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Extract New Scientist: Countdown to COP26

I don't share every one of these New Scientist newsletters - but thought I'd share this one. It had the sub-title 'Is the UK net zero plan good enough for COP26?'

Adam Vaughan wrote: In international climate talks, “do as I do” carries a lot more currency than “do as I say”. That’s why the publication of the UK’s net zero strategy this week is so important.

The strategy is a blueprint for how the UK government plans to reach net zero emissions by 2050, covering everything from using more wind and nuclear power to incentives for phasing out petrol and diesel cars. Crucially, it includes interim milestones on the road to the middle of the century.

The document is late and imperfect. But it does mean the UK, as host of the COP26 summit in Glasgow, is ahead of most countries in explaining how it plans to cut carbon emissions.

To date, most countries have been far better at setting targets for cutting emissions by 2030 and 2050 than explaining how they intend to deliver them. Only last month, the UK came in for flak over a lack of policies. The new strategy goes a long way to addressing that. “It shows that the UK is taking a serious approach to making interim plans to reach net zero in 2050,” says Alyssa Gilbert at Imperial College London.

She says while there are rightly concerns about some policies in the plan, and whether they have enough money behind them, the overall picture is good. “The level of planning that’s in this approach will go well beyond what there is in [the plans] many, many of the other countries will be bringing to COP,” she says.

Another thing the strategy brings to COP26 is the “analytical approach”, as Gilbert describes it, that the UK has taken to cutting emissions. That means the structures the UK has, such as the Climate Change Act, the 2008 law that makes domestic carbon targets binding, and the Climate Change Committee, the independent body of experts that advises the UK government on the levels of those targets - and how to meet them.

Put together, the strategy’s approach and measures also serve as a reminder to other countries that they need to better align their long-term and short-term climate goals (an issue the outcome of COP26 might address). Take oil- and gas-rich Russia. It recently pledged to be carbon neutral by 2060. Yet its 2030 plan is rated “critically insufficient” for meeting the Paris Agreement aim of holding global warming to below 1.5°C.

The UK’s net zero strategy should also serve as a spur for countries on the verge of issuing better emissions reductions plans for 2030, which include China, India, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. “This is the UK showing we’ve done it, we’re not just suggesting that you do it,” says Gilbert.

None of this is by accident. UK officials make it explicit. “This strategy sets out our approach to reaching net zero emissions and securing the vast wider benefits as we transition to a greener, more sustainable future,” they write. “We urge other countries to follow this example with ambitious commitments at COP26 and detailed plans to deliver on them.”

The strategy also presents the road to net zero as a chance to gain a competitive economic advantage, and to export green skills and technology to other countries. Part of the reason for that is to make all countries’ economies lower carbon, to avoid the risk of so-called carbon leakage, the prospect of a firm relocating from one country with green regulations to another with more lax ones (that’s why the EU is creating a carbon border tax ). All this international focus is positive, says Gilbert. It’s also useful ahead of COP26, which some UK government figures privately liken to being partly a trade fair.

There’s a whole separate story to be written on the strategy’s shortcomings. It fails to spell out any of the numbers for the carbon savings its measure will deliver. One group, the UK Fires Consortium , estimates the strategy will only deliver 16 per cent of the 45 per cent cut in emissions needed between 2018 and 2030. It relies on technologies that remain unproven at scale, including greener fuels for planes and methods for removing CO2 from the atmosphere. It omits key ideas such as frequent flyer levies and eating less meat, which were briefly floated in a separate government document before being removed.

Moreover, the plan may simply not have enough money behind it. “The fundamental thing is because the government doesn’t recognise at anything like the sufficient scale the need for public investment in this decisive decade, I think the transition won’t happen urgently enough,” says Ed Miliband of the opposition Labour party.

Despite its weaknesses, when it comes to COP26, the net zero strategy does enough to tick the box of showing the UK is acting at home. And for a climate summit that has a tonne of other thorny issues and possible flashpoints to navigate, that is a good start.


Good COP Narendra Modi. The Indian prime minister is going to Glasgow. With India on the verge of producing a new climate plan and the country being the world’s fourth biggest emitter, that’s good news. More than 120 world leaders have now confirmed they will attend. The Queen. The UK’s monarch inadvertently publicly vented her “irritation” at world leaders who “talk but don’t do” on climate change. Bad COP Vladimir Putin. The Russian president says he’s not coming. And he’s still not given any detail of how the hydrocarbon-rich country will deliver a recent promise to be carbon neutral by 2060. Jair Bolsonaro. The Brazilian president’s government was one of several to put forward unscientific and openly self-interested comments on meat – others did the same on fossil fuels - for an upcoming climate science report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

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