What a difference a year makes: How the world has changed since COP26, as COP27 approaches

What a difference a year makes. Cast your minds back to this time last year. The climate crisis was top of the news agenda as the UK hosted the Glasgow climate summit COP26, and tens of thousands of protesters pounded the streets demanding leaders raised the bar.   

The UK government was lobbying the world to "consign coal to history" and promising deals on "cash, coal, cars, trees", as then prime minister Boris Johnson coined it.

Make what you will of those pledges - and campaigners certainly argued it was too much hot air - but climate action was almost fashionable.

One year - and one fierce war in Ukraine - later, the context is virtually unrecognisable. The next UN climate talks, COP27, which starts in Egypt today, risks being overshadowed by a war in Europe and energy and cost of living crises, as many countries turn inwards in a battle to keep the lights on.

"Now we come through a year of multiple crises, all compounding each other," says Tasneem Essop, executive director of Climate Action Network (CAN), which represents over 1,800 global civil society groups, and holds countries accountable at the talks.

Just a year after the Glasgow Pact to "phase down" coal and fossil fuel subsidies, rich nations have "backpedalled and are still expanding investment in fossil fuels," she argues, with the UK's pursuit of new North Sea oil and gas a "case in point".

But is it all bad news?

'Feeble efforts to stop this emergency'

If you speak to scientists, who have complained for years their warnings were falling on deaf ears, the answer is bleak.

The planet "has not registered humanity's frankly rather feeble efforts to stop this emergency," says Peter Kalmus, a scientist at NASA but speaking in a personal capacity.

Hailed as a key success in Glasgow last year was a promise to ramp up climate pledges by their year, but only 24 have done so.

Emissions have continued to rise, when they should be falling by almost half by 2030. This sets the world on course for a dangerous 2.5C of warming, even if all plans are implemented, far above the agreed safe level of 1.5C.

"I know that doesn't sound like much," says Mr Kalmus. But it's enough "in another decade or two, to probably eliminate coral reefs on planet Earth", to drive all the intense heat waves, huge wildfires, hotter storms, worse flooding and the melting ice sheets "and all of that" he explains.

Putin's invasion of Ukraine was "a pivotal moment where humanity could have said, like we have to have basically a war footing, emergency effort to transition completely away from fossil fuels and towards renewables. They're affordable now," says Mr Kalmus.

"That is not what happened," he believes.

As climate breakdown accelerates, so does the protest

In the UK and beyond, the global shortfall and cost of gas following war in Ukraine has driven a lurch back to coal, the most polluting fossil fuel that for years the world has been trying to replace with slightly cleaner gas.

Every bit of pollution contributes to the global heating that has fuelled a litany of extreme, deadly and catastrophic weather events suffered the world over.

"I think I can speak for the majority of climate scientists to say that we are surprised by how bad things are in 2022," says Mr Kalmus.

The terrifying flooding in Pakistan killed 1,700 people, and wildfires in Europe and drought across the whole of the northern hemisphere hammered home that the climate crisis is coming for rich countries and the global north too - even if not yet as harshly as it is hitting the global south.

"Another key difference" between COP26 and COP27 is that the climate movement and civil disobedience are accelerating alongside mounting climate catastrophes, Mr Kalmus says, citing the Just Stop Oil protesters' headline-grabbing art stunts.

"That's not a coincidence that those two things are going hand-in-hand, right? Because this is a climate movement that's driven by physics, essentially."

'Backsliding and backtracking'

Egypt's lead negotiator, ambassador Mohammed Nasr, whose very job is to be diplomatic, says he has "mixed feelings" about whether the world is moving forwards or backwards.

"In some cases, yes, we are concerned with this backsliding and backtracking from major partners who have been strongly committed to climate change."

The talks are built on international cooperation, and countries agreeing to do things on the condition others will act too. Geopolitical tensions outside of climate world are rocking those foundations.

As the president of the COP27 talks, bound to seek consensus, Mr Nasr won't name names.

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But Russia and Ukraine are at war, and the US and China have fallen out over Taiwan and scrapped their joint climate plan they announced during last year's COP.

And an ongoing broken promise by rich countries to fund $100bn of climate action in poor countries looks even worse when countries have found the money to fund the war in Ukraine, argues Mr Essop.

"Developing countries are, I think, reaching the end of their patience. And it will have a huge impact in terms of the levels of trust that is required to actually have, real, meaningful international cooperation," he adds.

'The things that give me hope'

But on the other hand, says Mr Nasr, the world is seeing "major transformations" in energy and transport.

Renewable power is growing so quickly that it met all of the increase in electricity demand in the first half of this year, a key stepping stone before it then starts to displace existing fossil fuel power.

Despite concerns about the effects of the current energy crisis, global emissions of the climate-heating gas carbon dioxide is expected to grow by around 1% this year, just a fraction of their increase last year.

As well as expanding renewable power, that's also thanks to the strong expansion of electric vehicles, sales of which doubled between 2020 and 2021.

Meanwhile heat pump installations are due to hit 600 million by 2030, enough to power 20% of all heating needs globally, according to the world's leading energy think tank IEA.

"That's the future being built," says Nick Mabey, co-CEO of climate think tank E3G. "EVs, heat pumps and renewable low carbon power are the things that give me hope."

Despite Russia's invasion and energy crisis, overall "people are not betting on fossil fuels... So that to me shows the stickiness of the transition," to clean energy Mr Mabey says.

In fact the war has catalysed governments to run harder and faster to clean energy, the IEA concluded in a major report, saying the recent increase in coal burning would only be "temporary".

Just this year the European Union passed an enormous emissions reduction package, major emitter Australia elected a new government on a mandate to tackle climate change, and China, India and Japan are among those big economies pouring investment into clean power.

The US' $370bn Inflation Reduction Act is set to catalyse green industries in what "experts are viewing a seismic change in the US", says Dave Jones from think tank Ember.

"The direction of travel set by Europe, the US and China in a sense determines the direction of the industrial economy of the world," adds Mr Mabey. "The problem is, of course, we need to go much faster."

The problem is also, according to Mr Essop, that the financing for clean technologies "to be rolled out and scaled up in developing countries is not forthcoming", with Africa missing out chances to build clean power, whilst being urged by the global north not to extract its own gas reserves.

Mr Kalmus says "a cultural shift has to happen into emergency mode". The outraged reaction to the Just Stop Oil protests shows most people don't view climate crisis "as the emergency that it is".

"So the most important thing people can really do is start to talk about like this, like it's a genuine life or death emergency, which I think it is. I know it is."

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