Another share from Adam Vaughan, author of the Fix the Planet newsletter from New Scientist, this one on the day that we host the Shaftesbury 2030: Choosing our future event at Shaftesbury School. In this piece Adam works hard to find some positive signs of progress ...
Hi. I can’t believe it’s been six months since I bumped into China’s chief climate negotiator at my hotel, as I headed out to run alongside the Clyde river in Glasgow, UK. I also can’t believe how little climate action has happened since the landmark COP26 summit. Fatalism and hand-wringing isn’t the Fix the Planet way, however, so this week I’ve taken stock to measure progress since the Glasgow Climate Pact. Whatever happened to all those lofty promises about new emissions plans, new money and winding down fossil fuels?
COP26 president Alok Sharma six months ago, in Glasgow. Photo: Kiara Worth/UN Climate Change
Why are we talking about this now? On Monday, COP26 president Alok Sharma returned to the conference centre that hosted the summit to warn the world that it would be a “monstrous act of self-harm” if we collectively fail to deliver on the promises made there. They include countries this year coughing up better national climate plans for this decade, in line with the world’s goal of stopping global temperatures rising by more than 1.5°C, the “phasing down” of coal, plus boosting the transfer of climate-related finance from rich to poor countries. As well as Sharma’s speech - more of that in a moment - almost 50 countries met in Copenhagen, Denmark, last week to discuss bolstering action on climate change. So what progress can Sharma point to? I asked him for three examples. “I think there are a number of things that happened that are positive,” he says. Sharma, who jokingly referred to himself as “shepherd in chief”, says that every time he meets governments, he reminds them that they signed up to the Glasgow Climate Pact. One example of progress he points to is that more than 10 national climate plans (NDCs in the jargon) have been submitted since the summit. He also says that “quite a number” of governments represented in Copenhagen told him they are looking at issuing a new NDC this year. Thirdly, Germany and Canada agreed at last week’s meeting to provide an update on the rich world’s broken promise of delivering $100 billion of finance a year to lower-income countries to deal with climate change. The new climate plans stuff is good, no? I wish it was, but it isn’t really. A total of 11 countries have submitted NDCs since the Glasgow summit. But COP26 itself was meant to be a deadline for the 2015 Paris Agreement’s “ratchet mechanism”, a first point at which countries upgrade the inadequate plans they put forward in 2015. Some countries did come forward with fairly bold blueprints: notably the European Union (EU), South Korea, the UK and the US. But most didn’t, leaving the world on course for around 2.4°C of warming , rather than 1.5°C. That is why one of the headline pledges of the COP26 deal was to “revisit and strengthen” those plans in 2022, so that they are “aligned” with the 1.5°C goal. Still following? Well, the problem is that those 11 countries’ NDCs are just formal submissions of what was promised at or before Glasgow, not useful new ambition. So we still haven’t moved the dial on our future thermostat. “The expectation is that all countries, especially major emitters, strengthen their 2030 climate commitments this year,” says Jamal Srouji at the US-based World Resources Institute, a non-profit organisation. “So far, no major emitting country has brought forward a strengthened climate commitment.” As he points out, Brazil submitted one in April, but it is no more ambitious than the one the country put forward way back in 2015. The spotlight now is on those countries that failed to shift their position last year , he says: namely Australia, Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico. There are some faint hopes. Sharma says the UK is looking at strengthening its plan. Egypt, as host of the next big climate summit in Sharm El-Sheikh in November, is expected to deliver a bolder plan. How are we getting on with the money? High-income countries agreed in Glasgow that by 2025 they must double finance to help vulnerable countries adapt to climate change. “Thus far, too little has been achieved on doubling climate adaptation finance,” said Sharma in his speech. Plus it is far from clear when the promise of $100 billion a year that was meant to kick in from 2020 will be met, despite US special climate envoy John Kerry saying at COP26 that it would become a reality in 2022. Is that it? Behind the scenes, there is talk of a new “just transition deal” modelled on one where richer countries last year agreed to pay South Africa $8.5 billion to get it to wean itself off coal power more rapidly. There is a lot of chatter, but nothing is public or official yet. Vietnam and Indonesia are often named as possible candidates for a deal, and it might not involve coal, but something else that cuts emissions: it could be around Indonesia averting deforestation , for example. Why are we making so little progress? Two reasons, and they are linked. One is the war in Ukraine, the other is the cost-of-living crisis affecting many countries as the prices of food, energy and other commodities soar. People are also still dealing with a pandemic. “Now, as a result, climate is understandably no longer on the front pages as it was in the lead-up to, and at, COP26,” said Sharma in his speech. “The big issue on the climate front at the moment is Ukraine. It’s really stealing all the political attention away from everything else,” says Carne Ross at the think tank E3G. Surely things are looking up for the COP27 summit, aren’t they? I wish. Pete Betts at the London School of Economics says it is unlikely we will get major new NDCs in the run-up to COP27. “All the signals are that it's not going to happen in Sharm El-Sheikh, unfortunately,” says Betts, a former chief climate negotiator for the EU and the UK. Those close to the international climate talks process are privately managing expectations down too. They say the best we might hope for is some countries tinkering with sector targets, such as transport or energy, in their NDCs. The Egyptian government, for its part, is hoping to frame the summit around issues of climate change finance. Sharma, meanwhile, used his speech to repeatedly call on countries to upgrade their NDCs by a deadline of 23 September. As he told me: “The key issue now is to pick up the pace.”