The 26th Conference of the of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC).

Science, People & Politics. ISSN: 1751598x. Issue 3 (July – Sept.) 2021.




There are two key stumbling blocks in Glasgow [COP 26] that the British chair must overcome. One is getting developed nations to banish the burning of fossil fuel from their economies. The second is persuading them to meet a 12-year-old promise to provide $100 billion per year in aid to help poor nations… develop their economies without fossil fuel and adapt to changing climate .
Fred Pearce, 15.09.2021. Science, People & Politics. Issue 3 (July-Sept.) 2021.

By Fred Pearce* 15.09.2021

As the next UN climate negotiations approach, what can we expect? At the COP 26 talks in Glasgow in November can we look forward to diplomatic success of the kind lauded six years ago in Paris, or a botched failure like the Copenhagen conference of 2009? Sadly, despite the growing urgency for action presented by the worsening signs of the state of the planet's climate system, the omens currently look bad.

Before Paris, there was a smooth flow of pre-conference back-room talks and deals by UN and French diplomats, aimed at a clear goal. By comparison, British efforts look amateur, prone to misunderstandings and unnecessary setbacks and with diffuse goals. This, despite an extra year to prepare created by the postponement of the summit from last year because of the pandemic.

The worst sign is that China and the West are once again in stand-off mode. That is what happened before Copenhagen. Before Paris the US and China, the world's two biggest CO2 emitters, sealed a pre-conference deal on their respective targets. The deal set the tone for global compromise, and it asserted the importance of nations being invited to make “nationally-determined contributions" to curtail emissions.

China has reiterated its pledge to reach peak emissions before 2030, and to reach net-zero emissions by 2060. That would be just a decade later than Western nations, which have been adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere for much longer. The Chinese promise has been met frostily by British conference chair, Alok Sharma. In talks with long-time Chinese climate envoy, Xie Zhenhua, Sharma called on China to “pick up the pace" and present “more detailed plans". Sharma plans “last ditch talks" in the coming weeks.

The US climate envoy John Kerry has been even more terse with China, as climate talks become a victim of the deteriorating relations between the two superpowers. This does not bode well.

Host nation Britain has a good story to tell about its own success in reducing CO2 emissions by almost 50 percent since 1990, better than almost any other industrialized nation, and in successfully pioneering offshore wind power. Yet it has also reduced the chance of success at COP 26 through a series of ham-fisted domestic actions that, as many commentators have noted, will reduce trust in the honest broker role of the conference chair.

The British government is still considering proposals to approve a new deep coal mine in Cumbria and a new runway at Heathrow. It has cut overseas aid by more than a quarter, disrupting climate finance pledges to poor nations. And, hardest to defend of all, Britain is continuing to encourage oil and gas exploration beneath the North Sea. This despite a recent conclusion from the International Energy Agency, an autonomous intergovernmental body, that “if governments are serious about the climate crisis, there can be no new investments in oil, gas and coal, from now – from this year."

There are two key stumbling blocks in Glasgow that the British chair must overcome. One is getting developed nations to lead the way in banishing fossil fuel burning from their economies. The second is persuading them to finally meet a 12-year-old promise made in Copenhagen to provide $100 billion per year in aid funding to help poor nations - mostly victims of climate chaos - develop their economies without fossil fuel and adapt to changing climate. By cutting aid and allowing North Sea oil expansion, the British hosts finds themselves on the wrong side in both cases.

Meanwhile the climate system is no respecter of diplomatic travails. The latest IPCC report confirms that temperatures since 1970 have risen faster than at any time in at least 2000 years, thanks to the accumulation of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere. A year of record temperatures and wildfires underline the urgency of action.

Recent research into the impact of climate change on cloud formation and ice loss suggests that without decisive action future warming could be faster than anticipated, and lead to greater sea-level rise. There is also growing evidence that the Earth system could cross dangerous tipping points, leading to an ice-free Arctic, faltering jet stream and collapse of the Gulf Stream.

Not all the news is bad. The world has taken some important steps since Paris. Many countries are carrying out their Paris pledges: deforestation is slowing; renewable energy technologies are now often cheaper than fossil-fuels, allowing more than 30 nations to grow their economies while cutting their emissions; and more gains could follow as electric cars become the norm.

But while the science becomes ever more compelling, and the green technology more inviting, emissions keep rising and diplomats who could halt it seem stuck in the slow lane. Glasgow currently seems on track to underline that failing.

* Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in London. A former news editor and environmental consultant at the UK-based New Scientist magazine, he has reported from 89 countries. He also writes regularly for the Yale e360 web site and The Guardian and other newspapers in the UK, as well as irregularly for many other outlets, including the journal Science, The Washington Post and The New York Times. His recent books include “A trillion trees, how we can reforest the World", "Fallout: a journey through the nuclear age" and a revised edition of "When the rivers run dry". His books have been translated into 26 languages. He won a lifetime achievement award for his journalism from the Association of British Science Writers in 2011, and he was voted UK Environment Journalist of the Year in 2001. Pearce is a fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.

Edited by Helen Gavaghan, editor of Science, People & Politics.
First online at 12.30 BST on 15.09.2021 as
This item will appear in the KINDLE edition of Issue 3 (July-Sept.) 2021 of
Science, People & Politics.