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It is the last day of week one of the COP26 international climate summit. The week has been fast-paced, packed with frantic announcements and a certain amount of chaos. Hopefully, it isn’t overly prophetic that one of the cubicle walls in the Media Zone fell down this morning.
Friday saw demonstrations on the streets of Glasgow organised by Fridays for Future, the movement inspired by teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg and her long-running school strike. New Scientist’s Graham Lawton was there and reports that the march was “massive”, with around 25,000 people joining the protest, according to its organisers.
A survey published this week hints at the strong feelings held by many young people about climate change. Conducted in January and February by research firm Ipsos and the Futerra Solutions Union, the survey asked 19,520 people aged 16 to 74 in 27 countries whether they thought it was possible to reduce climate change.
Of those people, 58 per cent were at least somewhat optimistic, but 31 per cent were fatalistic (“humanity cannot reduce climate change”) or defeatist (“humanity is able to reduce climate change, but we are not going to do it”). These pessimistic attitudes were significantly more common among young people than among people over 50. No wonder so many young people are making impassioned speeches at COP26.
One crucial issue is the lack of support for adaptation: that is, help for people whose lives are being affected by climate change. Developed countries have promised to give $100 billion a year to developing countries by 2020, but they haven’t completely come through.
According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, an international non-governmental organisation, hundreds of thousands of people were forced from their homes in October, many of them by climate-influenced events like floods and storms. Last year, there were 30.7 million new displacements as a result of such disasters. The number of people affected by climate disasters will only go up unless more help is given to vulnerable communities.
It seems fair to say that the massive publicity generated by the school strikes over the past few years has made a difference. Climate scientist Myles Allen at the University of Oxford has written an open letter to the school strikers, in which he said they “seem to have made more impact on the climate issue in the past couple of years than I’ve managed in the previous three decades”.
Allen argues that the companies releasing the greenhouse gases should be made to pay to clean it up. That, he says, should be the protesters’ key demand.
Forcing powerful polluters to pay would be probably the biggest political challenge of all. Vice World News journalist Sophia Smith Galer made a short video highlighting some of the companies who have sponsored COP26 – which turns out to include major emitters and some that are complicit in deforestation.
Emissions still rising
COP26 is also moving too slowly on cutting greenhouse gas emissions, which is the key to reducing climate change. The summit has so far focused more on this decarbonisation than on adaptation, and with some success.
This is part of a wider trend of green technologies approaching tipping points where they become cheaper than fossil fuels. A new report from UK-based sustainability consultants Systemiq found that low-carbon solutions are becoming competitive in many sectors of the economy. It said that “the world could see market tipping points in sectors representing 90% of emissions by 2030 and all emissions by 2035”. For example, Adam Vaughan reports that next year electric cars are expected to outsell diesel cars in the UK all year round, for the first time.
This is all very encouraging, but it isn’t enough. There has been a lot of discussion this week over whether the new commitments made at COP26 have put the world on track to limit global warming to 1.5 °C. Some analyses suggested that we might be getting close, perhaps limiting warming to 1.8 or 1.9 °C. However, these relied on the optimistic assumption that all the promises made will actually be kept, and in particular that they will translate into rapid action over the next decade.
This morning, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) released an updated assessment of future emissions that essentially said “no, not even close”. It said annual global emissions are on course to rise by 14 per cent by 2030, when they really need to fall by 45 per cent if we are to keep to 1.5 °C this century. The UNFCCC didn’t translate this into a predicted temperature rise, but given that it previously forecasted a rise of 16 per cent by 2030 and said this would lead to warming of 2.7 °C, it seems safe to say that the needle hasn’t moved all that much.
The biggest source of new emissions is gas. A report by German non-profit Climate Analytics – pithily titled “Why gas is the new coal” – finds that emissions from gas rose by 42 per cent between 2010 and 2019. Remember that projected increase in emissions by 2030? Gas will be responsible for 70 per cent of it. Coal is seemingly on the way out, but we need to say goodbye to gas as well.
What to watch for
We are halfway through COP26. There were exciting early announcements, but from now on the negotiations will be harder. Previous COPs have overrun spectacularly as the talks went down to the wire, and then straight through the wire and far out onto the other side in search of new wires to push through.
New Scientist‘s Michael Marshall vividly remembers, late on the final Friday evening of the 2012 COP in Doha, Qatar, seeing junior government officials carrying stacks of takeaway pizza boxes into the negotiating rooms, and realising he wasn’t going to get any sleep for many hours to come. However, COP26 President Alok Sharma has stated that he wants to finish on schedule on 12 November. He is planning a “stocktaking” meeting tomorrow evening and wants to have “near-final” negotiated texts by the evening of 10 November. Well, we will see.
Quote of the day
US climate envoy John Kerry told delegates that “Mother Nature” is punishing us with floods and droughts, and that people “are increasingly outraged at the lack of adequate response”. Asked what he thought of the various commitments so far, and the assessments of what they mean for future temperature rises, he was brisk. “Let me emphasise as strong as I can: job not done.”
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