Will COP26 deliver?
The stakes are high as the COP26 negotiations enter their final stages. Earlier this week Climate Action Tracker assessed that commitments on the table are only sufficient to keep warming to 2.7 Celsius above pre-industrial levels. It has been mooted that we might need COP26.5 – a further meeting to finish the work of aligning individual country-level commitments to the 1.5 Celsius of the Paris Agreement. Then the USA and China – the two largest emitters – made a ground-breaking agreement to work together on reducing carbon emissions and the momentum shifted again. The climate negotiations are a complicated and intricate process and at this point there’s everything to play for.
Although the actual negotiations take place behind closed doors amid tight security, many of the proceedings are live-streamed and have been uploaded to the UN Climate Change YouTube channel. But there’s much more going on in Glasgow than the formal negotiations. Over in the Green Zone there has been an extensive programme of talks, debates and performances which are free to attend for any member of the public, as well as the official COP26 delegates. That, too, has its own YouTube channel. There are numerous pop-up venues across the city where countries, companies, charities, think tanks and other are showcasing their own activities. So much content, in fact, that visitors can only scratch the surface.
Having visited Glasgow for the first week of COP26, my overwhelming sense is that in the “climate bubble” there is a massive reservoir of ambition, leadership and determination – in particular, companies innovating and collaborating to create practical solutions that have the ability to deliver significant emissions reductions. What they lack, in the main, is enabling policy and access to finance that would enable them to scale quickly. But outside the bubble there is a mixture of apathy and inertia. Staying an hour outside the city I travelled by public transport every day among Glaswegians who were largely unengaged with what was happening in their city, the primary manifestations of which were delays and diversions caused by road closures.
Research published this week indicated that although the majority of people are now convinced of the reality of the climate crisis and the necessity for change, relatively few are willing to make those changes personally. Three quarters of those in the 10 European countries surveyed – including UK – said that they would accept stricter environmental laws but only half felt it necessary to change their own habits, citing a perceived lack of commitment from national and local government, media and businesses as demotivating factors. Put simply, people feel that it’s pointless to change their own behaviour if they aren’t seeing strong signals that their actions are in line with the rest of society.
We really can’t wait for whatever Nationally Determined Contributions are finally agreed by the COP26 negotiators to trickle down through policy; we need to align all sectors of society behind achieving the emissions reduction goals with the same sense of urgency that we pulled together to combat COVID-19. Those who provide goods and services have a pivotal role to play here; people can only choose the sustainable option if it’s available to them and most will only prefer it if it’s more appealing in some way – cheaper, easier, or more aspirational. Municipalities and businesses need to work together to create places where people can not only easily access a low-carbon lifestyle but where it becomes the default.