COP26: fourteen days to save the world

26 November 2021

Net zero
Part of the net zero team at COP26

NFU Chief Renewables Adviser Dr Jonathan Scurlock reflects on a frantic fortnight in the Scottish capital.

COP26 was a pretty full-on experience for the NFU climate change team – 8 days away in Glasgow in my case, commuting 45 miles each way to and from our Edinburgh hotel – with an almost non-stop programme of meetings, chance encounters and ‘minding’ our NFU elected representatives.

Colourful national dress abounded among the delegates, and everyone who is anyone in climate change was there – with hasty handshakes and introductions made to Labour front-bencher Ed Miliband, the chair and chief executive of the Climate Change Committee, and even the American science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson.

But despite the gulf between the protestors outside the Scottish Event Campus and the negotiators on the inside, the resulting Glasgow Climate Pact – Advanced unedited version document does represent something of a breakthrough – not least because of the many other commitments made by governments and private sector organisations worldwide:

  • on halting deforestation by 2030
  • on cutting methane emissions (mostly from oil and gas)
  • on ending the sale of fossil-fuel powered vehicles, and
  • on finalising the 'rule book' for the existing 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

Overall, there has been a big change in emphasis from the Paris goal of 2°C average global warming to the new aim of “keeping 1.5 alive”, given the climate impacts experienced already worldwide with barely 1.2°C of average temperature rise.

Section 1 of the Glasgow Climate Pact is actually headed 'Science and Urgency' (it’s good to see some formal recognition of the urgency of climate action).

But what is most significant is that 196 countries have agreed to a document that explicitly includes reducing fossil fuel use for the first time.

Yes, it looked like a pretty shoddy compromise for India, China and South Africa to force through a last-minute change of wording from ‘phase-out’ to ‘phase-down’ of unabated coal power, without following due process (clearly at significant cost to many small island states).

But, as commentators have pointed out, there is a counter-argument that developed countries like Germany and the USA should have set a stronger example and promised more financial support towards a 'just transition' – and the anger this frustrating climb-down will foment in many could well drive faster reforms in the longer term.

Perhaps it was disappointing that there was little direct focus on the role agriculture can play in tackling climate change (nothing in the Glasgow Climate Pact itself – the closest we get is “other ecosystems acting as sinks and reservoirs of GHGs”), but we can be pleased that the NFU delegation and our World Farmers Organisation colleagues participated so extensively in numerous meetings and side events. But as many have already commented: “They changed a word, but they can’t change the signal coming out of this COP”.

Even the Prime Minister has remarked that “Glasgow has sounded the death knell for coal power”.

Now we just have to press our government and organisations around the world to deliver on their promises.

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