OUR FINAL HOPE: COP26

As featured in Edition 38, available here.


BY BEN FIRTH (4th year - PAIS and Hispanic Studies - Sheffield, UK)

“It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land”. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) recent report certainly left no doubt about the cause of climate change. The recent IPCC report also made it clear that should the current trend continue, we will see more weather extremes in every region across the globe. These extremes have already become more regular, and the urgency of the IPCC’s warning shows just how crucial the United Nations Climate Change Conference, better known as COP26, is.


As is often the way, the West has happily turned a blind eye to the deadly consequences of climate change, as they have devastated far-flung corners of the World. Madagascar is currently suffering from the first famine in modern history to be solely caused by global warming. The World Food Programme has warned that 1.12 million people are food insecure, and 400,000 are heading for famine. However, it was the floods in Belgium and Germany during July of this year that were the catalysts for the climate ultimatum headlines and for the spotlight to grow on the upcoming COP26 conference in Glasgow. The West’s ability to detach itself from climate related devastation in developing countries around the world means that the climate crisis hasn’t been the international community’s priority, and it is only now that the effects are on our doorstep that we have decided urgent action needs to be taken.


As a result, COP26, to be held in Glasgow in November this year, has been labelled the most important meeting to ever be held on British soil. The resistance to tackling the climate crisis has resulted in the world not currently being on track to limiting global

warming to the 1.5 degrees Celsius agreed upon at COP21 in Paris in 2015. In fact, the targets from the conference in Paris would not even limit warming to 3 degrees by 2100, compared to pre-industrial levels. After initially being hailed as so ground-breaking, the Paris agreement of 2015 failed to oblige countries to act, and as a result, the target of 1.5 degrees warming is slipping out of reach. What is required then is a tangible and ambitious agreement which will require all parties to significantly change their approaches to business, transport, agriculture, and energy production in order to begin to reverse the years of human damage to the environment.


COP26 has outlined what it needs to achieve, most notably reaching net zero emissions by 2050 and mobilising finance from developed countries to meet their $100 billion a year promise. Countries have been asked to come forward before the summit with ambitious emissions targets for 2030 which will put them on track to reach the net zero target by 2050. These targets involve phasing out coal, reducing deforestation, and speeding up the transition to electric vehicles.


However, even before it has begun COP26 is being hindered by politics; China, Japan, Australia, and Brazil are just some of the economies which have resisted the pressure to share their net zero plans. China, of course, will be under particular scrutiny as the world’s current largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. In 2019, over 27% of global emissions came from China, and the country is now home to half the world’s coal capacity. It has lifted restrictions on new coal plants and appears to be moving in the wrong direction when it comes to phasing out coal before 2040, a goal set in order to achieve the 1.5 degree target. Persuading these countries to let their guard down and commit to making these net zero plans will be pivotal to success at COP26, none more so than the infamously secretive superpower of China. Yet it is this challenge which could shape our planet’s future, as well as the UK’s.



Not only has this summit come at the eleventh hour for the international community to prevent irreversible damage to our planet, COP26 also presents a last chance of a different kind for its hosts. This is arguably the UK’s final opportunity to prove itself worthy of its, albeit already questionable, title of a global power that is worthy of a seat at the top table. The UK’s influence has undoubtedly waned, with its relegation to the sidelines compounded by a series of self-inflicted wounds in recent years. Clearly, the debacle of the Brexit process, and how isolated the UK has become as a result, have seriously harmed the country's reputation on the international stage. Couple this with the controversial cut to international aid from 0.7% to 0.5% of GDP, and Boris Johnson finds himself coming into this pivotal summit with little credibility and a seriously weakened negotiating position. The international aid cut is significant, because a key aim of COP26 is to agree on a clearer path towards achieving the $100 billion a year of climate finance for developing nations, which was initially agreed upon at the 2009 Copenhagen climate negotiations. The G7 summit in Cornwall failed to reach an agreement to turn the pledge into the funds needed by developing nations. It will now be much more difficult for Johnson to ask other nations to provide the cash for developing countries when the UK has recently just slashed its own budget for these same countries' aid.


The UK has led by example in some respects, for example by becoming the first country to establish a legally binding framework to cut carbon emissions, with the Climate Change Act of 2008, and a 10-point plan to reach net zero emissions, which includes banning the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030. However, both the actions of individuals in government and some government policies certainly haven’t aligned with this green approach and have called into question the commitment of the UK’s leaders to truly tackling the climate crisis. The Prime Minister’s flight from London to Cornwall for the G7 summit created 5 times more greenhouse gas emissions than the equivalent train journey, which shows a level of hypocrisy we have come to expect from this government.


Whilst Tories may use their favoured defence that this is simply ‘political point scoring’, it is part of a wider failure in leadership to truly take the climate crisis seriously. The COP26 President, Alok Sharma, has flown to 30 countries since February to hold talks about reducing emissions, the irony of which surely can not be lost on everyone. This climate hypocrisy is reflected in government policy as well as individual ministers’ actions. In March, the government put its plans for a new coal mine in Cumbria on hold as the backlash forced Communities Secretary, Robert Jenrick, into a U-turn after his initial refusal to hold a public inquiry. Similarly, Johnson has hinted that a new oilfield 75 miles north-west of Shetland is likely to receive the green light, which would produce 170 million barrels of oil.


The problem with such conflicting policies towards the climate crisis is that they come at a time when the world is looking to the UK as a benchmark, and the planet cannot afford the UK to set the mark too low. As one of the largest polluters historically, the UK must be willing to set ambitious targets and commit to carbon neutrality in order for others to be willing to follow suit, particularly those developing nations which cannot have the same levels of growth fuelled by unrestricted emissions which the likes of the UK and America enjoyed in the past. It seems unlikely that developing countries will subscribe to making the necessary commitments if Johnson’s government is intent on pursuing environmentally damaging policies which directly oppose their green rhetoric.


This is why hosting such a pivotal summit is a double-edged sword for Johnson. Get it wrong and the history books will look back on COP26 as the last, missed opportunity to prevent extreme weather, famines, floods, and other disasters which will undoubtedly take many lives and displace huge populations. Of course, the alternative to this is that significant steps are made to ensure the 1.5 degree target is met, a requisite of this being that China is made to make significant commitments too. As the host of the summit and having led the way in the past towards carbon neutrality with legislation like the 2008 Climate Change Act, the UK could play a pivotal role in turning the tide in the fight against the climate crisis, which in turn may at the very least halt its demise from global power to the sidelines.


IMAGE 1: Flickr / Number 10 (Boris image)

IMAGE 2: Flickr/ UN Geneva (climate conference image)

IMAGE 3: Flickr/ Roy (protest)