Claire's blog

What happened at COP26? And what next?

The short answers to these questions are simple: in the face of escalating climate breakdown, COP26 did little to shift our trajectory away from catastrophe, away from business-as-usual and towards curbing fossil fuel use. Rich countries have refused to step up and meet their obligations to those who have least to cause the climate crisis.

In the words of Greta Thunberg, more “blah, blah, blah”.

And as for what comes next, of course we go on fighting to keep the chance of staying beneath 1.5C alive.

The long version? After two weeks with a flurry of announcements, greenwash, struggles over seemingly minor details of text, and anger from civl society massed on the streets of Glasgow, it’s worth unpacking some of the details of what was really agreed, or not. How does the jargon translate into real world outcomes, literally of life and death? In these details we can see beneath the media spin and glossy announcements the brutal realities of power, money, and neocolonialism.

1.5C ‘on life support’

As the window of opportunity is closing to stay within 1.5C heating and avoid the worst climate catastrophe, where are we left as COP26 ends?

Under the Paris climate deal, nations had to submit updated voluntary commitments to climate action (known as nationally determined contributions or NDCs) before the talks. Unsurprisingly, these are generally lacking in substance or urgency. Many lack clear deliver plans and delay meaningful change until after 2030. Climate Action Tracker’s useful analysis finds that even with all new pledges for 2030, we will still emit roughly twice as much in 2030 as required for 1.5C.

They estimate if all current pledges for emissions cuts by 2030 are met, this gives only a 50% chance of staying below 2.4C.

Of course 1.5C itself is no ‘safe level’. Many areas have already experienced devastating wildfires, floods, hurricanes and heatwaves at 1.1C. These, in combination with longer-term impacts such as drought, disproportionately affect countries who have done least to cause the problem and have fewest resources to deal with them.

'Carry on flying': a response to the aviation proposals in the DfT Decarbonising Transport report

The Department for Transport has finally published its plan, Decarbonising Transport: A Better, Greener Britain. In terms of aviation, the proposals are hugely disappointing, extremely limited and essentially a charter for the industry, desperate to recover from the pandemic, to build back the same.  Many colleagues in environmental and analytical organisations are preparing detailed responses, based on flight numbers, the viability or otherwise of so-called sustainable fuels and climate impact statistics. While these are much needed dissections that provide the ammunition with which to call for more radical action, there is also a need to remind ourselves of the fundamentals, a plain English telling of where we are and where we need to go. 

First, technical and scientific solutions to the climate impact of aviation are to be welcomed. No one would disagree with that – a successful call for a reduction in the amount of flying would not exclude us from wanting to see whatever flying remains from being carried out in a more climate friendly way.  Whether alternative fuels, aircraft technology, or a combination of both, in principle we would welcome investment aimed at the development of such solutions. 

Fatal delay

What we do object to is that these solutions are used as industry greenwash that ignores reality in order to justify the continuation (or restoration) of business as usual.  All actors agree, including government and industry, that viable solutions will not be available till the late 2030s at best, maybe the 2040s, or even 2050.  Many of the solutions currently proposed are either ‘false’ (i.e. create as many problems as they solve) or ‘need work’ (i.e. unproven, requiring more R&D). In particular, synthetic or so-called sustainable fuels are either a long way off development, are expensive and energy intensive to use, are impossible to scale up, or produce more emissions than conventional kerosene. 

So we are looking to some future time for the possible advent of alternative ways of flying, hence the DfT commits to ‘net zero domestic aviation by 2040’ and net zero for all aviation by 2050.  Even leaving aside the problematic nature of the term ‘net zero’ that is a long way off.

In the meantime plans for traffic growth, and associated airport expansions, remain. These have nothing to do with such solutions and are purely about an increase in fossil fuelled flying, including recovery to 2019 levels by 2025 and then continuing to grow thereafter – more flights in 2026, more in 2027, 2028 and so on.

We should ask:

i. How does such growth in emissions square with a climate emergency for which radical action is needed by 2030 to keep within 1.5C (clue: it doesn’t), and

ii. How the availability of solutions, even accelerated to the 2030s, will help solve a climate crisis that is happening very visibly right now (it won’t).

As catastrophes unfold, have our leaders got the message yet?

It's never been clearer that the climate crisis is here now. Below are news stories from just the past month describing extreme weather events and catastrophes from around the world. UPDATED 28 July

Some events are so extreme they could have not have occurred without climate breakdown, in other regions there is a trend of increasing frequency/severity. These events, alongside much worse predictions by scientists, should be enough to push world leaders into action on climate. But at best we see only half-measures and delay. Less than 100 days remain until the COP26 summit, and the UK government is issuing new oil drilling licences while ignoring the gap between its emissions targets and a lack of policies to meet them. We have to speak out and ensure the voices of those on the front lines of climate change are heard.

Heatwaves, drought and fire

Madagascar

Madagascar is on the brink of a famine it played little part in creating. In Southern Madagascar, a four-year drought and vicious sandstorms have destroyed crops and turned arable land to desert. As many as 500,000 are nearing starvation.

North America

‘Nowhere is safe’: heat shatters vision of Pacific north-west as climate refuge. A 'heat dome' brought unprecedented heat to the US Pacific north-west and western Canada. Known for mild summers, cities were unprepared for record temperatures of up to 42.2C (Seattle) and 46.7C (Portland, Oregon). Some inland areas managed to get up to 118F (47.8C). Hospitals suddenly found themselves overwhelmed, with several hundred people believed to have died in the heat. The town of Lytton shattered the previous heat record for Canada (45C), reaching 49.5C before residents fled a devastating wildfire, which destroyed large parts of the town. Temperature records are usually broken by fractions of degrees.

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