Posted: 2021-10-29

Will COP26 deliver any meaningful progress or will it be just hot air?



QUEEN Elizabeth is not amused. “It’s very irritating when they talk, but they don’t do”, she was overhead to say. She was referring to the conference of COP26 (the 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). At the time of writing (17th October), it is two weeks away. When you read this magazine, it will  probably be in progress, with the ending scheduled for Friday 12th November, though past experience suggests that it is likely to extent into that weekend.


Will it be a photo op, a talking shop (as Elizabeth suggests), or a blame game? Possibly, it will be a bit of all three, especially if China and Russia – two of the world’s biggest polluters – fail to turn up. America and China are at loggerheads. Most western states are sniping at Russia. The global south is angered by the failure of the north to fulfil its pledges for climate finance – the UK has even cut its international aid – let alone pay for the damage that global warming has inflicted on Third World countries that did nothing to cause it. 


Another obstacle to progress is denial. The evidence is overwhelming. The earth’s average temperature has risen by 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1880s. In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported with more than 90 per cent certainty that human actions were responsible for ‘unequivocal’ changes to the climate. Since then we have observed that the ten hottest years on record have all occurred this century and that 2020 was the hottest year of all. July this year was the hottest month ever recorded.


Yet we still hear that it is part of a cyclical pattern which has occurred throughout history: the planet goes through a period of heating, then cooling, then heating again, and so on. Alternatively, it is argued that, if the problem gets really serious the ingenuity of humankind will come up with a solution. There is no real urgency. Let future generations clean up our mess.


Much of this rationalisation derives from a reluctance to accept the implications of global warming. It would involve major changes to our lifestyle and most people are resistant to change, even when it is obviously beneficial. Yet it does happen. In 1948 the percentage of men who smoked in Great Britain was 82%. Today it is about 18%.


It seems that the world is full of slow learners. But they will change their habits if they are led in the right direction, by both the science and the politics. The momentum for climate control has been fuelled not only by the evidence around us but also by a growing awareness of the young about the seriousness of the threat. Greta Thunberg, who began her first climate strike in August 2018, has been a role model for her generation. Now there are thousands of Thunbergs across the globe, with millions of followers. They will be angry if COP26 does not deliver.


We can but hope that the politicians assembled in Glasgow can overcome national self-interest in favour of a common interest in the future of planet earth. It certainly runs counter to their normal concerns of promoting national growth, trade, travel and consumption, even though we need less of all of them. 


However, Boris Johnson, the prime minister of the host state, has recently said that the climate crisis is his number one priority. Do we really believe him? His relationship to the truth has not been very close on other matters. When he was a columnist in the Daily Telegraph he was sceptical about the existence of global warming and ridiculed wind power as too feeble to knock off the skin of a rice pudding. Nor does he  have great relations with other European leaders at present, thanks to his U-turn on the Brexit Protocol.


We cannot but hope that these difficulties can be overcome during the fortnight.  The 2015 Paris Agreement at COP21 committed countries to keep the rise in global average temperature well below 2C while ‘pursuing efforts’ to limit it to 1.5C. To stay within that latter figure, global CO2 and other emissions need to come down by about 7% a year for this decade. Can COP 26 agree to this? We should remain sceptical yet open-minded. The politicians may even surprise us.  


Brian McClinton, October 2021