COP26: A degree of success?
Still achievable – but urgent action is required to avoid catastrophe.
This was the overwhelming verdict on the prospect of keeping global warming to within 1.5o Celsius in the coming decades, following November’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, UK.
Depending upon which commentators one chooses to heed, it was a forum which achieved as much as humanly possible or hardly anything at all. Such polarization is perhaps inevitable when we are dealing with the global politics around the future of our one and only planet.
What is without doubt, however, is that the resolutions that came out of COP26 do represent progress – unprecedented progress – albeit at a trajectory that will need increasing to ensure a sustainable and survivable world for all.
Global action is unfolding with far greater urgency than in the aftermath of 2015’s Paris Agreement, the previous international treaty on climate change. Then, despite a temperature rise limit of 1.5o Celsius being agreed, pledges from individual countries were subsequently deemed inadequate and the agreement’s effectiveness was neutered by lack of legally binding terms.
Although the intervening six years of inaction have rendered the 1.5o C target tenuous at best, COP26 addresses many of these criticisms with a series of concrete policy announcements that will have a tangible effect on global temperatures.
We should not be entirely surprised at this newfound focus.
The world of 2021 is subtly yet significantly different to the world of 2015. Figureheads have emerged to give voice to those usually denied political leverage – including the young and the less affluent.
Countries spanning the wealth spectrum have endured repeated extreme weather events, shifting the debate from the hypothetical to the everyday reality. When COP26 convened, the whole world was not just watching . . . but expecting.
As such, COP26 represents a line in the sand, the moment when diverse countries around the world came together to declare a coordinated offensive against climate change.
A series of big decisions emanating from Glasgow brought the environmental emergency firmly into the headlines.
Highlights of game-changing conference
Coal – responsible for some 40% of all CO2 emissions – prompted some of the most frenzied negotiations at COP26. To the relief of many vulnerable nations, attendees emerged from the conference with a solid commitment to reduce global dependency on this high-pollution fossil fuel.
Much of Europe and North America agreed to axe financial support for overseas fossil fuel projects within 12 months, adding to China’s recent commitment to cease funding foreign coal projects.
Although the wording of the agreement was diluted late in the day from ‘phasing out’ to ‘phasing down’ coal, the pact still symbolizes coal’s ‘death knell’, according to UK host Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
But just as coal is not 100% responsible for global heating, nor can its decline singlehandedly solve the problem.
Methane – more than 80 times more dangerous than CO2 as a greenhouse gas, shoulders considerable blame too. Indeed, eliminating methane has been identified by the UN as the single fastest way to slow down warming this decade, and could cancel out 0.2 o C of heating by mid-century.
Fittingly, more than 100 countries (including major emitters Canada, Brazil and Nigeria) signed up to a Global Methane Pledge at the summit, vowing to cut methane emissions by 30+% over the next decade.
Trees, nature’s own instrument for removing CO2 from the atmosphere, will enjoy more protection following COP26.
Deforestation – more than 100 countries, encompassing 85% of the world’s forests – including Brazil, home of the critical Amazon rainforest – vowed to halt and even reverse deforestation by 2030.
This commitment is being backed by US$ 19.2 billion of public and private finds, some of which will help tackle wildfires, support indigenous communities, and restore damaged land.
In a surprise move, the world’s two largest polluters, the USA and China, so often geopolitical rivals, unveiled a joint declaration to work together over the next decade on strategies to keep a 1.5o C temperature rise viable.
Respective leaders Joe Biden and Xi Jinping agreed to collaborate on mutual decarbonization, on methane, and on the transition to clean energy.
The unexpected demonstration of solidarity was described by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as “an important step in the right direction”.
The other major conference breakthrough focused on helping poorer countries make the switch to green energy and mitigate the impacts of climate change. This is traditionally a divisive area, with mature economies somewhat flirting with hypocrisy by urging developing nations to sidestep the very fossil fuels which guaranteed their own ascendancy in generations past.
A proposed trillion dollar fund from 2025, therefore, should go some way to offsetting this imbalance. Highlights of the fund include:
- The US pledging US$ 11.4 billion a year by 2024
- Japan offering US$ 10 billion over the next five years to reduce emissions in Asia
- The UK doubling climate finance to US$ 11.6 billion over the next four years
- Canada doubling climate finance to US$ 5.3 billion over the same period.
Developing countries will be able to draw on these funds to construct coastal defenses, or design drought-resistant agriculture systems, or invest in renewable energy sources such as hydro, wind and solar energy.
Also unveiled during the conference was a US$ 8.5 billion international grant to assist South Africa – currently one of the world’s largest coal polluters – to boost renewables and stop burning fossil fuels. Such proactivity makes sound financial sense, given that every cent invested now in offsetting global heating will prevent far greater costs later if climate change is left unchecked.
Within the private sector, nearly 500 banks, insurers and pension funds agreed to focus their combined US$ 130 trillion of investable assets (some 40% of the world’s total) on clean tech and renewable energy, aligning their corporate priorities with those all-important 2050 net-zero goals.
COP26 also demonstrated the power of cross-culture innovation, as India and the UK launched a joint project to create a solar grid connecting countries around the world. The so-called Green Grids Initiative has the potential to transfer solar power from one country to another as the sun rises and sets, allowing round-the-clock green energy, even at nighttime.
With such a flurry of deal-making and outside-the-box thinking, why wasn’t everyone cheering the game-changing developments at COP26? Could it be that the scale of the problem outweighs even the most dramatic resolutions agreed at Glasgow?
Shortfalls mean fightback is just beginning
To the frustration of many, COP26 ultimately failed to secure sufficient nationally determined contributions (NDCs) to hold global heating within a guaranteed 1.5o rise or less.
This, despite a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stressing that exceeding 1.5o C will trigger irreversible effects such as faster ice cap melting, multi-species extinctions, the inundation of small islands and coastal areas, and frequent extreme droughts, floods, heatwaves and storms.
It is a particularly emotive issue given that future climate suffering will be disproportionately shared, with the conference hearing that a 1.5o global temperature rise would actually mean a 3o C rise for parts of Africa.
Several parts of the deal lacked the participation of key members. The scheme to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030, for instance, does not currently have the backing of big emitters China, Russia and India.
Despite the global shift from fossil fuels, China mined a record 12 million tons of coal on a single day during the conference November.
Worldwide, major emissions cuts are still needed to limit global heating to 1.5oC. Even if the various pledges announced at COP26 are adhered to without slippage or ‘greenwashing’, the revised figures for climate change suggest a likely temperature rise of up to 2.4o C this century – far above the relative safety net of 1.5 o C.
Politicians and scientists alike know that 2.4o C is unsustainable, which is why the real crowning achievement of COP26 might not be a particular resolution agreed at the conference, but rather a seed sewn for later? The 197 signatories of the Glasgow Climate Pact – as COP26’s treaty is known – have agreed to reconvene next year at COP27 in Egypt and present to the world revised emissions targets which, it is hoped, will bring the world closer to the ideal 1.5o C target.
As such, COP26 can be viewed not as an endpoint but rather as a vital stepping-stone.
What can help us bridge the gap between success and failure? Here, the private sector has a vital role to play.
Private sector helps keep 1.5o C alive
While it is undoubtedly a positive step that financial houses have pledged to invest trillions of dollars’ worth of assets in schemes promoting ‘net zero’ outcomes, the private sector is more than just a vessel for the dispersal of funds – it can also be an incubator of innovation and a proving ground for new technologies.
Private businesses – like Abdul Latif Jameel – can help to catalyze both business and government investment into solutions to combat climate change and accelerate a green recovery. Organizations like the Clean, Renewable and Environmental Opportunities Syndicate (CREO Syndicate), of which Fady Jameel is a member, are already helping to change attitudes and explore private investment opportunities across the sustainable investment market.
As the CREO explains in a white paper, “Overall interest in sustainable investing is growing as many institutional investors and wealth owners re-evaluate their exposure to fossil fuels and as political discourse on climate risks builds.”
Abdul Latif Jameel is one of the companies leading from the front when it comes to eco-innovation and climate action, as outlined in our Abdul Latif Jameel Perspectives article, part of a showcase article series examining how the Jameel Family’s activities are aligned and contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Ensuring affordable and clean energy for all, in particular, is one of our corporate goals, something we strive for daily and support with ambitious commitment.
Via our flagship renewables energy business Fotowatio Renewable Ventures (FRV) we are steering an ever-expanding portfolio of clean energy projects throughout the Middle East, Australia, Europe and Latin America.
Traditional renewable energy will only get us so far, however. For it to be truly sustainable, it needs to be able to provide power all day and all night – which is where batteries come in to play, enabling energy to be supplied to the grid even when the sun isn’t shining or the wind blowing.
FRV has a dedicated team – FRV-X – focusing on advanced energy technologies, such as battery storage. Its revolutionary electricity storage solutions will ensure 24/7 green power for all the communities we serve, with one landmark project at Holes Bay , Dorset and Contego Sussex, in the UK already operational, and a further, to be the UK’s largest at Clay Tye, Essex, currently under development.
“We are proud to be at the heart of the battle, driving forward a new vision for the world’s energy landscape and transferring world-class skills, knowledge and best practice to the communities in which we operate,” says Daniel Sagi-Vela, CEO of FRV.
Our other research investments demonstrate a holistic approach to mitigating the challenges of living in a world subject to climate change.
The team at Almar Water Solutions is dedicated to full water cycle management, producing water for human and industrial consumption via groundbreaking technologies such as desalination and treatment plants.
MIT’s water and food systems lab, J-WAFS, co-founded by Community Jameel in 2014, researches techniques for ensuring safe, consistent and ecologically friendly supplies of vital resources for an ever-expanding population. And another Community Jameel/MIT collaboration, the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), aims to alleviate global poverty by ensuring that those disproportionately affected by issues such as climate change benefit from science-led policymaking.
Also at COP26 in Glasgow, Community Jameel and its partners participated in a range of meetings to advance progress in key areas of adaptation to climate change, including food security and health.
The Jameel Observatory for Food Security Early Action and CLIMAVORE, a project by 2021 Turner Prize nominees Cooking Sections, hosted a meeting at Goals House in Glasgow on the impact of climate change on food security in fragile communities, and how food systems affect our climate. Speakers included Elizabeth Adobi Okwuosa, research officer and soil scientist at Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation (KALTRO); Kundhavi Kadiresan, managing director for global engagement and innovation at CGIAR; Gwen Hines, CEO, Save the Children; Professor Alan Duncan of the University of Edinburgh and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI); Professor Julie Fitzpatrick OBE, chief scientific adviser at the Scottish Government; Cooking Sections’ Alon Schwabe and Daniel Fernández Pascual; and the director of Community Jameel, George Richards.
In the Saudi pavilion, Community Jameel and AEON Collective co-hosted a panel discussion to share interim findings from an ongoing study into the impact of climate change on health in the Gulf Region. Moderated by Princess Mashael AlShalan, with remarks by Fady Jameel, the panel comprised Professor Elfatih Eltahir, head of the Eltahir Research Group at MIT; Claire Walsh from J-PAL; Greg Sixt, from J-WAFS at MIT; Ana Margarida Costa, from the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology, (KAUST) and Maimoonah Al Khalil, director of the National Observatory for Women, Princess Nourah University.
COP26 signposts the road ahead
The climate crisis is an existential threat to our way of life; and perhaps our species itself – it is an issue that affects us all, whatever our income level and wherever we call home.
Experts agree that emissions must be slashed by almost half this decade to keep alive COP26’s stated goal of a world no more than 1.5o C warmer than pre-industrial levels. Luckily we have both momentum and economics on our side, with recent evidence proving that in many countries renewable energy is now cheaper than fossil fuel alternatives.
“COP26 might not have satisfied the expectations of all scientists and climate campaigners at Glasgow, but that was never a realistic expectation. Despite some setbacks, it is undeniably a better outcome than many expected, and provides a powerful springboard for more stringent environmental commitments in the near future,” says Fady Jameel, Deputy President and Vice Chairman, Abdul Latif Jameel.
“National pledges, combined with leveraging the power of private capital, can move us closer to that elusive 1.5o warming goal. COP26 got this journey underway. It is now up to all of us to ensure we reach our ultimate destination.”