Hall or nothing

Next week there will be what’s billed as “a make or break moment in history”, a summit of world leaders to try to stop climate breakdown. Roger Ratcliffe asks experts what needs to come out of it

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On an old dockland site next to the River Clyde in Glasgow sprawls a modern complex known as the Scottish Exhibition Centre, or SEC, its centrepiece a huge concert arena that opened in 2013 with a rocking performance by Rod Stewart.

Without having China on board it will be impossible to achieve the 1.5C target.

The most popular event staged so far has been the Insane Wrestling Championships, said to be the greatest show in wrestling history since Big Daddy fought Giant Haystacks at Wembley in 1981. Next week, though, the SEC hosts an even bigger gathering. At least 30,000 people from over 200 countries will attend a wrestling match of a vastly different kind as world leaders grapple with the problem of global warming. Through 12 days of discussions they will thrash out ways of stopping the seemingly unstoppable rise in temperatures that is held responsible for the growing number of catastrophic floods, storms and wildfires.

As happened in previous talks, the COP26 summit may simply produce a lot of hot air about the accelerating dangers posed by climate change yet result in lukewarm promises to take action. Or will agreement finally be reached on massive cuts in the use of fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas, which emit greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and heat up the earth’s atmosphere?

Environmentalists say it is our last chance to bring climate change under control, although the climate activist Greta Thunberg has already dismissed the participants’ talk of the need for action as “blah blah blah”. She told the Guardian earlier this month she expected no more than symbolic actions and creative accounting from politicians. “We can have as many COPs as we want,” she said, “but nothing real will come out of it.”

Certainly, in the run-up to COP26 the omens were not good, with big carbon emitters like China, India and Russia possibly not even participating.

Climate scientists are trying to be more positive, however, and although what’s being demanded sounds modest – action to limit the global rise in temperature to 2C and ideally 1.5C compared to the level of pre-industrial times – it will be a massive task. They believe the earth can just about cope with a 1.5C increase but current rates of emissions suggest we are heading for a potentially disastrous rise of 2.7C by mid century.

At the moment the rise currently stands at 1.2C and we can already see its dramatic impact on world weather. If that increase doubles, as is feared, then many places would become uninhabitable.

The Glasgow COP26 gathering is where countries that signed up to the 1.5C commitment in Paris in 2015 have to finally spell out how they will do it by producing legally binding action plans called nationally determined contributions (NDCs).

To anyone who isn’t a climate scientist, 1.5C seems low to the point of trivial. For example, when this article was being written the outdoor temperature was 12C, but a few days earlier it had been 18C without any weather extremes. So how can such a small rise in global temperatures trigger potentially disastrous weather events?

Amanda Maycock, director of the Institute for Atmospheric and Climate Science at Leeds University, says it has been shown the climate gets “rocket boosts” from a relatively small rise in global temperatures, and these have a disproportionate impact on extreme weather events.

“Without climate change we would still observe periods of hot weather and periods of heavy rain, but now they are being exacerbated substantially.”

As one of the authors of a recent UN report on climate change she says: “The 1.5C level is likely to be reached or exceeded in about ten years from now, or the middle of the 2030s, and if we want to avoid that the only way we can do so is to make emissions reductions at a pace and scale we could never have imagined before.

“The science is perfectly clear. There’s nowhere to hide. We know that the climate has changed and is changing, we know that it’s humans that are doing it, we know that as long as we continue to use fossil fuels this will continue and worsen, and as the temperature gets higher the impacts across the world in terms of weather extremes and sea level rises will also worsen.”

Once we get to a warming level of 2C or higher, she says, we reach the point at which the risk across the world would become unmanageable for many people, particularly those on lower incomes in developing countries where they don’t have the resources to cope with the impact of climate change.

In the UK as in the rest of the world, says Maycock, towns and cities were all established centuries ago for life in a climate that no longer exists. Some may soon be prone to severe flooding while older houses designed for a colder climate will be unsuitable for the predicted frequent heatwaves that will see temperatures rise to the mid-30Cs.

The success or failure of COP26 may ultimately rest with the line taken by China, where 30 per cent of the world’s fossil fuels are burned.

“As the biggest CO2 emitter its actions will be a critical part of the work to cut global emissions,” Maycock says. “Without having China on board it will be impossible to achieve the 1.5C target and 2C would also be very, very challenging.”

With just a week to go to COP26 the chances of China complying don’t look good, however. Beijing has announced plans to build yet more coal-fired power plants and said it expects its carbon emissions to reach a peak by 2030. A statement talked of the importance of “energy security” after recent blackouts in China, and unless there’s a last-minute change the Chinese president Xi Jinping has decided to stay away from Glasgow. Its belated NDC only emphasised the 2030 target, with few new details.  The Russian president Vladimir Putin had already announced that he won’t be attending.

Hopes for a COP26 breakthrough were further dashed when leaked documents showed that behind the scenes several countries including Japan, Australia, India and Saudi Arabia were trying to tone down a scientific report on how to tackle climate change. The leak revealed that they were lobbying to reduce the conference’s emphasis on moving away from the use of fossil fuels.

According to one document the Saudi oil ministry demanded that the phrase “the need for urgent action” should be eliminated, while a senior Australian government official rejected the need for closing coal-fired power stations. A senior scientist in India – the world’s biggest consumer of coal – warned that coal was likely to remain the mainstay of the country’s energy supply for decades.

As expectations began to lower, former prime minister Gordon Brown criticised Boris Johnson for, as conference host, failing to engage with other countries in advance.

“You’ve got to get the people who are leaders of the country to accept that something has to change,” he told BBC Newsnight. “We have no suggestion that countries are going to be ambitious about their near-term targets. Everybody’s happy to talk about 2050 and 2060 but the real question is what carbon reductions are going to take place between now and 2025 and 2030? If I was prime minister I’d be working on that.”

Brown pointed out that a climate change fund set up in 2009 to provide £100 billion for poorer nations to make the transition to carbon zero technologies had failed to reach anywhere near that figure.

“It’s a one-country one-vote conference… and if I was Boris Johnson I would be making sure now that we have enough promises from the richer countries so that we can keep the poorer countries on board, otherwise people will come to Glasgow believing they are not going to get even something that was promised ten years ago.”

There are fears, too, about the UK’s own commitment to ending reliance on fossil fuels. The government has refused to rule out opening a new coalmine in Cumbria or exploiting the Cambo oilfield to the west of Shetland, and has allowed drilling for oil in the Surrey Hills.

Connor Schwartz, lead climate campaigner with Friends of the Earth, says Glasgow would be the place for the UK to announce the cancellation of these projects and declare there’s no place for new fossil fuel developments in the age of climate breakdown.

“But it’s not just about the UK. We will push the worst impacts onto people around the world who have actually done the least to cause this crisis. The fossil fuel era began in the UK with the industrial revolution, so it’s fitting that the talks are coming back to the birthplace of the problem. It’s up to us to recognise that, and to cough up finance to less wealthy nations so they can adapt to the impact of climate change.”

Schwartz believes that if COP26 seizes the initiative there will be huge benefits on offer, including millions of green jobs, cleaner air and warmer homes through insulation.

But according Dr Maycock we are still a long way from achieving that. Just to get the kind of emissions reductions being asked for, she says, would mean cutting them by the same level we saw during last year’s global lockdown at the start of the pandemic.

“What we are talking about is changes of a similar scale, which would have to be sustained year on year for several decades.”

Question of degrees

Short for Conference of the Parties, COP is the annual meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and this year’s much-heralded gathering in Glasgow is the 26th. The parties referred to are the 200 countries that have pledged to take action to limit global warming.

It was established following a 1992 UN report that found scientific evidence that man-made global warming was creating more frequent extreme weather events such as storms and floods, droughts and wildfires.

Reliance on fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas was blamed. Power stations and factories, vehicle and aircraft engines produce a cocktail of gases, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2). These gases cause what’s known as “the greenhouse effect”, so named because they trap the sun’s heat in the earth’s atmosphere, like the glass roof of a greenhouse. This is disrupting worldwide weather patterns we have depended on for centuries.

It wasn’t until COP21 at Paris in 2015 that countries got serious. The previous two years had been the hottest in human history. Global temperatures were found to be rising twice as fast as in the 1970s. The international treaty agreed to in Paris was to limit a global temperature increase to well below 2C and preferably 1.5C by the year 2050.

And so to Glasgow, where all countries have been asked to submit new long-term goals to limit the rise to 1.5C by greatly reducing the use of fossil fuels.

Their minds will have been concentrated by the list of this year’s extreme weather events, starting in January when Madrid suffered record-breaking blizzards causing £1.2 billion of damage. The same month Storm Christoph brought some of the worst flooding to hit North West England.

Unprecedented floods in New South Wales, Australia, and dust storms in China were followed by the record hottest June day in Moscow’s history and a heatwave across the west side of Canada that produced the country’s highest-ever temperature, 49.6C, and 798 confirmed deaths. Over the US border extreme temperatures saw 364,000 acres of Oregon consumed by wildfires and a staggering 2.5 million acres of California destroyed. At the same time huge areas of Southern Europe were ravaged by fire, claiming lives in Greece, Turkey and Italy. Greece’s second-largest island, Evia, had to be evacuated.

Above: July’s floods in Rech, Germany. Main image: SEC Armadillo, lit up in green Photos: Jennifer Sophie/Thomas Lohnes/Getty

In July flash floods destroyed homes and bridges along the River Ahr, a tributary of the Rhine in Germany, killing at least 220 people after a month’s rainfall fell in a single day. A report by 39 scientists on the catastrophe said the floods had demonstrated that even developed countries were not safe from the severe impacts of extreme weather, which were known to get more frequent with climate change.

Last month the World Meteorological Organisation reported that severe weather caused by climate change had led to a huge increase in natural disasters since 1970, and that 91 per cent of deaths attributed to these disasters were in developed countries.  Wealthy nations were now suffering the frontline effects of climate breakdown, it said.

Pump – up the volume

The government’s long-awaited plan to reach net zero emissions by 2050, published last week, has failed to satisfy climate experts and campaigners.

Desperate to show the world its post-Brexit leadership credentials, Boris Johnson’s government just made the COP26 deadline with a series of policies that it said would support “up to” 440,000 jobs and bring in up to £90 billion in private sector investment by 2030, and lead to a decarbonised power system by 2035 along the way to its final 2050 target.

Speaking in the Commons as the strategy was launched – alongside a plan to decarbonise homes and buildings – energy and climate change minister Greg Hands told MPs: “This is not just an environmental transition. It represents an important economic change too, echoing even the explosion in industry and exports seen in the very first Industrial Revolution over 250 years ago.”

The net zero strategy envisages more state funding for low-carbon technologies including nuclear power, electric vehicles and hydrogen power. There will be funding for sustainable aviation fuel and more money for offshore wind – one of the UK’s low-carbon strengths.

In his foreword to the strategy document, Johnson was characteristically bullish, promising that by 2050 “we will still be driving cars, flying planes and heating our homes, but our cars will be electric gliding silently around our cities, our planes will be zero emission allowing us to fly guilt-free, and our homes will be heated by cheap reliable power drawn from the winds of the North Sea”.

Others were less optimistic.

“This document is more like a pick and mix than the substantial meal that we need to reach net zero,” said Rebecca Newsom, Greenpeace UK’s head of politics. “Extra cash for tree planting and progress on electric vehicles doesn’t make up for the lack of concrete plans to deliver renewables at scale, extra investment in public transport, or a firm commitment to end new oil and gas licences.

“There are only half-hearted policies and funding commitments to decarbonise our draughty homes at the speed necessary, and it fundamentally fails to grapple with the need to reduce our meat and dairy consumption to stop global deforestation.

“With just eight years left to halve global emissions, the government can’t just keep dining out on its ‘ambitious targets’. Until the policy and funding gaps are closed, Boris Johnson’s plea to other countries to deliver on their promises at the climate conference will be easy to ignore.”

Kevin Anderson, professor of climate change at Manchester University, said the net zero strategy falls short of the commitments the UK made at the Paris climate talks in 2015 and to the G7.

“Scour the associated spreadsheets and the numbers reveal a story of subterfuge, delusion, offsetting and piecemeal policies – all dressed up as a shiny new strategy for COP26,” he said.

“Remove the reliance on other nations offsetting our emissions and future generations deploying ‘negative emission technologies’ to suck our CO2 out of the atmosphere, and the UK’s total carbon budget is more in line with 2.5-3C of warming than 1.5-2C.

“As our government rubs its hands at the prospect of oil revenues from the Cambo and Clair South fields, invests £27 billion in new roads, overseas airport expansions and pumps £1 billion of taxpayers’ money into a huge new LNG field in Mozambique, its PR machine, accompanied by the voices of high-emitting CEOs and senior academics, swings into full gloss paint mode.

The climate however will see through this, responding as it always does to emissions rather than slick presentations, accountancy scams and half-baked strategies.”

Ministers’ plans to phase out the installation of gas boilers in homes by 2035 and provide £5,000 grants for households to install heat pumps received particular scrutiny. They say the grants, part of a £450 million package of funding for three years beginning next April, could lead to the installation of 90,000 pumps.

Without a comprehensive scheme to insulate homes – a less eye-catching policy, say some critics – installing a heat pump is “like buying a teapot with cracks in it: leaky, inefficient and a waste of money”, warned Green MP Caroline Lucas.

And we only have around 1,000 heat pump installers in the country, pointed out Harriet Lamb, CEO of climate action group Ashden.

“We have recently witnessed the impact of skills shortages on the haulage industry and the resulting fuel crisis,” she said. “The installer skills gap is also a key blockage that we were expecting the Heat and Buildings Strategy to clear. There is a massive gap between the UK’s current capacity and the sheer volume of work needed to retrofit homes, install heat pumps and achieve zero carbon by 2050.”

Kevin Gopal

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