COP26: A platform to raise climate ambition

Chris Stark, Chief Executive at the Climate Change Committee – the UK’s independent adviser on tackling climate change

This November, the UK has a unique opportunity to showcase its expertise in tackling climate change and demonstrate that it has the institutions to govern the transition to carbon neutrality. Hosting COP26 offers the UK diplomatic leverage over global climate action, even with the giant economies of China and the US.

Let’s lay out the considerations. In August, the IPCC – the UN’s clearing house for climate science – told us that human activities had warmed the planet by 1.1˚C since the pre-industrial era.

As President of COP26, the UK will preside over the first major stocktake on climate action since the Paris Agreement in 2015. The central task is to cajole national governments to make a more rapid transition away from polluting fossil fuels, bringing temperature projections down from the 3˚C currently predicted, to something closer to 2˚C.

And the true mark of success is whether an even narrower corridor of global outcomes can be kept alive, limiting global temperature rise to just 1.5˚C.

Demonstrating the ‘how-to’

Much of the focus at COP26 will be on national ambitions to reduce emissions. However, that masks the real challenge – delivering a real transition. And here lies the UK’s second major task: to model the steps that will deliver carbon neutrality.

So far, the UK has been willing to put a 2050 net-zero emissions target into law – and it has gone further, adding stretching short-term goals to reduce emissions by 68% by 2030 and 78% by 2035. If targets can be said to be ‘world-leading’, these fit the bill.

But these targets must be delivered. My own organisation has mapped five separate paths to net zero – and in all of them, low-carbon electricity becomes the dominant energy source for the UK, doubling current demand by 2050. That enables rapid decarbonisation across the economy, in transport, housing and industry. Offshore wind delivers 80% or more of the UK’s electricity needs, reaching the government’s goal of 40GW in 2030 and doubling again after that. And from the 2030s, a complementary hydrogen economy grows from virtually zero today to a scale that is comparable to existing electricity use by 2050.

It is achievable, but we lack a government plan to get there. So far, credible government policies cover only 20% of the required reduction in emissions to meet the 2035 goal.

How energy supply chain companies can support net zero

All eyes are now on the government’s own plan for net zero. The transformation of the energy system offers huge opportunities for energy supply chain companies. Government policies must provide clear long-term signals to investors. Get that right, and new commercial and employment opportunities in the energy sector will abound.

Companies throughout the energy supply chain are also well placed to support the fuel supply sectors as they work to minimise emissions, even as consumption of fossil fuels falls. 

From ambition to delivery

These factors come together at COP26: a unique moment for the UK to demonstrate that a rapid transition is achievable, and something worth replicating around the world.

The storyline to this Glasgow summit is seductive: the UK began the fossil-fuelled economy; it must now hasten its conclusion.

Much of the focus at COP26 will be on national ambitions to reduce emissions. That masks the real challenge – delivering a real transition

The COP26 UN Climate Change Conference, hosted by the UK in partnership with Italy, will take place from 31 October to 12 November 2021 at the Scottish Event Campus in Glasgow


Why is COP26 important?

  • COP26 has been billed as crucial to delivering the goals of the Paris Agreement. It is the first conference since last year’s deadline for countries to strengthen their 2030 climate targets as part of the ratchet mechanism.
  • One benchmark for success in Glasgow is as many governments as possible submitting new nationally determined contributions, and these together being ambitious enough to put the world on track for 1.5˚C.

What are the goals of COP26?

Alok Sharma, President of COP26, wants this year's conference to reach agreement on a number of key targets, including:

  • Keeping the 1.5˚C goal alive
  • Putting an end date on the use of unabated coal
  • Providing US$100bn of annual climate financing
  • Making all new car sales zero emissions within 14–19 years
  • Ending deforestation by the end of the decade
  • Reducing emissions from methane

What is COP26?

COP26 is the 26th annual Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

For nearly three decades, the UN has brought together world governments for an annual summit to negotiate multilateral responses to climate change. Under the 1994 UNFCCC, every one of the 197 signatory parties – effectively every nation and territory in the world – is treaty-bound to avoid dangerous climate change and find ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The word ‘COP’ stands for ‘Conference of the Parties’. The COP is the supreme decision-making body responsible for monitoring and reviewing the implementation of the UNFCCC.



What is the Paris Agreement?

The Paris Agreement was agreed upon at COP21 in 2015. For the first time ever, it saw countries agree to work together to limit global warming to well below 2˚C and aim for 1.5˚C, adapt to the impacts of a changing climate, and make money available to deliver on these aims.

It also requires each country to submit their individual climate action plans – known as ‘nationally determined contributions’ (NDCs). The non-binding plans must be as ambitious as possible and are reviewed every five years under a ‘ratchet mechanism’.


Who is expected at COP26?

More than 100 world leaders are expected to attend the conference including US president Joe Biden, UK prime minister Boris Johnson and Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon. The Queen and other senior members of the UK royal family will also be in attendance.

Other international leaders attending include Italian prime minister Mario Draghi, US special presidential envoy John Kerry, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison, French president Emmanuel Macron and UN secretary general Antonio Guterres.

As COP26 People’s Advocate, Sir David Attenborough will address world leaders and other attendees during the summit.  Former US president Barack Obama, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, secretary of state of the Vatican City, and Greta Thunberg will also be attending.

Image Credit | Shutterstock | Getty