COP26: Runaway Climate Change – Can it be stopped?

By Alasdair Richmond

Arguably the most famous of summits, COP21 in 2015 saw the Paris Agreement signed by all 197 parties – a separate agreement under the UNFCC instead of an amendment to the Kyoto agreement. Whilst a big step forward in global initiative, it would seem not all countries are fully invested and with those that are, have the steps taken been great enough?

Seven nations have failed to ratify the agreement (Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Turkey, and South Sudan) only one – the U.S. – has delivered notice to withdraw. Contributing almost 15% of total global CO2 emissions, the rollback of U.S. environmental policy was a big blow. Having left on the 4th November 2020, President-Elect Biden has vowed to re-enter the agreement on his first day in office, just over 3 months later. The agreement itself saw parties agree to limit the increase in global average temperature since pre-industrial levels to under 2°C and to take every effort to keep the actual figure to under 1.5°C. Currently sitting at 0.95°C we’re en route to an increase “between 3 and 4 degrees C (5.5 and 7F) by the end of the century”, says Sir Robert Watson. A report that Sir Watson co-authored suggests that most countries are not going to meet their 2030 targets and that some targets are insufficient to meet the Paris Agreement. Ultimately this comes with a financial cost; that same report believes that by 2030 “the failure to reduce emissions will cost the world a minimum of $2 billion per day in economic losses from weather events made worse by human-induced climate change.”

The Paris Agreement works on a five-year cycle with parties having to submit an NDC (Nationally Determined Contributions) to the UNFCC, which is a legally binding target. With most parties having submitted theirs late December 2020, the U.S. out-in fiasco sees them just missing this 2020 NDC. Most countries submitted an NDC including a defined percentage of reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Some as low as the EU’s 55% reduction since 1990 levels, with others as high as Russia’s legally ambiguous “up to 70%”. The U.K., who originally would have submitted under the EU’s 53% (they later amended to 55%), now comes out with a legal target of an economy-wide reduction of 68%. This follows from advice from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), a committee established by the Climate Change Act (2008) which sets the U.K. a legal target of net-zero emissions by 2050. Scotland has a similar target instead for 2045, and Wales 80% reduction by 2050 (Northern Ireland follows the national target of net-zero by 2050). The CCC’s Chairman, Lord Deben, said the “68% target was in line with the government’s long-term goal of reaching net zero emissions by 2050, and was feasible”.

Ultimately these NDCs (whilst legally binding) are just words, the policies that are required to see them through are what will make the difference. U.K. emission reduction has already reached roughly 45% but this is mostly in part owed to the switch from coal to gas in the 1990s rather than any modern policy making. Recently transport and energy supply play a big part in emissions, both amounting to more that 50% combined of U.K. greenhouse gas emissions annually – though both do see a 1-7% decrease in the 2017-2018 study period. The COP26 webpage likes to point out that the U.K. is the forerunner out of G7 and G20 member parties in certain sectors and in 2019 doubled the climate budget to £11.6bn over the period 2021-2025. Whilst it seems the UK (and the EU) have set targets which are in line with the Paris Agreement’s overall goal and will meet those goals by 2030, the EU (incl. U.K.) only account for 9% of global greenhouse gas emissions. With the majority of other parties NDC’s being categorised as “insufficient” or unobtainable, a lot is left to be done.

This is where GOP26 aims to pick up. The Paris Agreement and UN Climate Change timelines need to move forward. We must reach net-zero sooner than 2050 and further GHG cuts need to be made by 2030. This needs to happen across the board in undeveloped countries as well as developed ones. The Paris Agreement states that economically well-off countries should help those that aren’t, in aims of adapting to climate change. But we don’t just need to help those countries that might struggle, we need to lobby those that are dragging their feet. The U.S. – an economically developed country – has their targets categorised as “insufficient”. A category otherwise filled by economically worse off countries. Such as Bolivia or Ethiopia, that is counties whom either have no formal targets or rely more than 50% on international funding. Getting global superpowers on board is imperative. China’s economic growth has been powered by coal, between the period of 1985 and 2016 coal accounted for 69.9% of energy production in china. But coal is one of the worst power sources for GHG emissions.

In recent years we have made great progress through summits such as COP, legally binding targets, national policy, and investment in renewables. But we cannot become complacent. Only by pushing for change on the international stage, at home in our own sovereignties, and at a personal level can we move forward. Although this year might not be what we had hoped for with COVID-19, COP26 provides an opportunity to globally come together to kickstart the economy with climate-based investment, introduce international policy, and change mindsets – but most importantly to prevent runaway climate change.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

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