Allowing climate change to continue unchecked is equivalent to “digging our own graves”, says Antonio Guterres. Rising temperatures will “bake” the Earth, in the words of Joe Biden, or “kill” the planet, according to Emmanuel Macron. Political leaders are not short of dramatic metaphors when it comes to the potential impacts of global heating, but they are generally unable to find an equivalent register for ambitious action.
After the apocalyptic rhetoric of world leaders in the days leading up to Cop26, the final Glasgow Climate Pact was a masterpiece of “constructive ambiguity”, a well-known trope of climate diplomacy. The pact calls for “accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies”. Many criticised the weakening of the language from “phase-out” to “phasedown” of the dirtiest energy source, but equally problematic is the lack of detail about when these changes should happen and what is meant by “inefficient”. Meanwhile, recent research is showing how ambiguous language contributes to the failure to take global action against climate change.
On 6 June negotiators began ten days of talks in Bonn, Germany, to prepare for Cop27 in Egypt in November, but the background noise is not good. There are no rules as to how a Cop is supposed to be run. Potentially overshadowed by the excitement of the Paris Agreement in 2016, and following a year-long delay because of the pandemic, Cop26 could have been a dull online affair focused on signing off leftovers from Paris. The UK turned it into a huge political event, throwing its full diplomatic machine at it. The Cop president, Alok Sharma, and his team travelled far and wide ahead of the meeting to drum up support for emissions reductions and climate finance. The UK insisted on an in-person event despite Covid restrictions and the fact that various heads of government were in attendance in Glasgow before negotiations kicked off, raising the tempo of the debate from the outset.
The UK has been working closely with Egypt, which has its own experienced climate negotiators, but Cairo doesn’t have the UK’s diplomatic clout on this issue. Even with the UK’s recent push for domestic fossil fuel production, the country has impressive renewables and legally binding emissions reduction goals. In April the government increased its already ambitious offshore wind target to 50 gigawatts by 2030, up from around 10GW of installed capacity today, and the country plans to cut emissions by 78 per cent by 2035 compared with 1990 levels. Egypt has no quantifiable emissions reduction target and its climate action is ranked as “highly insufficient” by Climate Action Tracker.
The international context is also much changed since last November. Cop27 is supposed to be about implementation, about turning pledges into plans, and about advancing thinking on climate finance and “loss and damage” – how much richer nations should pay developing countries to adapt to a warmer world and for the devastation already caused by extreme weather. It is not easy to find consensus on these issues in normal circumstances – paying for disaster relief and help for climate migrants are much more difficult concepts than, for instance, financing a concrete project like a wind farm – but since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February the world has been thrust into a new reality. Even if some climate-sceptic leaders have been replaced by politicians more favourable to action, most notably last month in Australia, which was often “in the naughty corner” in Glasgow, Russian aggression has, overall, made the world less cooperative.
Food and energy security, meanwhile, have shot to the top of the global political agenda. Moral and practical panic in many European countries about their reliance on Russian gas has underlined the importance of the renewable energy revolution. But the war is unlikely to go down in history as the moment the world saw the folly of its fossil fuel addiction, as many had hoped. Instead, politicians are opting for mixed messaging, desperate to be seen to be doing something to lessen the strain of high energy prices in the short term, while reassuring voters they are still committed to climate action in the long term.
The UK is touting domestic oil and gas as vital to ensuring energy security. The Business and Energy Secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, celebrated the Platinum Jubilee last weekend by announcing that permits to exploit the Jackdaw gas field in the North Sea had been approved. The EU’s RePowerEU plan is bold in its renewable ambitions, but nonetheless includes investment for new liquid natural gas (LNG) terminals. Across the Atlantic, the US administration’s immediate reaction to Russian aggression was to increase its domestic shale gas and oil production. The announcement on 6 June by Biden, the US president, that his government would use the Defense Production Act to accelerate production of various clean energy technologies, including solar power, heat pumps and insulation, to strengthen energy security and reduce emissions is potentially a step towards a different set of energy priorities. Nonetheless, whether Biden can get his climate legislation through the Senate before Cop27 remains an open question and the Democrats could easily lose their wafer-thin majority in the Senate in the November midterm elections. And countries including Nigeria, Algeria, Egypt and Israel are rubbing their hands in expectation of new income as Europe and the US look to diversify their imports of oil and gas.
“Before Cop26 we were hovering in a half-empty, half-full space,” said Bernice Lee, a research director at Chatham House, a British think tank. “The hope is that the war [in Ukraine] might have rolled us backward in the short term, but it might roll us forward in the medium term. Yet we are still hovering, and there is still much for leaders to play for to land us more firmly on the right track.” Given that Boris Johnson’s climate change “doomsday clock” was already at “one minute to midnight” six months ago, “hovering” certainly isn’t enough to keep global warming below internationally agreed levels.
“We have made some progress but, frankly, not enough,” said Sharma. Given the task at hand, the “progress” has been minimal. Another 11 countries, among them Brazil, South Korea and Switzerland, have updated their plans to decarbonise their economies since last November (151 nations came forward with such plans in Glasgow). The G7 group of the world’s richest countries issued a statement at the end of May committing to “achieving predominantly decarbonised electricity sectors by 2035” and, repeating similar language to the Glasgow Pact, to take “concrete and timely steps towards the goal of an eventual phase-out of domestic unabated coal power generation”. The declaration was welcomed by campaigners, but “predominantly” and “eventual” are hardly commensurate with trying to save the human race from extinction.
Sharma, like Lee, insists on the need to look at the bigger, longer-term picture. The war in Ukraine has made countries around the world understand they are “vulnerable if they rely on fossil fuels controlled by a hostile country”, Sharma added. Countries are united in the view that “climate and environment security is absolutely synonymous with energy and national security. I cannot overstate that,” he insisted. His view, like that of many politicians, seems to be that encouraging countries in Africa or the Middle East to increase their oil and gas output to compensate for Russian supplies is not a problem in the short term. The energy transition was “never about flicking the switch off overnight”, said Sharma, defending the UK’s long-term “direction of travel”.
The rub is that new pipelines, oil and gas fields or LNG terminals could lock countries into a continued reliance on fossil fuels for years to come. Such infrastructure is incompatible with climate goals and could leave investors with worthless assets if governments stick to 2050 net zero emissions plans. At the same time, Western countries continue to call on developing nations to focus on renewables to power their development. The veteran Cop observer Alden Meyer, from the British think tank E3G, suggests this “bipolar” attitude is leading to accusations of hypocrisy from less developed countries. Such splits will not help climate diplomacy in Egypt.
The role China decides to play at Cop27 will also be important. Xi Jinping, who did not attend Cop26, will have his eyes on the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which looks set to be held around the same time as the climate talks. And while Europe and the US have, until now, financed climate action in poorer nations, there is increasing pressure on China, the world’s second-largest economy, which has traditionally placed itself with developing countries in climate negotiations, to start to pay its share. “There is a huge food fight brewing,” said Meyer, over which countries should pay for loss and damage caused by extreme weather.
“We’re now at the grubbier part of the energy transition,” explained one climate diplomat. “We have to make some hard choices; there will be steps forward and back.” Change is rarely linear and never before have governments tried to instigate a global transformation at this scale or speed. Research in the journal Nature shows that there is already a high (42 per cent) chance the Earth is destined for 1.5°C of warming, even if no more emissions were released from today. Carbon dioxide emissions from energy rose by 6 per cent in 2021, rebounding massively after Covid, to 36.3 billion tonnes, their highest ever level. Too much back-tracking will lead to the worst rhetorical predictions becoming reality.