COP26 a washout? Don’t lose hope – here’s why

It’s fair to say that there has been a lot of pressure on Glasgow’s COP26 to deliver. 

Since the last climate conference took place in Madrid in 2019, we’ve seen wildfires in Greece, Australia, Canada, and South America, biblical floods in China, the UK, Germany and America, and record-breaking hurricanes, cyclones, and tornadoes across the globe.

Climate-related events are accelerating and intensifying, alarming organizations such as the IPCC (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) into calling ‘Code Red’ on the future prospects of life on this planet.

Added to all of the above is the urgency unavoidably added by the rescheduling of COP26 by a year, owing to the impacts and restrictions of Covid19.

Everybody understands the critical nature of holding climate conferences annually. Over 99% of scientists agree that man-made climate change is underway, and of those, a large percentage feel that we’ve either already reached the tipping point ‘of no return’ or that we’ll reach this terrible threshold within two decades.

Given all of the above, all of us invested in the renewables industry hoped for decisive and revolutionary action from the UK’s congress.

A betrayal?

Understandably then, most headlines have focused on the anticlimax of the watered-down objectives around coal extraction and use.

Coal is by far, the worst of our fossil fuel dependencies. According to pressure group, EndCoal:

“Our global addiction to coal is killing us and irreparably damaging our planet.”

Each year, hundreds of thousands of people die due to coal pollution. Millions more around the world suffer from asthma attacks, heart attacks, and other illnesses which lead to hospitalizations and lost workdays.

Coal is the single biggest contributor to global climate change. If plans to build more than 21000 coal power stations are realized, the greenhouse gases released from these plants will put us on track for a five degree Celsius rise in global temperatures, a fate likened to planetary collapse.”

Coal’s role in the destruction of our entire ecosystem cannot be overstated, so at the bare minimum, most hoped for a zero-tolerance commitment to phasing it out at the earliest opportunity. 

However, given last-minute opposition by both India and China, the agreement was diluted to an almost meaningless global compromise to ‘phase down’ our dependence on the toxic substance.

Little wonder that the President of COP26, Alok Sharma, looked visibly agonized as he wrapped up the conference, apologizing for the ‘disappointment’ caused by the committee’s capitulation.

So what now?

It’s easy to feel despondent at this moment in time but actually, there’s plenty to be hopeful for.

George Monbiot’s latest column for The Guardian provides a compelling counter-argument to dejection.

There are serious psychological factors pushing us towards better behaviors, regardless of whether such actions are mandated or not. He writes that “researchers whose work was published in Science in 2018 discovered that a critical threshold was passed when the size of a committed minority reached roughly 25% of the population. At this point, social conventions suddenly flip.” We’ve seen this happen time and time again, especially over the past decade as social conventions have been smashed one after the other.

Smoking has become passe for example, and gay marriage has become commonplace in many western nations. Cannabis legalization is going much the same way.

According to this theory, change is just a matter of a quarter of us willing things in a certain direction. 

We already know from the British Government’s Public Attitude Tracker series that nine out of ten Brits (89%) have noticed at least one current impact from climate change, while only 8% have not noticed any impacts. Except for the tiny minority of 1% who don’t believe in climate change, 83% agree that people in other countries are being affected by climate change, 70% see that people in the UK are affected and a half (49%) see their local area being affected.

For those of us fighting the good fight, none of us are shouting into a vacuum. 

And there was good news

While the media has largely focused on the letdown around the (lack of) action on coal, COP26 did move the global conversation around clean energy and environmental destruction.

For one thing, two of the world’s biggest polluters, China and the US, have agreed to cooperate more with the global community over the next few decades. Both nations have agreed to take steps to reduce methane emissions, to make greater efforts to de-carbonize and to actively transition to clean energy.

We also saw leaders from more than 100 countries pledge to stop deforestation by 2030 – a contract of enormous planetary importance.

A similar amount of countries also committed to cutting 30% of methane emissions by the end of the decade. 

Finally, and of particular note to the renewables industry, some 450 financial organizations, who between them control $130tn, agreed to back clean technology and to direct finance away from fossil fuel-burning industries.

Immediate responses

The response from notable figures from the conference’s home nation has been predictably mixed. Greenpeace’s Jennifer Morgan stated that nations need to “come back to the table every year with greater ambition until the 1.5C gap is closed”. Ruth Chapman of Dulas concurred, stating that “no COP is going to solve the climate crisis by itself but we urgently need to accelerate commitments year on year”.

The UK’s Prime Minister praised the conference, branding it “the beginning of the end of climate change”, whilst somewhat esoterically and fence-sitting, the Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford mused that COP26 has given us “hope delivered but hope delayed.”

It’s going to take time for the dust to settle but for now, let’s be heartened by the fact that the Glasgow sessions have once again put renewables on the agenda. For better or worse, the conference has fomented a critical conversation around our dependence on coal. 

Sometimes, political failures like these can mobilize grassroots civil action that drives us further and faster than we ever thought possible.

So let’s hope for that.

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