the final draft this was significantly weakened to “accelerate the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”, providing significant wriggle-room for nations on this key commitment.  This change was apparently agreed in closed-door negotiations between the US, EU, China, India and UK.
  • Although many countries did update their climate pledges at COP26, or just before, the world is still not on target to reach the Paris target.  Prior to COP26 we were headed for 2.6 degrees of warming by the year 2100; after COP26 this number is now 2.3 degrees.  Even if the world met all its longer-term pledges, which currently seems highly unlikely, we are still heading for 1.8 degrees, which is above the target of 1.5 degrees enshrined in the Paris agreement.

Overall, probably no one is happy with the overall outcome of COP26; Greta Thunberg called the event a “greenwash festival”.  But at least an agreement was made, and mechanisms were put in place to ratchet up ambition faster than before.  History will be the judge of Alok Sharma and the UK presidency – by the end of the 2020’s, if emissions are decreasing rapidly then COP26 in Glasgow may well be hailed as a turning point; however, if they are still rising or only falling slowly then it will be considered a failure.  For now, 1.5 degrees is still “alive”, but is on life support. 


Key outcomes agreed at the UN climate talks in Glasgow

Do COP26 promises keep global warming below 2C?

Where do all the words and numbers we heard at COP26 leave us?

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