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The Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow has entered its final days after almost two weeks of frantic negotiations that have seen delegates representing 197 countries racing to agree terms on cutting greenhouse gas emissions in order to keep the forecast global temperature rise down to 1.5C from pre-industrial levels by the century’s end.
The mantra “1.5 to stay alive” has spread like wildfire among the tens of thousands of activists and campaigners who have descended on the Scottish city in the hope of pressuring world leaders into committing to bringing fossil fuel pollution down to net zero by 2050.
While a number of headline-grabbing pledges have been made to address areas of concern like deforestation, methane production and coal reliance, the summit’s president, Alok Sharma, said on Tuesday there was still “a mountain to climb” before that temperature rise target, enshrined in the 2015 Paris Agreement, had any chance of becoming a reality.
Complicating the matter is the fact that several key polluters are not playing ball, with China still focused on achieving net zero by 2060, India saying it is aiming for 2070 and Russia refusing to set a date at all.
However, there is still time and plenty more talking to be done on important subjects like green financing initiatives and the role technology can play in accelerating decarbonisation efforts.
Why is the target so important?
The 1.5C figure, which has become the central mission of Cop26, was included in the Paris accord six years ago at the insistence of small Pacific island nations on the frontline of the climate crisis, who insisted that the agreement’s signatories go further than the 2C agreed at the failed 2009 Copenhagen conference.
Instead, world leaders were bound by the new agreement to dedicate themselves to cutting global heating to “2C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels”.
A 2018 report by the UN’s Nobel Prize-winning panel of scientists, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), examined the half-degree difference between the two figures and found that hitting 1.5C would mean: fewer deaths from heat, smog and infectious diseases; half as many people facing drought; the survival of some coral reefs; reduced melting of the polar ice caps and a less drastic rise in sea levels; reduced animal habitat destruction; and fewer heatwaves and torrential rain events.
But, importantly, aiming for 1.5C does not mean 1.5C from now, because the world has already warned by 1.1C from pre-industrial days, giving us just 0.4C more by way of wiggle room before 2100 - and we are actually expected to hit 1.5C as soon as 2034.
To prevent our planet heating beyond that and being beset by the myriad problems associated with rising sea levels and more extreme and erratic weather patterns, the UN has urged the nations meeting in Glasgow to cut their emissions in half by 2030 - a goal that is technically possible but the mother of all tasks politically speaking.
What pledges have been agreed?
The key promises made so far at Cop 26 are as follows.
The UK government announced that almost 100 countries had signed up to a deforestation pledge to begin restoring the world’s forests by 2030, including Brazil, home to the all-important Amazon rainforest.
That was followed by 100 countries signing up to a plan to cut methane by 30 per cent from 2020 levels by 2030.
Another 190 countries and organisations agreed to end coal-fired power, including major coal producers such as Poland and Vietnam, although the deal would have meant more had China, India and Australia signed on.
Forty-five governments have agreed to cut farming emissions, protect nature and switch to more sustainable agriculture practices.
Forty nations signed up to the “Glasgow breakthroughs” initiative to help developing nations access the innovative tech they need to shift to net zero carbon emissions, a project the UK believes will create 20m jobs and add $16trn to the global economy.
Other positive steps from individual nations include Ecuador expanding the marine reserve around the Galapagos Islands, the US and Europe agreeing a financial arrangement to wean South Africa off its coal dependency, the UK donating £290m in climate aid to Asia-Pacific countries and Australia moving to encourage the sale of electric cars.
What are the experts saying?
So far, the verdict on the pledges made by world governments at Cop26 is that they are well-intentioned but insufficient.
New analysis by the Climate Action Tracker (CAT) research group published on Tuesday concluded that the promises made to this point would result in the global temperature rising being reined in by 2100, but only by keeping it to 2.4C, which would still spell disaster.
The CAT analysis added that, in an optimistic scenario wherein all short and long-term climate pledges including net zero goals were fully implemented, the temperature rise could be kept to 1.8C.
However, there is currently a “1C gap” between countries’ current actions and their long-term climate plans, according to Dr Matthew Gidden, the report’s author and a senior scientific adviser at Climate Analytics.
“The 1.5C goal of the Paris Agreement lives and dies by how we get to net zero and what we’re seeing right now isn’t enough,” Dr Gidden concluded.
The same firm’s CEO, Dr Bill Hare, was more scathing, saying there was a “credibility gap” as well as a Celsius gap: “It’s all very well for leaders to claim they have a net zero target, but if they have no plans as to how to get there, and their 2030 targets are as low as so many of them are, then frankly, these net zero targets are just lip service to real climate action.”
Dr Kat Kramer, climate policy lead at Christian Aid, described the findings as a “screaming siren”, adding: “We are far from where we need to be to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. It is imperative that countries recognise the need to end the fossil fuel era.”
A draft “cover decision” setting out the potential outcome from the Cop26 climate summit has since been published, urging countries to “revisit and strengthen” their pledges again in 2022.
Climate pledges for 2030 should be discussed again by the end of next year, the document says, to try to give the world a better chance of limiting global heating to that crucial 1.5C level, declaring that meeting the aspiration needs meaningful and effective action in “this critical decade” and at least signals a refusal to give up.
“It is clear that the current set of pledges on emissions are not yet consistent with having a reasonable chance of holding warming to no more than 1.5C,” said Bob Ward, director of policy and communications at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics.
“We need countries to agree to return every one or two years with more ambitious pledges. We also need stronger evidence of action to deliver the pledges.”