COP26: A Scientific Overview of What Could be Achieved

Does the government's plan align with the evidence?

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Image Credit: Alan D. Wilson

COP26 is the 12 day ‘Conference of the Parties’, held by the United Nations to discuss tackling climate change. This year is the 26th annual summit, held in Glasgow from 31 October until 12 November.

Why Glasgow? Each year the conference is hosted by a different country, and this year it’s the UK. Glasgow was chosen thanks to it’s impressive green resume – including being rated 4th on the Global Destination Sustainability Index.

COP26 has been hailed as the most important climate change conference since Paris 2015, where the famous Paris Agreement was signed by 192 parties. The main goal of COP26 is to secure global net zero by 2050, and ensure the global temperature rise does not exceed 1.5°C – the target required to avert global climatic catastrophe. According to the annual UN emissions gap report, even if every signatory of the Paris climate agreement achieved their stated targets, the planet would likely experience a 3.2°C increase in temperature by 2100. To avoid this fate, seriously ambitious targets will need to be negotiated in Glasgow next month.

Major worries that the conference will not be successful in meeting urgent climate needs were exacerbated by the eye-opening leak of COP26 documents. Even the Queen herself commented “it’s really irritating when they talk, but don’t do”.

The figure of 1.5°C is based on studies commissioned by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change showing a robust difference in ecological impacts between this level of warming and even half a degree higher. These impacts include the extreme climate events we’re already seeing increasingly frequently: more intense heat waves, droughts in the mediterranean, and disproportionate temperature increases 2-3 times higher at mid-latitudes. This report suggested limiting global warming to 1.5°C rather than 2°C (let alone the 3°C we’re already headed for) would result in 420 million fewer people exposed to extreme heat waves.

Beyond these extreme events that are already killing thousands and costing hundreds of billions in damage, sea level rises are projected to be mitigated by staying at or below this crucial temperature threshold, sparing 10 million more people from impact. Excess CO2 absorption by the ocean has already resulted in acidification to a degree not seen since the age of the dinosaurs ended (acidification which caused its own mass extinction event). The evidence is mounting that we live in a perilous time for the aquatic life forms providing the food and oxygen that underpin the global ecosystem.

Scientifically speaking, the overall goals for COP26 are beyond dispute from a human wellbeing perspective. So how well do the UK’s stated targets address it?

The Conservatives’ stated slogan of “coal, climate, cars and trees” sum up the government’s plan to address the issue through ending direct support for fossil fuels internationally, end the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030 and plant trees on 30,000 hectares of land per year. This is all designed to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, a target shared by the other members of the G7 (though crucially not yet the G20, which includes a number of rapidly-industrializing nations among the worst culprits for carbon emissions).

The UK’s goal to remove internal combustion engines from the nation’s roads is naturally reliant on a continued decarbonisation of the electricity grid supplying electric vehicles to have any impact on emissions. Renewables reached 43 percent of total UK energy generation in 2020. Further funding should optimistically be an easy sell to investors; electricity generation by wind is now cheaper than burning coal or gas and solar power is now the cheapest electricity in history after decreasing 90 percent in cost in just a decade.

If all goes as hoped at COP26, the next 5 years should involve huge reform in focus and expenditure for all countries involved. It is understood that delaying action by a decade would double the cost of the transition for the UK.

Going ‘green’ will include a shift to renewable energy, the manufacturing of electric vehicles and construction of energy-efficient buildings. It is due to create 24 million jobs by 2030 worldwide (10 million in America, 200,000 in the UK), far more than the 6 million that will be phased out due to change in industry. There will be a shift in the education sector to teach pupils the skills to succeed in these emerging green industries and technologies, though this may polarize some older generations.

Departments at York share a common goal of being green-focused, from restoration and conservation at the Leverhulme Centre for Anthropocene diversity, to investigating sustainable and equitable transport in Africa at the Stockholm Environment Centre. We are lucky to have Dr Jessica Omukuti in the Economics department who is one of the four COP26 fellows, engaging with the international climate negotiation. Her work is focused on the scaling up of climate finance and will include conducting an analysis of the Green Climate Funds (GCF – worth £10 billion) delivery to the local level in developing countries.

Every year, environmental factors caused by climate change take the lives of 13 million people. That’s over twice the number of total deaths from the novel coronavirus worldwide. If we can come together and respond to the climate crisis with the same urgency and collective responsibility as to the Covid-19 crisis, which COP26 should encourage, we should see similar drastic changes.

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