|Most scientists agree that the world has only until the end of this decade to take action and prevent a global catastrophe, Photo: shutterstock |
The world’s activists and delegates getting ready to travel to Scotland for the COP26 event, starting October 31, realise more than most of the exceptionally high stakes. Running until November 12, the conference is being deemed one of the world’s last chances to keep the average global temperature from rising less than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and thus averting planetary heating on an unknown scale.
It has been a trying time for UK leaders as the event approaches. In terms of the summit itself, companies that stumped up millions of US dollars to sponsor COP26 have condemned it as “mismanaged” and “very last minute”.
The sponsors, which include some of Britain’s biggest companies, have raised formal complaints of “very inexperienced” civil servants for delayed decisions, as well as poor communication between the organisers and businesses in the run-up to the conference.
Meanwhile, bin workers in Glasgow will go on strike during the event, amid growing threats of industrial action across services. Transport unions have similar walkouts – the country’s main transport union confirmed last week that members will stage industrial action for the duration of COP26, which is expected to attract thousands of visitors to Glasgow, as the result of a pay dispute that has caused disruption to services for months.
The current mood, however, seems not to be affecting British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. With typical optimism, Johnson appears confident that countries will step up with their climate action and the conference, he said, will be “a turning point for humanity.”
To defend his corner, Johnson has positioned Britain as leading the way, insisting that the country has decarbonised more than any other developed nation, 1.8 times the average among European Union members, and was the first major economy to enshrine in law a net zero target for carbon emissions.
The race to net zero
As part of the build-up to the vital talks, British ministers last week revealed a new climate plan that they said would create up to 440,000 jobs and unlock £90 billion ($124.3 billion) in investment in the next decade, most of it from private sector companies.
Two years ago, the UK became the first member of the top seven major industrialised economies to set a net zero emissions target for 2050, which will require drastic changes in the way Brits travel, heat their homes, and use electricity.
The new strategy is a series of long-term promises, some with conditions, to shift the world’s fifth-largest economy towards green technologies, including moving to clean electricity and low-carbon heating in British homes.
“The UK leads the world in the race to net zero,” Johnson said in the new strategy’s report. “The likes of China and Russia are following our lead with their own net zero targets, as prices tumble and green tech becomes the global norm.”
Yet Britain is not always a climate hero. According to The New York Times last week, the country is committed to fossil fuels and private corporations, against stringent regulations, and unwilling to recognise its historical responsibility to other nations. Even the net zero by 2050 target relies on “unreliable carbon offsets and is too distant” to bring about decarbonisation soon enough, it added.
While it is clear that the climate summit is a potential global game changer, simple logistics and perhaps more political factors mean that not all countries may be represented at the event as much as some would desire, and it was still unclear last week who would turn up in Glasgow.
China has attached great importance to tackling climate change, but an announcement was yet to be made at the weekend on whether or not President Xi Jinping will attend COP26. The Kremlin said on Wednesday last week that Russian President Vladimir Putin would not fly to Scotland for the talks.
Meanwhile, around one-third of small Pacific island states and territories do not plan to send any government figures to the summit, mostly due to ongoing pandemic travel restrictions. The lack of high-level representation of such nations has led to fears that the concerns of these countries, which are among those most at risk due to the climate crisis, will not be appropriately represented.
At a meeting of Pacific regional organisations last week, it was confirmed that 13 of the small developing states plan to send a leader or minister to COP26 and seven do not – instead intending to send representatives from their missions in New York, Brussels, or other cities.
For the countries that are sending representation, there continues to be a tug-of-war from some over what actually the key recommendations and commitments to pore over at COP26.
The BBC last week revealed that a huge leak of documents shows how some countries are trying to change a crucial scientific report on how to tackle climate change.
The leaked documents consist of more than 32,000 submissions made by governments, companies, and other interested parties to the team of scientists compiling a UN report designed to bring together the best scientific evidence on how to tackle climate change.
These assessment reports are produced every 6-7 years by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UN body tasked with evaluating the science of climate change. They will be used by governments to decide what action is needed to tackle climate change and will be a crucial input to negotiations at the Glasgow conference.
Elsewhere, a former CEO of consumer goods giant Unilever has taken a swipe at firms, particularly in the United States, that prioritise short-term goals over long-term ones rooted in sustainability.
Paul Polman noted that while some companies were “making major commitments to be net zero and to decarbonise their whole value chain” and should be applauded, others are using funds via lobbying to stop certain bills which try to tackle these issues “because there’s a small tax increase involved.”
“When push comes to shove, these companies put their shareholders and their short-term shareholder return above the long-term future of humanity,” Polman said. “And that is not acceptable anymore.”
Polman, who was talking to CNBC, went on to suggest such an attitude was “not a smart move if you want to build trust and if you want to build your corporate reputation.” However, Polman struck a note of optimism. “In Glasgow, we have $90 trillion a big sum of money under management making a request to governments to help them decarbonise their portfolios. Increasingly, they’re making these commitments and asking companies to start moving as well,” Polman added, stating there was no question that the balance had tipped. The $90 trillion figure is a reference to the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero.
The person charged with making the summit a success, COP26 president Alok Sharma, is adamant that the fortnight-long meeting, delayed for a year because of the pandemic, can maintain hopes of limiting global temperature rise. “I think keeping 1.5 degrees Celsius alive has to absolutely be the aim,” he said.
Christiana Figueres, former chief of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and one of the architects of the Paris Agreement added, “We don’t have another option. If this summit doesn’t keep 1.5 degrees alive, we are in such trouble. We have only the last years of this decade to make a major, major turnaround.”