Mind The Carbon Gap
A reflection on COP26 by our Vice President of Strategy and firm’s sustainability expert, Laetitia Pancrazi MIEMA CEnv. Laetitia holds an MSc in Sustainable Urbanism from UCL and an MSc in Development Management from The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). She is a Chartered Environmentalist with the Society of Environment and is a fully certified member of The Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment.
COP26 concluded on November 13 after nearly two years of campaigning and preparation undertaken by the United Kingdom (UK) presidency. A delayed start due to a global pandemic and major climate protests and activism around the world.
Living in the UK and working as a sustainability and social justice consultant meant that the run-up to COP was exciting, full of promises, but also nerve-wracking. The stakes have never been so high. Action is needed now, not in 2030. And for many, including myself, COP26 was our last-ditch effort at global, government-led, coordinated action against climate change.
Those high stakes meant I needed to completely retreat and address my own despondency. I purposefully avoided reading news on the topic, steering clear of emotional, visceral reactions to the day-to-day news cycle churn. My retreat gave me time to think, to reflect on my fears and to find hope once more.
And so now, with this beacon of resilience, I can reflect on what came out of COP26 and how we can ensure action happens.
So, what happened?
Nearly 200 countries agreed to the Glasgow Climate Pact, which aimed to keep global temperature increase below 1.5 degrees Celsius and finalised outstanding elements of the Paris Agreement Rulebook. The stakes were so high that COP26 actually over-ran, with numerous bilateral meetings, informal consultations and covert discussions taking place after the closing plenary.
These behind-the-scenes meetings allowed some countries to water down commitments made in the Glasgow Climate Pact. For example, India made a last-minute proposal to change language from ‘phase-out’ to ‘phase-down’ unabated coal power. This was a disappointment for many. Countries like India argue that they need coal to support their economic growth and lift millions out of poverty.
This argument is of course valid; it is after all how most of the G7 countries grew their own economies and prospered, albeit with a widening inequality gap. I would, nevertheless, challenge this opinion. A green transition, one that phases out coal and excessive fossil fuel use, can help less economically developed countries grow in a more socially-just, environmentally safe way, following the principles laid out by Kate Raworth in Doughnut Economics, for example.
Regardless, the lack of leadership from the G7 countries, beyond self-congratulatory pledges and moralistic statements, is a more pressing issue. For example, the United States and Canada still emit the vast majority of emissions (you can find out more using the Financial Times’ interactive dashboard of each countries’ carbon emissions here). The UK, the birthplace of the first coal-based industrial revolution, continues to debate whether to build coal power stations. Without these countries engendering a fundamental shift in how their economies and societies function, is it morally fair to ask less economically developed countries to do so?
What was in the Glasgow Climate Pact?
With this in mind, here is a concise summary of major outcomes from COP26:
- Mitigation: Countries who signed the Glasgow Pact agreed to revisit and strengthen their current climate targets by 2022. An enhanced transparency framework was also agreed to provide greater clarity on, and consistency in, how countries report on their carbon emissions. However, no agreement was reached on aligning target years to reach net zero, with countries disagreeing on whether or not a 5- or 10-year horizon was appropriate.
- Adaptation: Countries agreed to set stronger processes to meet adaptation goals. Funding for damage and loss caused by climate change were also discussed, as described right below.
- Finance: Climate finance was a cornerstone of COP26. There were discussions around the adoption and implementation of Article 6 of the Paris Agreement which looks at international carbon markets. More work needs to be done to define rules and processes to implement them. COP26 saw a commitment to increase financial support for developing countries, including double finance for adaptation. However, the most vulnerable countries present at COP26 highlighted that the $100 billion pledged in 2020 had yet to be provided, casting doubt on the new pledges made in Glasgow. Countries also agreed to phase-out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, which is welcome when you bear in mind that a shocking £432 billion still flows to fossil fuel industries on an annual basis.
- Agriculture: The role and impact of the agricultural sector was acknowledged during COP26, and draft conclusions were adopted on improving nutrient use, enhancing livestock management systems and ensuring socio-economic and food security. This echoes comments made in the latest IPCC report.
- Deforestation: The Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use was signed by more than 141 countries to halt and reverse deforestation. Restoring and conserving forests over the next decade could help keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius (which still falls short of the 1.5-degrees Celsius goal set in Paris). This was the first major agreement to come out of the COP26 summit and was accompanied by a $19.2 billion pledge.
What does it mean for us?
As remarked by Greta Thunberg, our unrelentless societal moral compass, to me, COP26 felt like a complacent cesspool of lofty ambitions supported by no practical implementation plan with glossy pictures of ‘we did it’ handshakes. It was followed by secret meetings to dilute stronger necessary commitments and a whopping 118 private jets landing in Scotland (burning over 1,000 tonnes of CO2) as the richest ask the poorest to reduce their carbon footprint.
And the question I had when COP26 kicked off remains unanswered. How? How will we get to net zero? How will we support the electrification of our transport systems and homes? How will we finance a green transition? How will we actually curb deforestation? How will we ensure other species can live on this planet and avoid a human-led fourth extinction?
Those are questions that still remain unanswered. Nevertheless, one question was loudly answered: COP26 made it abundantly clear that big governments and big businesses will not lead the charge against climate change.
So, what can we do? Us, local and global communities, non-governmental organisations, charities, educational institutions, journalists, climate activists. We can rise to the challenge. We can work collaboratively to create the world we, and future generations, deserve. And, at The Athena Advisors, we are proud to answer this call of action. With our skills, expertise, and values, we remain committed to helping all our clients become beacons of sustainability and ensure their beneficiaries are resilient to the uncertain future we all face.