If you are a pragmatist, the COP26 summit in Glasgow made real progress towards achieving the fastest energy transition in history to curb the damaging effects of global overheating caused by emissions from fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas.
‘Many will say that we continue to irresponsibly spin the political wheels, and from some vantage points that is true, but no one can deny that COP26 has hastened the speed of the wheels of change’, commented Christiana Figueres, who was head of the UN climate change convention that achieved the Paris climate agreement in 2015.
If you are an activist, however, the meeting is too little too late and marks yet another failure to bring warming under control, when extreme weather events linked to climate change – including heatwaves, forest fires and floods – are already intensifying.
Climate activist Greta Thunberg excoriated global leaders over their promises to address the climate emergency, dismissing them as ‘blah, blah, blah’.
Though an agreement has been reached – the Glasgow Climate Pact – all agree that the measures in it do not achieve the targets of the Paris Agreement of 2015, in which countries were asked to make changes to keep global warming ‘well below’ 2°C – and to try to aim for 1.5°C – to prevent a climate catastrophe.
While the progress at COP26 was the most the world was willing to do at this stage – earning plaudits for the UK COP26 team – it is not enough, not by a long way, even though US President Biden had pledged ‘we’ll demonstrate to the world the United States is not only back at the table but hopefully leading by the power of our example.‘
Independent analysis by the Climate Action Tracker, for example, estimates that with all target pledges, including those made in Glasgow, global greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 will still be around twice as high as necessary for the 1.5°C limit.
With 2030 pledges alone – without longer term targets – global temperature increase will be at 2.4°C in 2100. The projected warming from current policies (rather than proposals) – what countries are actually doing – is even higher, at 2.7 ̊C.
Prof Jeffrey Kargel, Senior Scientist, Planetary Research Institute, Tucson, Arizona, commented ‘I am pessimistic that a 1.5-degree threshold will hold, as warming already exceeds 1.1 degrees, and much future warming is locked in due to the heat capacity of the oceans.’
Even half a degree really counts, as we heard at one of our Climate Talks, notably from Anote Tong, former President of the Republic of Kiribati, and Cassidy Kramer, member of the Alaskan Inupiaq community.
The greater the change in global temperature, the higher the risk that the cumulative impact of all these changes could cross a tipping point of dramatic and irreversible climate change, which is dealt with in Amazônia, the Science Museum’s stunning photography exhibition about the Brazilian rainforest.
The global energy transition will be the subject of a major new gallery in the Science Museum, scheduled to open in 2023. ‘Averting climate catastrophe will require a combination of new innovations, the implementation of existing technologies, and structural changes to society and behaviour’, commented Alex Rose, curator. ‘The new gallery will explore how we can all play a part in shaping our future.’
WHAT THEY AGREED
COP stands for Conference of the Parties, and this has been the 26th annual summit, hence COP26. At the summit in Glasgow, 200 countries were asked for their plans to cut emissions by 2030 with a goal of net zero in 2050.
Despite the disappointment of the preceding G20, where the leaders of the world’s richest economies made few concrete commitments, COP26 saw a number of notable announcements: the two biggest global emitters of carbon dioxide, the US and China, pledged to boost climate co-operation over the next decade; more than 100 countries, representing about 85% of the world’s forests, promised to halt deforestation by 2030; and more than 100 countries agreed a scheme to cut 30% of current emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane in the same period.
More than 40 countries – which include significant users of coal such as Poland, Vietnam and Chile – agreed to shift away from coal, the single largest contributor to climate change.
But the Glasgow Pact commits countries only to ‘phasedown’ of ‘unabated’ coal – in other words, the burning of coal without abating emissions through some form of carbon capture and storage, the subject of our exhibition, Our Future Planet.
The previous draft had said ‘phase-out’ but that was changed after a last-minute intervention by India and China. COP26 President Alok Sharma was moved to tears as he attempted to mediate between countries where energy poverty is a major issue and countries who fought the weakening of the language on coal, a dirty fuel from a bygone era, when climate change is already happening with rising sea levels, crop failures and droughts.
Prof Dann Mitchell, Met Office Chair in Climate Hazards, University of Bristol, remarked ‘While it is clearly disappointing that at the eleventh-hour India challenged the phrase “phasing out of coal”, their entire infrastructure is highly dependent on coal, something the richest countries used to become the global superpowers they are today. India’s per capita carbon dioxide emissions are an order of magnitude lower than the highest emitting countries, and clearly India felt that not enough was done to support their transition to green energy.’
The agreement does however still call for ‘phase-out’ of ‘inefficient’ subsidies for fossil fuels.
And it emphasises the need for developed countries to increase the money they give to those countries already suffering the effects of climate change, beyond the current $100bn target. Prof Michael Jacobs, Professor of Political Economy at the University of Sheffield, commented ‘The money for poorer countries is still not enough, but doubling finance for adaptation will help the most vulnerable. Not a perfect outcome, but much better than it could have been.’
‘If the success of an international agreement can be measured in its ability to disappoint everyone equally, the Glasgow accord could be seen as a triumph,’ commented Prof Hannah Cloke, Professor of Hydrology, University of Reading. ‘From a scientific point of view, we are back in the position where the science is ever clearer but the politics is still worryingly murky.’
The pact asks countries to republish their climate action plans, with more ambitious emissions reduction targets for 2030, by the end of next year, when COP27 will take place in Egypt.
Science Museum advisor, Bob Ward, Director of Policy and Communications at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, said that the tens of thousands of delegates from more than 200 countries would have left Glasgow ‘painfully aware that collectively current pledges for emissions cuts by 2030 are not ambitious enough. They are not aligned with the goal of the Paris Agreement of holding the rise in warming to well below 2 °C, and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°C.’
‘It is time for countries to stop arguing over the text and to start taking the action that has been promised, particularly to increase the flows of financial support to developing countries.’
Prof Richard Allan, Professor of Climate Science, University of Reading, said it’s ‘almost tempting – like Gulliver at the end of his travels – to feel a sense of loathing for the human species. But there is also a sense of guarded optimism that a spark of the universe came alive, wondered at the beauty of our world, eventually noticed we were soiling it terribly before imperfectly yet doggedly and collectively began digging ourselves out of our mess.’
As for next steps, Prof Lord Nicholas Stern, Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science, said ‘There is so much work to do over the next 12 months ahead of COP27. The work on finance will be crucial to raising ambition. If we are slow to unlock the finance, we will be slow to raise the ambition.’
Prof Adrian Smith, President of the Royal Society, said that research will pay a critical role: ‘We need to accelerate solutions such as cleaner electricity, transport and agriculture and find ways to take carbon out of the air. That path will require greater political will, greater ambition and greater investment in research and innovation. We need to go bigger, we need to go better and we need new ideas.’
The Glasgow Climate Pact ‘takes us a big step forward’, concluded Prof Corinne Le Quéré, Royal Society Professor of Climate Change Science, University of East Anglia. But, she added ‘It cannot be said enough that action is now urgently needed, at scale, and that this is the critical decade.’