COP26 has seen surprising net-zero pledges, methane reduction targets and climate finance announcements, but what do they mean?
There are now just a few days remaining of the major UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), which is ongoing in Glasgow. COP26 is the first time, since the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015, when countries have been asked to update their emissions reduction pledges and set out more ambitious plans for tackling climate change.
With the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report described as ‘code red for humanity’, hopes have been high that significant agreements will be made at COP26 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and keep global warming to 1.5°C by the end of this century. However, with current pledges putting us on track for at least 2.4°C of warming, according to Climate Action Tracker, much remains to be achieved at the COP26 negotiations.
Imperial staff and students reflect on some of the announcements and members of the College’s COP26 delegation share their experiences at COP26 so far, highlighting the need for increased ambition and collaboration, as well as the importance of details on how countries and organisations plan to meet the pledges they make.
India's 2070 net zero target:
India’s Prime Minister announced at COP26 that the country, which is the world’s third-biggest annual carbon emitter, would reach net zero emissions by 2070.
Dr Joeri Rogelj, Director of Research at the Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment and Reader in Climate Science and Policy at the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London commented:
“This is an incredibly important first step, and highlights India's willingness to pursue ambitious climate policies. India is a developing country that still needs to tackle great challenges in terms of poverty eradication, together with climate change. It is not yet clear if India's target refers to all greenhouse gases or carbon dioxide only. If it covers all greenhouse gases, the target is incredibly ambitious. If it covers CO2 only, it is still ambitious, and an important step.
"After this ambitious target, now the strategies, plans and policies are needed that will ensure that India's emissions are curbed onto a downward trajectory while ensuring sustainable development for its population. Without any doubt, developed countries should support India through finance and technology to make this formidable shift."
More than 100 countries, including the US, Japan and Canada, pledged to significantly reduce emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane.
Dr Paulo Ceppi, Lecturer in Climate Science at the Grantham Institute said:
"Any pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions are good and welcome news, and this is a step in the right direction. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that in the long run carbon dioxide is more impactful than methane, since methane has a shorter lifetime in the atmosphere. Hence, we must not forget that this pledge alone is far from sufficient to meet the 1.5°C global warming target set out by the Paris Agreement, which will require achieving net zero carbon emissions by the middle of the twenty-first century."
Dr Joeri Rogelj, Director of Research at the Grantham Institute and Reader in Climate Science and Policy at the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London said:
"The global methane pledge shows global momentum towards tackling one of the second most important greenhouse gases that humans emit. If achieved, it will halt and even reduce the global warming that methane causes.
"However, an analysis of the pledges with climate models that match the latest IPCC climate assessment shows that the global warming benefit of this pledge might not be as large as thought, and levels off over time. This points to the importance of tackling carbon dioxide and methane at the same time, for example, through deep overall emissions cuts and a phase-out of coal infrastructure."
Dr Rogelj contributed to a Carbon Brief blog on what this pledge can deliver.
UN Special Envoy on Climate Action and Finance Mark Carney’s announcement of $130 trillion in private capital climate commitments:
The former Governor of the Bank of England revealed that more than 450 firms representing $130 trillion, or 40% of global financial assets, now belong to the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero.
Dr Alex Koberle, Research Associate in Mitigation Technologies at the Grantham Institute commented: "Whilst the announcement by Mark Carney's Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero to secure $130 trillion in private capital to fund the transition to net zero is positive, it remains to be seen what it will deliver. The devil will be in the details and at this point there isn't much information on the implementation of this. But it is encouraging to see these types of initiatives emerge as they set the agenda for the outcomes of COP26."
Mili Fomicov, Research Associate at the Centre for Climate Finance and Investment at Imperial College Business School said: "Private capital could play a very significant role in the energy transition. The headline number announced should be deployed across developed and emerging economies. Most of the investment activity has been concentrated in developed markets, and that needs to change."
Youth engagement at COP26:
The COP26 presidency programme included a dedicated Youth and Empowerment day on 5 November, and the number of young people engaged with climate issues has never been higher.
Amy Wilson, PhD student at Imperial College London and Team Lead at ClimaTalk said: "There are very few occasions where the youth get to review discussions and decisions. We see with Fridays For Future, and other youth organisations, a consistent movement of youth towards protesting and action – why can we not increase their involvement in negotiations and bring their views to the table? We should be advocating for education, training and youth inclusion, so that all young people feel empowered to actively be involved in climate negotiations, not only at COP26 but at climate meetings and sessions throughout the year."
International climate finance:
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced an additional £1 billion over the next five years for international climate finance from the overseas aid budget.
Mili Fomicov, Research Associate at the Centre for Climate Finance and Investment at Imperial College Business School commented:
"Emerging markets are extremely vulnerable to climate change. Government and corporate flows are required to fund their transition to a lower carbon economy, but emerging markets haven’t received the amount of capital required. That needs to change. Local and foreign investors, as well as governments should invest in building out renewable infrastructure in emerging markets, as well as invest in adaptation and mitigation strategies. Climate finance frameworks need to evolve, barriers on foreign investment must be addressed, and bolder government policies should be adopted. All pillars need to come together to scale clean energy in emerging economies and to achieve a sustainable future globally."
Fossil fuel industry presence at COP26:
503 delegates with links to the fossil fuel industry have been accredited for COP26, making it equivalent to the summit’s largest delegation. With limited numbers of tickets available for delegates and concerns that fossil fuel delegates will lobby against decarbonisation, there is debate around members of the fossil fuel industry attending COP26.
Dr Mirabelle Muûls, Director of the MSc Climate Change, Management & Finance and Assistant Professor in Economics, Imperial College Business School, commented: "Fossil fuel companies have not been given a formal role at COP26. It is clear that current commitments from the oil industry are insufficient and do not align with global climate goals. The industry has been given its chance to act responsibly and they are not doing so. Therefore, they should only be attending COP26 if they are there to demonstrate how they plan to rapidly downscale the supply of fuels, in line with low-carbon 1.5°C-consistent pathways, as well as capture CO2 from those fuels that remain.
"If the industry does not embrace the transition to a net-zero carbon economy, there is a risk that the economic and financial system will suddenly end up with a significant amount of 'un-burnable' oil and therefore trillions of stranded assets.”
Highlighting the role of science and innovation at COP26
Alongside following the COP26 negotiations in Glasgow, the Imperial College London delegation has hosted events for decision-makers, businesses and researchers to discuss key climate change and biodiversity-related issues at COP26.
Science has played an invaluable role in defining the problem of climate change. Last week’s Guiding the path to net-zero through science event, held at the UK Science Pavilion in partnership with the UK Met Office and World Meteorological Organisation, emphasised the role of science in supporting policy design to achieve net zero.
Neil Grant, a PhD student on the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet (SSCP) Doctoral Training Partnership, who moderated the panel discussion said:
"“COP26 marks another step in the move from agenda-setting to delivery. Hopefully by the end of COP26 we will have finalised the Paris Agreement rulebook, and the focus must continue to shift from designing the goals and regime of global climate action, to delivering on these goals through the implementation of climate policy across the real economy.
"The role of science as one guiding star in this most critical of journeys is only just beginning. This discussion provided valuable insights into the issues that scientists need to engage with further, including the challenges of co-production and the need to confront vested interests and power structures."
The Centre for climate change innovation (CCCI), an initiative of Imperial’s Grantham Institute and the Royal Institution, hosted Climate action: how innovation can have an impact at home, on travel and food, to explore the role individuals can take in accelerating climate action, and how climate innovation can help people reduce emissions at home, in their travel and in what they eat.
On the role of transport innovation, Imperial’s Dr Marc Stettler stated: "We have to think holistically about how we travel. The amount of CO2 produced by transport is the product of how much we travel, how much energy is consumed for each kilometre that we travel, and the amount of carbon emitted for each unit of energy that we use.
"These are the levers we have to reduce transport’s contribution to climate change and we probably need to pull on all of them, rather than just one, to meet our climate targets."
Exploring biodiversity, climate change and mental health
Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment co-hosted an official side event with partners including York University in Canada, which focused on strengthening biodiversity and climate change linkages. Panellists emphasised the need to engage indigenous communities and local citizens in shaping climate and biodiversity action to ensure that nature-based solutions increase people’s resilience, safety and quality of life.
Imperial and Natural History Museum panellist Professor Andy Purvis said: "I would love to see governments and the media recognise that it isn’t the climate activists and the nature activists that we need to be protected from, it’s the vested interests that are the climate and nature inactivists that we all need to be protected from."
Exploring the link between climate change and other societal challenges, the Climate Cares team – a collaboration between the Institute of Global Health Innovation and the Grantham Institute - Climate Change and the Environment – led an event that explored the impact climate change has on our minds and how we can use our emotions, passions, and skills to implement meaningful climate action.
At the event Dr Emma Lawrance said: "Climate change itself threatens to widen inequalities, including inequalities in mental health. And inequality itself is a cause of emotional distress and worse mental health. So, these things all join together."
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