Will the Glasgow climate summit be a turning point for humanity?

Climate disruption is showing up closer and closer to home. After COP26 in Glasgow (1-12 November 2021), can humanity make a radical move towards a climate-neutral society by 2050? We asked Ulrik Lenaerts (FPS Foreign Affairs), the number 2 of the Belgian climate delegation, for an explanation.

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Ravage in Pepinster

Climate change is coming uncomfortly close to home. Photo: The havoc in Pepinster 2 weeks after the floods in July 2021. © iStock

We can no longer ignore the serious disruption to the climate today. In Belgium, we also had to cope with extremely heavy flooding this summer, which we had not thought possible. Hellish forest fires ravaged Greece, Turkey, the US, Canada and Siberia. A record temperature of 49.5°C was recorded in Canada. Not to mention an unprecedented drought in Brazil, the rapidly melting ice in Greenland and so on.

Immediately, quickly and on a large scale

On top of that the International Climate Panel published a very sobering report in August 2021. This report was the result of a meticulous analysis of 14,000 scientific studies by 234 authors. Their conclusion? We can now only limit warming to 1.5-2°C if we limit greenhouse gas emissions immediately, quickly and on a large scale. UN Secretary-General Guterres instantly declared code red for humanity.

Surely the international community rallied behind the ambitious Paris climate agreement in 2015? So how is it possible that carbon emissions are still on the rise today and there is not even a dent in the curve? First of all, the Paris Agreement did form a solid basis, but many aspects still had to be worked out afterwards.

Moreover, turning around a heavy tanker on the move is not easy. The transition to a climate-neutral society requires major efforts. Just think of the puzzle of eventually heating all Belgian homes climate-neutrally – without fossil fuels. Some leaders have also since appeared to be less enthusiastic about reducing their emissions drastically.

Valuable time lost

The COVID-19 pandemic threw a spanner in the works too. The crucial 26th climate summit (COP26) would normally have taken place in Glasgow (UK) in November 2020. This was vital, because all countries would then have had to revise their national plans for reducing emissions upwards. With a year's delay, COP26 will now take place from 1 to 12 November this year.

‘In the meantime, we have lost valuable time,’ says Ulrik Lenaerts (FPS Foreign Affairs), the number 2 of the climate delegation that negotiates for Belgium within the EU and the UN. ‘We just had some virtual, informal negotiations that produced a package of informal memos. But this is a less solid basis for multilateral decisions.’

Forest fires in Portugal

Even in the most optimistic scenario - perfect climate neutrality by 2050 and a warming of 1.6°C - the world has to prepare for more heat waves, droughts, forest fires, floods... Photo: forest fires in Portugal. © Shutterstock

Not abandoning the 1.5°C objective

Fortunately, there were also some positive developments during the coronavirus period. Lenaerts: ‘First of all, with Joe Biden we have an American President who takes the climate problem seriously again. The US rejoined the Paris Agreement and is aiming to reduce its emissions by 50-52% by 2030, compared to 2005 levels.’

In addition, the EU has sharpened up its climate ambitions. ‘It now wants to emit at least 55% less carbon by 2030, instead of 40%. The greater efforts over the next 10 years should make it easier to become climate-neutral by 2050. Moreover, the European Investment Bank decided to invest 1 trillion euros (= 1,000 billion) for the climate in the next decade. And a “Fund for Just Transition” will support poorer Member States that are still overly dependent on coal mines.’

The Small Island States and Least Developed Countries in particular, as well as NGOs and the scientific community, have worked hard to keep the 1.5°C target from being dropped. This was also an ongoing point of contention for UN Secretary-General Guterres. Ultimately, some 60 countries have so far declared that they want to be climate-neutral by 2050 or 2060. Climate neutrality is also increasingly becoming a goal in the private sector.

Prospect of 2.7°C

‘Unfortunately, this climate ambition has not yet been sufficiently translated into the adjusted national contributions,’ says Lenaerts. ‘So far (22/09/21), only 113 countries – including all EU countries – have submitted their adjusted national contributions. All in all, these mean we are heading for a 2.7°C warming. In particular, a number of large emerging economies are still missing.’

And this is not just a detail. Today, we already have an average warming of 1.1°C. On land, this increase is a lot higher than above the oceans. And we are already having to deal with extreme weather. The recent climate panel report made it clear that even in the most optimistic scenario – perfectly climate neutral by 2050 – the earth will warm by 1.6°C by sometime in the middle of this century. Even then, the world will have to arm itself against more heat waves, drought, floods, etc. With every tenth of a degree of warming, the situation becomes more extreme. A warming of 2.7°C is therefore not a pleasant prospect.

Alexander De Croo addresses the Assembly

‘Limiting warming to 1.5°C is, almost literally, a matter of life and death,' Prime Minister De Croo declared at the UN General Assembly in September 2021. © Chia Pak/United Nations Photo

A matter of life and death

The UK – host country and chair of COP26 – has got the message right. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated at the last UN General Assembly (23/09/21): ‘It's time for humanity to grow up. COP26 must be a turning point. We must finally take responsibility for the destruction we have inflicted on the planet as well as on ourselves, and limit warming to 1.5°C.’ The country is aiming to do everything possible to make COP26 a success.

Prime Minister Alexander De Croo also stressed the urgency of the climate issue in his speech to the General Assembly (24/09/21). ‘COP26 will be the most important meeting in recent years,’ he declared. ‘We have to do everything possible to limit warming to 1.5°C. It is, almost literally, a matter of life and death.’

All countries need to adjust their contributions

‘There are no fewer than 65 items on the agenda, but there are five themes that the UK wants to prioritise,’ says Lenaerts. ‘In particular: keeping the 1.5°C objective alive, climate financing, adaptation, loss & damage and the completion of the Paris Agreement rulebook.’ (see box) This will mean that all countries will be strongly encouraged to submit their adjusted national contributions. This is the only way to ensure that the 1.5°C target remains feasible.

In principle, all countries are free to choose how to reduce their emissions, so COP26 does not address the how of those emission reductions. ‘Nevertheless, the UK will launch a number of campaigns in the margins of the climate summit,’ says Lenaerts. ‘These include zero-emission vehicles and phasing out coal, by 2030 for OECD countries, by 2040 for other countries. It is unclear how much impact those campaigns will have.’

‘In any case, very rapid political action will be needed to keep pace with reality,’ Lenaerts concludes. ‘There may well be an extraordinary amount of investment in renewable energy, but that is not enough to meet the rapidly growing demand for electricity. This is why fossil fuels are still increasingly being used.’

We must wait and see whether COP26 will effectively become a turning point for humanity, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson hopes. In any event, the Belgian climate delegation – including four colleagues from the FPS Foreign Affairs – have a very busy few days ahead of them. ‘And you can bet the negotiations will not be over on November 12,’ says Lenaerts. He expects a gruelling round of extensions.

COP26: the 5 priorities

1. Keeping the 1.5°C target alive

Those countries that have not yet submitted adjusted national contributions will be strongly encouraged to do so as soon as possible. They will also be asked to make the commitment to being climate-neutral by mid-century. The intention is that these long-term objectives will be regularly discussed thereafter. In particular, on how to reach them and with what know-how.

There will also be a call to phase out coal and campaigns on clean transport (zero-emission vehicles, shipping, etc.), nature-based solutions, offshore wind energy, protected nature reserves, etc.

2. Climate funding

Under the Paris Agreement, poorer countries are entitled to $100 billion a year starting in 2020. Moreover, this amount was set to be adjusted by 2025. But in 2019, only just under $80 billion was spent, a shortfall of $20 billion. COP26 is expected to provide a schedule for closing this gap in the coming years.

The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, promised to spend an additional 4 billion euros. The EU is already by far the largest donor, with €23.2 billion in 2019. Belgium will increase its climate funding from 70 to 100 million euros, and anticipates further increases in the coming years.

COP26 will also develop a roadmap for having the new financial targets ready by 2024. This will be based on a rigorous analysis of the needs of poorer countries.

Take note: that $100 billion is only partly government money. It equally includes private money, alternative sources of funding and suchlike. Incidentally, the cost of the entire transition to a climate-neutral society will be in the trillions.

3. Adaptation

Under the Paris Agreement, poorer countries are entitled to assistance with adapting to the inevitable consequences of climate change. However, they feel it remains too vague and would prefer a concrete amount.

Richer countries, however, are not keen on an adaptation target that is quantified in general terms. There are, in fact, great differences from one country to another. They prefer for each country to identify its priority sectors for funding (e.g. infrastructure, agriculture, etc.).

At COP26, a roadmap for adaptation will be drawn up with some more workable objectives: indicators, reference points, regional differences, etc. A larger share of the climate funding available will be allocated to adaptation (preferably 50%, instead of less than 30% at present).

4. Loss & damage

Poorer, vulnerable countries expect support for “the loss and damage” they have suffered from climate disruption, mainly caused by rich countries. The increasing incidence of disasters (droughts, floods, storms, etc.) makes this issue even more pressing.

But the rich countries do not want to be held accountable. However, they do want to help vulnerable countries to be better prepared for and to cope with disasters.

In any case, COP26 will have to deliver a more workable agreement on the issue of loss & damage that vulnerable countries can also support.

5. Article 6 – completing the rulebook

After the Paris Agreement, a rulebook had to be drawn up: a kind of manual for putting the agreement into practice. This rulebook is now as good as ready, except for 3 points that need to be finalised at COP26.

The main issue is the complex Article 6. This aims to develop a market mechanism whereby reduction of carbon emissions can be traded as a “carbon credit”. Aviation needs such a carbon market, because for now it can only limit its emissions through carbon credits.

However, double counting should be avoided and old credits from before 2020 should not be taken into account. That would undermine the mechanism. African countries would like to use part of the proceeds from emissions trading for adaptation.

In addition, there are some more technical issues, such as whether the national contributions will have a uniform duration of 5 or 10 years, and an improvement in the arrangements for national reporting.

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