There is a lot riding on COP26. The last decade was the hottest on record. Global greenhouse gas emissions need to fall by 7.6% every year to 2030, but there is no sign even of emissions peaking in the next few years.
As host nation UK is under heightened pressure to demonstrate credible and consistent policies to deliver on its net zero target. However, tensions are already emerging at the heart of Government policy with Air Passenger Duty being reviewed as part of the rescue package for troubled regional airline operator Flybe.
Fundamental changes are needed in how climate policy is taken forward, including a review of the whole international policy framework. The current Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) are inadequate and would lead to global warming of 3 degrees by 2100. Even if all NDCs are fully implemented, the carbon budget for 1.5 degrees will be exhausted before 2030.
One way to accelerate decarbonisation could be for countries to join together into blocs and set up a common cap and reduction targets. The EU is a leading example of such a bloc. The European Green Deal commits the EU to be carbon neutral by 2050 and proposes a carbon border adjustment levy to ensure the price of imports reflects carbon content. How the UK navigates its relationship with the EU on climate policy as it leaves will be of critical importance, especially in relation to standards for products and regulations.
More fundamentally global agreement will require the international community to coalesce around core principles, including how countries should measure their carbon contributions and the relationship between decarbonisation and growth. The world today is a very different place to the world in 1992 when the Kyoto Protocol was established.
To begin with countries must report emissions based on carbon consumption. Dieter Helm argues that the big mistake of Kyoto was that it established reporting based on carbon production not consumption, which conveniently places the burden of emissions reductions on those countries which produce energy-intensive goods rather than those which consume them. Kyoto also didn’t take account of the biggest growing source of emissions: China, India and other developing countries.
In Burn out: the endgame for fossil fuels, Helm shows that world depends more on coal today than in 1980. China’s economy doubles every 7 to 10 years and has 80% coal in its electricity generation mix. The export orientation of China’s growth means that carbon embedded in its exports ends up being carbon consumption by the EU and US. Oil is a long way from being toppled from its dominance of transport.
Sharp focus must be on tackling market failure. A strong, predictable and rising carbon price is needed. The UN Secretary-General’s report on COP25 highlights that global investment in green energy and infrastructure would need to outweigh fossil fuel investments by 2025. We must stop subsidising fossil fuels and support divestment from fossil fuels.
The question of equity must be at the heart of international climate discussion. It is important for both moral and political reasons that wealthier countries decarbonise more quickly. In Why are we waiting? Nicholas Stern argues that cooperative action should be based around the notion of “equitable access to sustainable development”, with strong emphasis on co-benefits, “better growth” and a just transition.
Stern argues that in some of the best performing economies growth is being decoupled from carbon emissions. A compact transit-orientated model for urban development in the world’s largest 724 cities could reduce GHG by 1.5 billion tonnes CO2 per year by 2030, mostly by reducing personal vehicle use in favour of more efficient modes.
There may be differing views on whether it is ultimately possible to decouple economic growth from its damaging environmental impacts. What is crystal clear is that profound structural changes are underway in the world economy.
The balance of economic activity has shifted towards emerging markets and developing countries. Global population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, 6 billion of these in cities. Pressure on natural resources and climate will intensify, increasingly threatening prosperity and growth if we continue with old technologies.
The story of alternative low-carbon pathways is very exciting given the phenomenal technological progress in recent times. These must be embraced. In Zero Carbon Britain: Rising to the Climate Emergency, the Centre for Advanced Technology argues that we already have the tools and technology needed efficiently to power the UK with 100% renewable energy.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. The Committee on Climate Change has called on Boris Johnson to use his large parliamentary majority to ensure the UK leads the “defining global challenge of our age”.
The new grassroots leadership on climate change is creating space for governments to be bolder. Half of UK universities confirmed last week that they have committed to divest from fossil fuels. Students and academic protests have successfully forced the hand of investment endowment committees. This is a sign of things to come.
Last week it was announced that outgoing Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney will be the Prime Minister’s Finance Adviser for COP26. A very interesting appointment which points to an emerging strategy to use UK’s global leadership in financial services to address the climate crisis by transforming the financial system.