'The Glasgow Climate Pact needs to move “from words on a page” to a lived reality'
Mike Buckley is the director of the Independent Commission on UK-EU Relations and a former Labour Party adviser
COP26 feels like a long time ago. That crucial climate conference ended on a note of muted optimism after its accord was agreed at the eleventh hour following controversial amendments supported by China and India.
Nonetheless an agreement was signed, one which at the time COP26 President Alok Sharma asserted would, if fully implemented, keep within reach the goal of limiting global temperature rises to below 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.
Even then Sharma realised the qualifier matters. The “pulse” of the agreement “is weak” he said in November. It “will only survive if we keep our promises. If we translate commitments into rapid action.”
Twelve weeks on Sharma remains committed to working with nations, in particular the largest developed countries who together emit 80% of global carbon emissions, to ensure delivery.
“There is no doubt that the commitments we secured at COP26 were historic,” he told an audience at Chatham House this week, “yet at the moment they are just words on a page.
“Unless we honour the promises made, to turn the commitments in the Glasgow Climate Pact into action, they will wither on the vine. We will have mitigated no risks. Seized no opportunities. We will have fractured the trust built between nations. 1.5C will slip from our grasp.”
Sharma’s reputation in Glasgow was that of a hard worker committed to achieving the best possible outcome from negotiations. While the Government’s reputation as a whole was tarnished even during the conference itself due to ongoing arguments with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol, and with France over fishing rights, Sharma managed to maintain his reputation among delegates as a trusted interlocutor.
That reputation will serve him in good stead as he retains the COP presidency for most of 2022 and until the start of COP27 in November.
He clearly hopes to encourage countries to act on existing commitments and make bold new pledges before that conference opens.
Camilla Born, advisor to Sharma, set out their priorities in a recent blog post. 2022 would, she said, be “the year where the integrity of commitments is judged on how they’re delivered”.
The Glasgow Climate Pact needs to move “from words on a page” to a lived reality, requiring “deep partnership between governments, investors and in some cases, development banks.”
Ambitious decarbonisation, including scaled up national climate plans, is essential, she said, combined with renewed commitment and action to help poorer countries adapt to inevitable climate change, and to recompense them for loss and damage.
Born pointed too to the need for massively scaled up funding from both public and private sources, and for finance to be transitioned from fossil fuels to clean energy.
So far, so good. Between them Sharma and Born have the right priorities and plan to influence the highest priority governments.
There is good news too on at least some aspects of global climate action. China built more offshore wind capacity in 2021 alone than the rest of the world had managed in the last five years put together. Its 26GW now accounts for half of the world’s 54GW total.
Egypt, as incoming president of COP27, has indicated it will have a greater focus on the needs of African and vulnerable countries already suffering from climate change.
Germany, president of this year’s G7, has put climate front and centre of its preparations. Its priorities for the coming summit include a commitment to push links between greenhouse gas cuts and growth, and between trade and the phase down of coal committed to at COP26.
Other news is less welcome. The oil and gas industry, barred from COP26 and 27, is looking for ways to become more involved in COP28 in 2023, which will be held in the UAE, a nation perhaps more inclined to give them a seat at the table than Egypt.
While carbon capture and storage, long heralded by the fossil fuel industry as a means to allow the continued burning of fossil fuels while capturing emissions before they reach the atmosphere, remains unproven and possibly counterproductive. Shell’s carbon capture operation in Canada has been found to emit more emissions than it traps.
Just as worryingly, carbon offsetting, reports George Monbiot this week, is being used by some in the fossil fuel industry to justify continued exploration and exploitation of new fossil fuel reserves, which if continued would be a death knell for any hope of keeping 1.5 degrees alive.
Sharma and his team may be further hampered by lack of support and commitment from the Government he serves within.
Despite the gravity of his role, Sharma’s team has been cut by a third. This has been justified by the fact that COP26 is now past, but if Sharma is to make the most of the months ahead that capacity could have been valuable, yet the roles have been axed nonetheless.
There is concern too over the Government’s commitments to its own net zero plans. Some MPs want the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to cut the green levy from energy bills as a means to help households as prices rise.
This ignores that the climate levy is not the cause of rises, tripled wholesale prices are. Cutting the levy would in any case repeat the mistake of the Cameron government, whose decision to cut green investment in 2013 has by now added £2.5bn to energy prices.
That single decision led to 92% fewer loft insulations in subsequent years, 74% fewer cavity walls, 1 million new inefficient homes and the stalling of onshore wind. If Sunak repeats the error the effort to achieve net zero by 2050 will be compromised once again.
Meanwhile the Government, along with Switzerland, has been accused of attempting to undermine the European Union’s push for green reforms of the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT), an investment treaty.
The European Commission is attempting to end protections for investments in fossil fuels, yet the UK has been accused of trying to tempt EU-based fossil fuel firms to relocate their official headquarters so that they can continue to sue governments over climate action even if the EU withdraws from the ECT.
“The UK and Switzerland seem to be betting on becoming safe havens [for fossil fuel companies]. This shows how perverse this system is. These countries still prioritise protecting fossil fuel companies instead of fighting climate change,” said Friends of the Earth’s Paul de Clerck.
Yamina Saheb, a monitor of negotiations, said, “It is likely that the UK will become a host state for investors using this treaty to sue EU countries for the phase out of fossil fuels. It’s a complete madness for the host country of Cop26 [climate talks]”.
All of this will make Sharma’s job harder in coming months. His personal commitment to achieving meaningful change by the start of COP27 could be hampered by his own Government’s attempts to stymie efforts elsewhere.
Opposition parties including Labour should seek to support Sharma where they can while exposing Government hypocrisy on net zero and wider climate commitments. While the circus over parties, cakes and flat refurbishments continues the climate crisis only gets worse. We should all want Sharma to succeed, for all our sakes.
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