Analysis & Opinions

Cop 26 in Glasgow is our last best hope

| Oct. 16, 2021

‘If you don’t reduce enough between 2020 and 2030, the scientists tell us we can’t get where we need to go . . . this is really what Glasgow is about — the last best hope to do what scientists tell us we must which is avoid the worst consequences of climate by making decisions now and implementing them now.” 

This was the stark warning that John Kerry, recently appointed by President Biden as his special envoy for climate, gave to me to describe the significance of the international gathering about to begin in Glasgow. 

Cop26 — the 26th Conference of the Parties — is a UN meeting that will bring together representatives of more than 190 countries with only one aim: tackling climate change. 

Glasgow is my home city. I was born in the former Robroyston Hospital and was brought home to the family flat on Clyde Street, just up the river from the Armadillo and the Hydro, where Cop26 will take place. Along with so many Glaswegians, over the past 50 years my family have witnessed the physical and economic transformation of a city that was forged by the coal, iron and steam of the Industrial Revolution. 

As a toddler, my parents took me on the right to work march as the city fought to keep Upper Clyde Shipbuilders open. I watched my granny take her only helicopter ride at the Glasgow Garden Festival, as the city reimagined itself as a tourist destination. In recent years, my son and I have run across the Squinty Bridge as part of the Great Scottish Run, past the city’s development of a broadcasting and digital hub on Pacific Quay. 

I know Glasgow: and my political work means I know climate talks. I’m familiar with how these UN climate conferences work . . . or don’t. I was in the room as part of the UK ministerial delegation at a previous Cop in Copenhagen. That conference infamously ended in acrimony when China, India and the US couldn’t resolve their differences.

It is a memory that reminds me that, as world leaders arrive in Glasgow, while hopes are high, so too are the chances of failure. Over the past few weeks, while working with BBC Radio 4, I have explored why this conference is so important, how it will work, and assessed its chance of success. I also wanted to better understand what the decisions reached at Cop26 could mean for all of us. 

At a time when energy prices and the cost of living are on everyone’s mind, I met people from right across Glasgow to hear their hopes and fears. These conversations confirmed to me the wisdom of what Mark Carney, the former Bank of England governor, and who will be at Cop as the UN special envoy on climate action and finance, said recently: “Climate change is the internet circa 1999, it will change everything.” 

Why Cop26 matters 

To get a sense as to why this conference matters, I asked Kerry to try to explain. His answer was unequivocal: “Mother Nature herself has been sending an awful lot of messages to people around the world. Hotter, hotter, hotter everywhere, fires, floods, incredible intensity to the storms, more moisture in the rainfall. There are a lot of indicators, all of which confirm what scientists have told us is going to be happening.” Those scientists have now made clear how big a difference a small rise in global temperature can make. 

Christiana Figueres, the Costa Rican climate negotiator credited with designing the landmark agreement reached at the Paris Cop in 2015 explained: “There is a catastrophic difference between a world that heats an extra 2C versus a world that heats an extra 1.5C, with two completely different qualities of life for humans, for all species on this planet.” 
Alok Sharma, the UK minister who will be leading the negotiations has, as president of Cop26, confirmed to me that the central task in Glasgow will be to agree policies to reduce carbon emissions by enough to limit the world’s temperature rise “to 1.5C”. 

The conference will seek to make progress on phasing out coal and protecting forests, but insiders see that attempt to limit a global temperature rise to 1.5C as the test of whether the conference succeeds or fails. For Carney, the consequences of missing this moment could cost all of us in all kinds of ways. He said: “The estimates of the impact on global growth is about 15 per cent of gross domestic product, so the annual output of all the economies around the world. But that’s of course a loss that occurs year in year out, in fact it grows with time. It’s not a gift that keeps on giving, it’s a curse that keeps on taking. So what does that mean? It means that in effect we have a decade of no growth between now and the end of this century. It would mean substantial loss to property, much more frequent loss of life and would mean substantial challenges to migration, geopolitics, to wars — challenges that would come with deprivation that would be associated with uncontrolled global warming.” 

So, if the stakes are so high, can one conference really make a huge and necessary difference? 

How does a Cop work? 

Before or during the conference, each country represented makes a pledge on how much and by when they will reduce the amount of carbon that they pump into the atmosphere. 

Each country signs up to a long-term goal and sets out its immediate actions, for example, how quickly it will embrace renewable power or phase out petrol engines in cars. 

This approach — where each country makes a specific public pledge — was devised six years ago at the Paris Cop. Now, with the Glasgow conference delayed by a year by Covid, the problem is that even if every state delivered on its commitment from 2015, science is unanimous it won’t be enough to avoid dangerous climate change. 

The Glasgow conference is about more. It has to limit atmospheric temperature rise to 1.5C by more countries making more ambitious pledges to cut carbon emissions more quickly. 

Glasgow will be the real test of whether the approach agreed at Paris is working. Paris was about the “why” of tackling climate change. Glasgow will be about the ‘how’. When the delegates arrive there will be a lot of negotiating involving hard political choices, and money will be key to unlocking an agreement.

At Copenhagen in 2009, rich countries pledged to provide $100 billion a year to poor countries to help them to adapt to climate change. A dozen years on, as climate change hits many impoverished countries first and worst, that promise has still to be kept. 

Only last month Biden backed up Kerry’s words when, at the UN in New York, he announced a doubling of America’s contribution to $100 billion. The UK, as Cop host, has pledged £11.6 billion. Despite this, leaders from the global south will arrive in Glasgow determined that rich nations must pay more. 

What is the chance of success? 

Is Cop26 a diplomatic disaster in the making or are there grounds for optimism? The UN has reported recently that the nationally determined contributions (NDCs) submitted ahead of Glasgow (including those from the UK, US and EU) simply aren’t ambitious enough. We still await a new NDC from China, the world’s biggest emitter, although it is thought President Xi may not attend the conference in person, according to reports from British diplomats. 

The $100 billion previously pledged has not yet been secured, but Biden’s announcement has added momentum. The UK is now pushing for coal to be phased out globally by 2040, and by 2030 “to be planting more trees across the world than we are losing”. Whether any — or all — of these goals can be met remains uncertain. As Figueres told me: “The stars do seem to be aligning. To begin with, we have a president in the US who does understand the science. In addition to that, I would say the one sector that deserves mentioning is the financial sector: you see the financial sector moving away very, very quickly from high carbon assets, definitely moving away from coal, increasingly moving away from oil and [it] will be moving away from gas as well. Between geopolitics, finance and technology, we are seeing the stars aligning. That is not a guarantee, but it helps.” 

The effect on us 

If agreement can be reached at Cop26, what could that mean not just for the residents of Glasgow but for all of us? The economist Anton Muscatelli, principal of Glasgow University, said: “It’s a bigger transition than anything that humanity has faced. In previous industrial transitions, the market did much more of the adjustment because in those individual behaviour was much more important — it was much more entrepreneurship and individual success and competitive advantage. It requires to avoid the kind of dislocation in terms of unemployment or poverty. You need much more government involvement, and I think this is where governments in the UK and the US, I think, recognise that — that it is not something that the market is going to solve on its own.” 

Carney said: “It will require trillions of pounds of additional investment every year globally. Money can only come in that scale from the private sector.” That message of economic opportunities could have real appeal in a city such as Glasgow that in the past has suffered de-industrialisation. Chris Mitchell, the GMB shop steward of the city’s cleansing workers, agrees. He told me: “Employment, jobs, that’s it. It’s about income isn’t it? Income and the future. It’s your future for your kids, your grandkids.” 

Mitchell’s message that better jobs and income must be central to a greener future seems to be one that will be echoed inside the conference by Kerry: “Nobody is being asked to give up a standard of living. Nobody is being posed a choice, either you take care of the environment or you have jobs. Those are false choices. I think it’s all upsides. I really do believe that. There are some hurdles to get over for some folks who have a certain kind of job, and it would be disingenuous not to acknowledge that — but not the way there has been historically. If we pay attention to this, the market we are creating for a new energy is the largest market in the world. It’s going to create millions of jobs. The two fastest-growing jobs in the US last year and this year are wind turbine technician and solar panel installer.” 

How practical is that vision in a rainy city such as Glasgow? At Europe’s largest onshore windfarm, at Whitelee, south of Glasgow, Lindsay McQuade, the chief executive of Scottish Power Renewables, is optimistic. “In terms of wind generation, that’s been doing the heavy lifting to date, but it’s not going to be able to crack that nut alone,” she said. “Bringing solar with wind, with a battery, potentially with green hydrogen as well, will mean that we get the most efficiency out of the natural resources.” 

It is clear that if Cop26 is going to deliver on the scale that science tells us is needed, then we will see more change, not less. As a Glaswegian, I look forward to welcoming the world to the city, whose name derives from Gaelic for “Dear Green Place”. In the years ahead, will Glasgow join Paris as a city synonymous with a historic agreement, or be a Copenhagen “might have been” moment? 

The ability of 196 countries to come together and do what the science demands remains unclear.  As Kerry told me: “There’s not a lack of capacity technologically to be able to make things happen. There is a lack of willpower, a lack of political leaderships’ vision. What happens in the conference is everything. So, in the meeting rooms, in the halls, will be efforts by various stakeholders to argue out what is fair, what they are capable of doing, what they could do if there was more money on the table — that’s where it will finally come together. What we hope to achieve in Glasgow is a raising of ambition. This is the greatest test of global citizenship of universal values and principles I can think of.” 

Will the world pass that test? In the coming weeks we will find out. In the coming decades we will all feel whether it did. 


  – Via the original publication source.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Alexander, Douglas.“Cop 26 in Glasgow is our last best hope.” , October 16, 2021.