• Oct 29, 2021
  • Insights

COP26: Getting past the ‘Blah Blah Blah’ and to Net Zero by 2050

Written by Velma McColl. Published by Policy Magazine.

Climate change is a human problem. Hundreds of decisions that we make at home, at work and the rest of our lives result in greenhouse gases concentrating in the atmosphere and heating the planet. As we start making more and more choices as citizens that reduce and eliminate carbon and methane, we accelerate our ability to address our shared planetary challenge of reducing the impacts of climate change.

This is true for each of us individually and at every organizing unit we humans have, whether community, city, province, state, nation, company, sector, interest group. We’re all affected and our lives are interdependent. No one can solve climate change alone — just as no one could solve the COVID pandemic alone. As Barack Obama said in 2014 in defining his administration’s approach to climate change, clean energy and jobs transition, we need “all of the above” solutions.

This is what we will be watching over the next two weeks in Glasgow, Scotland where the UK government – and Prime Minister Boris Johnson himself – are calling on the world to bring their “all of the above” commitments to the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26).

Nearly all the countries of the world, 197 nations in total, are gathering to report on their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction efforts since the Paris Agreement in 2015, spell out whether they will ratchet up their national efforts to move the planet to net zero by 2050 and negotiate global systems for financing, emissions trading and border adjustments to support climate action around the world.

After a year of coastal flooding, forest fires, heat waves and loss of natural habitats and species, it is well understood that everyone has to do more – and faster. In Paris and at these climate summits since then, the world has committed to take actions to limit the global temperature increase in this century to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, while pursuing the means to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees. The scientists on the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have told everyone that a 45 per cent reduction in GHG emissions by 2030 was the only way to meet this goal.

Many people wonder what these global summits are for, and whether they are effective given that it took more than 20 years to get a truly global agreement on climate change in Paris (COP21) in 2015.

Greta Thunberg and others dismiss these conferences as global gabfests and “blah-blah-blah”.  There is no question that global diplomacy does not move at the speed of sound, nor even at the necessary speed to address climate change. The truth is that we can only address global challenges together.

The first 20 years of negotiations were about proving that we will only be effective if all countries do their part – both the developed world and the developing world, the global north and the global south. Because we are solving a problem that exists today and will exist into the future, we need solutions for today that will matter well into the future. That requires changes in investments we make today and well into the future.

After a year of coastal flooding, forest fires, heat waves and loss of natural habitats and species, it is well understood that everyone has to do more – and faster.

We are solving a challenge that exists not just today but for generations to come. Our children, our grandchildren; their children and their grandchildren. Which is kind of Greta’s point, but also why net zero by 2050 is not blah-blah-blah. It’s about changing the trajectory of our thinking, our investments, our governments and our decisions to match the pace, scale and urgency of climate change.

So, as we are watching from home or there on the ground (this is COP #10 for me), we should be watching for whether Glasgow delivers two things – serious national commitments from every country along with their report card of what they have done since Paris and how countries are agreeing to reach net zero by 2050 by building the investments and systems that will allow us to act together, faster.

COP26 is nested in another UN initiative linked to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that make the decade from 2020 to 2030 a decade of action and urgency. If we don’t bend the emissions curve by 2030, we’re hooped and will make things so much harder and so much worse for the next generation. Which is another reason why we hear calls for intergenerational justice and why the voices of young people are getting louder, more visible and more impatient. We’re messing with their future.

Britain has taken its climate leadership seriously and has enlisted Italy as chair of the G20 and the United States under President Joe Biden to press countries to up their game from the Paris Agreement. More than 130 world leaders will be in Glasgow to defend their countries’ climate change policies.

This approach of opening with demonstrated political will from world leaders’ mirrors what was done in Paris, which ultimately resulted in a successful global agreement. Canada has committed to 40-45 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 (a minimum of a 10 percent increase from its 30 percent goal in Paris) and to reaching net-zero by 2050. The jump in ambition is larger for the US. They committed to a 26 percent reduction in Paris and under the Biden administration are bringing that  commitment to a 50 – 52 percent reduction by 2030.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson will all be in Glasgow and will be actively involved in the negotiations. Canada had an extra year (after the original COP26 was cancelled during the pandemic) to increase its investments in technology, energy efficiency, electrification of vehicles and to pass net-zero legislation in June 2021.

We have a solid story to tell, and with the new target for 2030 will have more to do in key sectors including oil and gas, electricity and buildings. We also have some big decisions to make on managing an energy transition for our diverse country.

We should be watching for whether Glasgow delivers two things – serious national commitments from every country along with their report card of what they have done since Paris and how countries are agreeing to reach net zero by 2050.

As we saw in the recent election, the politics of climate change matter more each year with key demographics. Opposition leaders, including Elizabeth May and Jagmeet Singh, will be in Glasgow, as are the premiers of Quebec and Newfoundland, representatives from BC, Alberta and Ontario and a whole range of Indigenous, business and civil society leaders.

The energy transition and climate solutions are a post-partisan challenge for the country. Despite efforts across several parliaments, national emissions have stayed at roughly the same level since 2005 (730 Mt). For an increasingly informed and concerned Canadian public, the only metric that matters in Glasgow and for all future UNFCCC meetings is whether any government can deliver results, with GHG emissions going down consistently each year.

The other key place that Canada has played an important role is on financing – for governments and in the private sector.

Mobilizing private finance is also seen as one of the most important mechanisms to move both developed and developing countries toward the net zero 2050 goals. The Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ), mobilized by former Bank of Canada and Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, is a main feature of COP26. If the Alliance’s 160 leading financial institutions – representing some $70 trillion in assets – follow through on pledges to align investment portfolios with net-zero goals, it could bring investment into emission reduction and adaptation to an estimated $4 trillion a year.

As well, wealthy countries are stepping up to increase financing to help developing countries transition to clean energy and adapt to climate change. Under the co-leadership of Canada’s Wilkinson and Germany’s state secretary for the environment, Jochen Flasbarth, July’s $20 billion gap in meeting a Paris pledge of $100 billion in support has apparently been eliminated, as is set to be announced in Glasgow.

This would be a major win since this concept of global equalization funds to bring all countries into the same low-carbon world has been around since well before Paris and has been fiercely debated.

Climate change is a human problem. Whether we like it or not, if we’re going to deal with this global, intergenerational, tough-as-nails problem, humans are going to have to figure out how to act together. That’s the purpose of COP26. Let’s see if we can now inject the necessary urgency to bring emissions down within a single generation.

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