Nations face down climate change together at COP26
This month saw the final week of the historic COP26 summit, a gathering of world leaders in Glasgow to discuss solutions to the climate crisis. After several years of accelerated natural disasters, the need for more direct action to stop climate change has come into sharper focus, with many global leaders answering the call for greater commitments to carbon reduction.
Large strides were made during the first week of the conference, especially on pledges to step up environmentally friendly efforts. Week two was equally productive, galvanising the international community and finishing with a new climate pact that builds on the original 2015 Paris agreement.
Countries pull together and put pen to paper
There was visible relief from Alok Sharma, COP26 president and UK cabinet minister, as the final signatures were added to a new agreement, named the Glasgow Climate Pact. Created during the summit, the set of pledges were signed by all 197 countries present.
The pact reiterated the international commitment to limiting global heating to only 1.5°C. Importantly, nations also committed to an annual process of revising national targets on greenhouse gasses, beginning in Egypt in 2022.
There was also a focus on adaptation, especially for developing countries. Low-income countries are more susceptible to the impact of climate events, so negating the effects – which are already being felt in some places – is becoming as critical as cutting emissions. The new agreement stipulates that the finance available to fund adaptation in developing countries will be at least doubled in comparison to current levels.
The US and China led the way in cooperation. The pair released a joint declaration pledging action on clean energy, coal, methane reduction, and banning deforestation. John Kerry, the US climate envoy, said the US and China “have no shortage of differences, but on climate, cooperation is the only way to get this job done.”
Coal’s power dwindles
For the first time at a COP summit, steps were taken to minimise the use of fossil fuels with a strong focus on coal. Despite accounting for 40% of CO2 emissions globally, fossil fuels have been absent from COP decisions since the Kyoto protocol. The renewed focus on actively tackling their impact marked a positive shift with potentially significant changes ahead.
In fact, UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson said the deal “sounded the death knell for coal power”. The UK has drastically reduced its coal consumption in the last 50 years, with 156 million metric tons being consumed in 1970 and only 8 million metric tons in 2020. However, it still ranks 21st in the world for coal consumption. According to the International Energy Agency, nearly 3000 coal power stations will need to close globally by 2030 to keep within the target of 1.5°C temperature rises, and the global commitment to reducing reliance on coal is a step toward that goal.
Accelerating electric travel
On a related note, the push to minimise the number of fossil-fuel powered cars also gained mileage at COP26. With the growing accessibility of electric vehicles since the Paris Agreement, 24 countries and several major car manufacturers committed to phasing out fossil fuel cars by 2040.
This brings many countries closer to the UK’s commitment, as it works to stop the sale of all new petrol and diesel cars by 2030. The move also marks significant development for reducing CO2 across the board; with transport the UK’s most polluting sector — producing the equivalent of 122 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (MtCO2e) in 2019 — as well as making up a fifth of global CO2 emissions.
The UK also spearheaded the Zero Emission Vehicle Transition Council (ZEVTC), a group of 30 countries that have pledged to bring zero-emission vehicles into mainstream use. The UK government also announced that all new heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) will be zero-emission by 2040, while HGVs of 26 tonnes and under will be phased out from 2035.
Encouraging green behaviours
Alongside government and business, UK citizens can also help the fight against climate change through their decisions and behaviours, as UK Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance asserted in a speech to the conference.
“I cycle to work, I eat less meat than I used to and I came here by train,” Vallance shared. “I think [behaviour change] is starting. Is it where it needs to be yet? Probably not and I think there’s more to go. But I think there’s a willingness and an engagement taking place that is going to be important.”
On average, a person in the UK eats 86.3g of meat per day, which marks a 17% drop in meat consumption over the last decade. There is still progress to be made, however, for the UK to reach its target of reducing meat consumption by 30% before 2030. A study in September 2021 found that the production of meat generates twice the amount of greenhouse gases compared to other food produce. Cutting down consumer demand is a simple way that the public can help negate the effects of climate change.
UK citizens are, for the most part, very willing to rise to the challenge of changing behaviours and lifestyles. When called upon to increase their recycling efforts, for example, the amount of rubbish recycled in the UK nearly doubled from 23% in 2004 to 44% in 2014.
The fight continues
Despite the positivity of reaching a final agreement, the general consensus following COP26 is that – although a powerful step forward – there is still much to do if climate catastrophe is to be averted. The presence of activists like Greta Thunberg, however, served as a reminder that a very active and driven younger generation will continue to fight climate change.
Former US president, Barack Obama even urged young people to ‘stay angry’ and keep putting political pressure on world leaders to meet the necessary targets. As this generation starts to gain more voice and power, governments and brands will be responsible for keeping up; already Gen Z is more willing to pay extra for eco-friendly products.
Tony Danker, Confederation of British Industry director-general, asserted that businesses were prepared and also willing to take on this responsibility: “Leaders everywhere are starting to say that it is the ingenuity and the financial might of the private sector that will get the world to net zero. To match their billions with our trillions. Well, we accept the challenge. We can, we must and we will make greater commitments, accept deeper accountability and raise more capital for the task.”
Overall, COP26 delivered strong progress in the right direction. The new commitment to re-examine targets annually, give greater assistance to nations already feeling the effects of global warming, and focus on fossil fuel use signals a massive shift in how seriously world leaders are taking climate change.