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17 February 2020updated 09 Sep 2021 4:13pm

It’s time for the government to show real leadership on COP26

Success at the climate conference in Glasgow this year is essential if we are to avert climate catastrophe.

By Barry Gardiner

So the government has fished around and finally found a President for COP26. Perhaps it’s now time to be even more adventurous and come up with a strategy.

Success at the climate conference in Glasgow this year is essential if we are to keep alive the realistic hope of a world in which every child alive today does not have to live through climate catastrophe.

But success requires careful planning and diplomatic choreography. It requires an understanding not only of the science, but of the political blockages and differing national interests that can prevent us keeping within the 1.5 degree threshold that science has now set as the safe limit of global warming.

The job of COP26 was set out five years ago in the Paris Accord. Then the world had agreed a 2 degree target and countries pledged emissions reductions to achieve it. But even then they knew that all their pledges would not keep within their 2 degree target – let alone the 1.5 degree target that the Intergovernmental Panel has now established as the true tipping point. 

The first goal of COP26 therefore was for countries to increase the amount of emissions reductions they were prepared to promise. Four figures tell the story. Paris projected business as usual: 59 gigatonnes of CO2 a year by 2030. Each country’s Paris pledges: 53 gigatonnes of CO2 a year by 2030. Below the two degree threshold: 40 gigatoness of CO2 a year by 2030. Below 1.5°C threshold: 24 gigatonnes of CO2 a year by 2030.

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At Paris in 2015 the world pledged to reduce its annual emissions by just 6 gigatonnes – from 59 to 53. To stay below the 2 degree threshold we need to more than triple that ambition. To stay below the 1.5 degree threshold we need to increase our effort by six fold. And COP26 is when we need to do it.  That is just to give us a better than 50-50 chance of meeting these targets. Ask yourself if you would cross a bridge with only a 50-50 chance of getting to the other side.

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If this were not daunting enough, COP26 will inherit the failure of last year’s COP25 to agree how countries can cooperate by trading emission reductions or helping each other to reduce theirs. It will have to address the issue of double counting of reductions that immediately puts countries like Brazil, Russia and China at odds with the EU and many of the Least Developed Countries.  

As hosts the UK will be expected to show real domestic leadership. The government must therefore secure cross party support for the policies that will deliver  its own carbon budgets for 2027 and 2032 and for setting the UK on track to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. This is necessary, but simply secure its own base; a strategy must sit on top.

It is essential to identify the alliances that will be able to effect political movement. Countries that were once key allies like Mexico are now less committed to swift emissions reductions and the UK will need to seek much broader cooperation with like-minded countries in Europe, Africa and Latin America and countries of the Climate Vulnerable Forum. The group known as the High Ambition Coalition played a critical role in Paris and it should form the bedrock alliance from which the presidency should reach out.

The ghost at the COP will be the USA as it leaves the Paris Accord and the next US president is elected. But the dominant figure at the COP will be China. Only real action by China will be able to prevent other countries looking at the US exit and asking: “If America is not prepared to cooperate, then why should I?”

That is why the EU-China Summit in Leipzig this September is so vital. The European Green Deal, proposing carbon neutrality in Europe by 2050 must be leveraged to bind China in and encourage her onto a pathway to Net Zero. Our climate diplomats should already be hard at work with both the EU and China to deliver this partnership.

To that end it is important to remember that China is hosting her own COP only a month before Glasgow. This is the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) COP15 in Kunming. It will be the biggest international conference China has ever hosted and is tasked with setting the global biodiversity strategy and targets for the next decade. 

We must do all we can to ensure their COP is a success. In this respect it is worth noting that the UK has not increased its contribution to the funding mechanism for the CBD since 2010. Now might well be the time to double the relatively small amount – £210million – we pay to the Global Environment Facility! Such a gesture would not go unnoticed; nor I suggest, would it go unrewarded by cooperation in Glasgow.

Persuading countries of the global south to increase their ambition will require realism about their financial capacity. The Green Climate Fund was established to provide that support to enable countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change. The $100billion a year target has seen a total of just $19.2billion pledged since 2014 of which only some $6billion has yet been allocated to projects.

The UK is recognised as a leader in green climate finance and must press for global reform of the sector and the incorporation of climate risk onto both private and public sector balance sheets. If mitigation and adaptation is to happen at the pace and scale required, private sector finance must play a huge role. Green bonds and other financial instruments must be part of the strategy that a UK presidency is well placed to develop.

21 years ago, when John Prescott was negotiating the Kyoto Agreement, it was recognised that countries had “common but differentiated responsibilities”. The full meaning of that phrase is still being worked out. Countries like the UK or the USA, which have benefited from polluting our planet for 250 years, need to recognise that other countries who are poor are now suffering existentially. Payment for “loss and damage” is a key demand for many of the Least Developed Countries. They want to see rich nations recognise the damage they have caused and compensate them for it. If the UK made the first financial contribution towards loss and damage, that might just be the game changer that could unlock the politics.

Labour will work cross party to make COP26 a success. The government has it work cut out to deliver it.

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