Global, Global Investigates

Global Investigates: Cop26: The Last Chance to Save the Planet?

Images of wildfires painting skies red, or subway stations filled with water feel like the scenes of a sci-fi blockbuster, not pictures appearing on the nightly news at an increasingly alarming rate. However, as countries across the globe grapple with the worsening effects of climate change, it has never been more apparent that we are hurtling towards a climate disaster in which the hope for a liveable planet is slipping away through idle politician’s fingers. In recent months wildfires have torn through Europe, the US and Canada experienced a deadly heatwave. Temperatures in Pakistan reached an intolerable 50C, 10C above a healthy body temperature. The Met Office has warned that we are now entering the era of extreme weather. The approaching COP26 meeting, due to be held in Glasgow between October and November, has been called humanity’s last chance to prevent catastrophic climate change, but doubts remain that global leaders will take the giant leap required to make the difference in the climate race. Concerns have also been raised about the UK’s ability to lead such a summit, as Johnson’s government continues to stumble over green legislation.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has declared a code red for humanity in its first assessment of climate change since 2013. Despite this bleak prediction, scientists have said a major rapid reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions could stabilise temperatures below the critical 1.5C increase agreed in the Paris Climate Accords adopted in 2015. The UN Secretary General, António Guterres, said on the issue: “If we combine forces now, we can avert climate catastrophe. But … there is no time for delay and no room for excuses.” The COP26 brings together leaders from 190 countries and subsequently provides the best opportunity to establish a global approach to the climate disaster before time runs out. However, many remain sceptical of the summit’s ability to produce the needed legislation as other significant meetings on climate change have proven entirely fruitless despite increasing urgency. The G20 summit held in Naples in July resulted in no meaningful decisions, falling tragically short of the momentum it was supposed to inspire entering the COP26. The G20 represents 90% of the world’s economic production and consequently a significant portion of global greenhouse gas emissions. This is the central issue as to why wealthy governments continue to fail to agree on a route and timeline to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and the more ambitious goal of capping the global temperature increase at 1.5C – it would require a complete overhaul of the capitalist economic model, something they have proven time and again they are not prepared to do. Consequently, world leaders are entering the COP26 summit having laid little foundation and with no collective commitment to the sacrifice it will take to make the COP26 meeting the success it so desperately needs to be.  

Delays in the implementation of effective climate protocol are quickly overtaking climate denial as the most serious and significant threat to climate action. Environmentalist Bill McKibben summarised the threat posed by delay: “winning slowly is the same as losing.” As carbon emissions are set to rise again in 2023 the delays in establishing climate protocol allows for the gulf between what needs to be done and the world’s current position to widen dramatically as the path to crucial net-zero emissions grows further out of reach. The Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, admitted: “We can’t continue at the current pace but have to up the tempo”. Despite European nations being amongst the worst offenders in regards to empty promises of climate action, their actions are falling drastically short of what is needed from such large-scale polluters. Climate action operates outside of the standard political cycle of elections. The current governments are required to make significant sacrifices in order to deliver upon their promise of capping global warming at 1.5C, however the results of these actions will only come in future decades, years after current governments have left office. Consequently, many current political leaders are unprepared to take the steps required to address global warming as it will not directly benefit their own careers. They do, however, risk going down in history as the leaders who squandered the world’s last chance. Governments continual refusal to invest in green policies to the level required to have any significant impact on climate change means all promises of carbon neutrality by 2050 and limiting the global temperature increase to 1.5C are nothing but hollow promises to mask inaction and will remain forever out of reach.

The UK government, the host of the summit, has described the event as the world’s last best chance, but as the meeting approaches doubts continue to rise regarding the British government’s ability to host such a discussion as the government is consistently accused of green hypocrisy. Greta Thunberg, famed climate activist, has recently criticised the UK, stating that it is not the leader on climate change Boris Johnson’s government proclaims. It is not the first time that Johnson and his government have been criticised for falling drastically short of their green promises. In recent weeks, Johnson’s government has approved the construction of the new Cambo oilfield, located in the North Sea approximately a mere 438 miles from the host city of Glasgow. The first phase of the Cambo oilfield aims to extract oil that will produce over 70 million tonnes of carbon dioxide when burnt, the equivalent annual emissions of a staggering 18 coal-fired power stations according to the group Friends of the Earth. This is in every way incompatible with the promise of net zero by 2050. In response, Greenpeace has launched an appeal in Scotland’s highest court, marking the first time an offshore permit has ever been challenged in court. Tension has continued to rise in Scotland over green policies, with the Scottish Conservatives branding the Green Party as “extremists” whilst negotiations took place to form the SNP-Greens coalition government. However, the vilification of green groups by political parties and the media is far from a rare occurrence. Groups such as Extinction Rebellion, who frequently stage protests, have been painted as the enemy of the people across much of British media. These protest groups are now facing arrest under the proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill needed, according to the Home Office, to curb “disruptive tactics used by some protesters.” One Tory backbencher confirmed the bill had been drawn up in response to the protests over Extinction Rebellion. The ongoing actions the UK government takes to quash protest rather than take effective action is a dark stain on the government’s green reputation as she prepares to front the COP26 meeting.

As the cost of reversing climate damage increases year upon year, acting early is not only the best solution for the planet but also carries the least economic burden. The Office for Budget Responsibility calculated that an investment of just 0.4% of the national GDP between now and 2050 would be sufficient to tackle climate change. Rapid decarbonisation has become central to the plans for a green future, making the transition from our carbon-heavy economy to a green one inevitable. As such, fast action will also help to make this transition smoother by preventing Carbon heavy industries from becoming further ingrained in our economy. The economic transition presents not only the path to saving the climate but the opportunity to create a more equal society. The investments into green industries will generate jobs, establish new industries as old ones close, ensure a better quality of life, and create a shift in the distribution of wealth and power. This is the hope for the Green New Deal.

As the COP 26 meeting approaches, the world must finally realise that the timer for securing a good tomorrow is about to run out. Unless global emissions are halved within the decade, the opportunity to avoid warming higher than 1.5C will pass us by. In 2021 we are experiencing the effects of a rise by 1.2C, a rise beyond 1.5C will likely make recent record-breaking weather experienced in recent years the mildest weather we will ever have again. Politicians must finally reckon with their states carbon economies to ensure an inhabitable future. As the host of the summit, the UK government must finally act as the global leader in the race against climate change that our Prime Minister has portrayed her to be, and we must enter the COP26 meeting with a record on climate action that allows us to ask other countries for their collective sacrifice. 

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Aislinn Wright

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September 2021
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