As the world strives to fast-forward the economy in an attempt to recover from the pandemic, climate change has rightly emerged as a major concern in all international forums. The International Energy Agency (IEA) warned in its “Net Zero By 2050” report released last month that our current reliance on fossil fuels must drop fast, and that drastic measures are necessary if climate disasters are to be averted. Fortunately, policy leaders across the globe are not unaware of these issues, and activists have not allowed the immediate cause—i.e. fighting the pandemic—to overshadow the long-term goal: an urgent need to address the threat of climate change.
An important contributor to this conversation is the group Climate Action Pathways (CAP) that has organised 20 virtual conferences over the previous year in anticipation of the three-day G7 summit, which starts today, and COP26 in November. I attended the 18th session of CAP on May 19 with Quamrul Chowdhury, Lead C A P & LDCS Lead Climate Negotiator, moderating the discussion. Several experts from around the globe also participated in it.
For those who need a reminder, COP26 is the next annual UN climate change conference. COP stands for Conference of the Parties, and it will be attended by countries that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—a treaty that came into force in 1994.
This is the 26th session of COP and will be hosted in partnership between the UK and Italy. The conference will be held in Glasgow from November 1-12, 2021—a year later than planned due to delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Climate Channel based in Toronto, Canada has brought together negotiators, academics, policymakers, and climate activists to create a better awareness of the challenges we face in implementing the Paris Agreement to limit emissions to control global warming and to find innovative and effective adaptation and mitigation strategies.
Pushing for more ambitious goals
COP26 will be the biggest summit the UK has ever hosted, with around 30,000 attendees expected if it goes ahead as a fully physical event. Many people see it as the most significant climate event since the 2015 Paris Agreement, when all the signatories to the UNFCC agreed to keep temperatures well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
COP26 is critical because it’s the first moment when countries must set out more ambitious goals for ending their contribution to climate change under the Paris Agreement. In this context, the IEA’s recent report on the state of policy actions to combat global warming is worth noting, given the fact that the influential agency is not an environmental group but an international organisation that advises world capitals on energy policy. “Nations around the world would need to immediately stop approving new coal-fired power plants and new oil and gas fields and quickly phase out gasoline-powered vehicles if they want to avert the most catastrophic effects of climate change,” warned IEA.
Climate Action Pathway on Climate Channel
CAP’s recent virtual conference was participated, among others, by Felipe Diaz of Chile; Raju Pandit Chhetri and Manjeet Dhakal, climate negotiators from Nepal; Prof. Alan Miller, an internationally recognised authority on climate finance and policy from the USA; and Prof. Jacqueline Klopp of the Earth Institute of Columbia University. Quamrul Chowdhury kicked off the discussions with a call to nations to prioritise the task of setting a course to reach a net-zero emission in the future and limiting the temperature rise to 1.5-degree Celsius.
One of the participants mentioned that last year was already 1.2 degrees Celsius hotter than pre-industrial times—dangerously close to the 1.5-degree limit set by the scientific community. Under current commitments, including the recent ones, we are still heading for a disastrous temperature rise of 2.4 degrees by the end of the century.
Prof. Alan Miller, quoting from a recently published World Bank report, praised the efforts undertaken by the government of Bangladesh to promote its Solar Home Systems project. Miller, who played an important role during the negotiations for the Montreal Protocol (on CFC), encouraged future climate negotiators to address other climate pollutants, including CO2 and methane, in smaller groups. We need “more actions and not just talk”, he cautioned.
G7 summit in the UK
Various climate advocates are anxiously looking forward to the tone of the G7 summit to be held in the scenic Carbis Bay, Cornwall. The host, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office has announced that he will use the UK’s G7 Presidency to unite leading democracies to help the world fight and then build back better from the coronavirus, and also create a greener, more prosperous future. The UK has invited Australia, India, South Korea and South Africa as guest countries to this year’s G7.
In addition to addressing geo-political issues and “championing our shared values”, the summit can be expected to take measures to lead global recovery from the coronavirus while strengthening resilience against future pandemics. Other relevant areas to be tackled include promoting our future prosperity by championing free and fair trade, tackling climate change, and preserving the planet’s biodiversity.
All the participants at the CAP online forum recognised that many world leaders have not yet come to grips with the extraordinary transformation of the global energy system that is required to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Fatih Birol, IEA’s executive director, said in an interview that, “The sheer magnitude of changes needed to get to net-zero emissions by 2050 is still not fully understood by many governments and investors.” Net-zero emissions don’t mean countries would stop emitting carbon dioxide altogether. Instead, they would need to sharply reduce most of the carbon dioxide generated by power plants, factories and vehicles. Any emissions that could not be fully erased would be offset, such as by forests or artificial technologies that can pull carbon dioxide directly out of the atmosphere.
One of the major concerns that I shared with the CAP meeting is that once the ravages of coronavirus are mitigated, developing and developed countries could go back to their prior posture where each side blames the other for the failure to address the major outstanding gaps in funding, carbon reduction goals, and mitigation and adaptation. The USA has been pointing the finger at India and China for their reliance on coal-powered plants, while the developing countries are asking the richer countries to own up to their role in providing financial support to compensate for the “loss and damage”.
President Biden’s pledge to cut US greenhouse gases at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by the end of this decade faces significant political obstacles. Nonetheless, at a virtual summit of 40 world leaders that Biden hosted last month, Japan, Canada, and Britain joined the European Union in committing to steeper cuts while China, India, and Russia did not.
Need for an urgent plan of action
The IEA advocates that if the world’s governments want to change course quickly, they need to pay attention to some important benchmarks in the coming decades. In 2021, nations should stop approving new coal plants unless they are outfitted with carbon-capture technology to trap and bury their emissions underground. By 2025, governments worldwide would start banning the sale of new oil and gas furnaces to heat buildings, shifting instead to cleaner electric heat pumps. By 2035, automakers would stop selling new gasoline- or diesel-fuelled passenger vehicles. By 2050, virtually all cars on the roads worldwide would either run on batteries or hydrogen. A very bold and laudable plan, and a tall order, indeed.
Dr Abdullah Shibli is an economist, currently serving as a Senior Research Fellow at the International Sustainable Development Institute (ISDI), a think-tank based in Boston, USA.