Written by Michael Sheridan

8 mins read

The sight of world leaders attending the 26th Congress of the Parties in their private jets and motor cavalcades was an ironic spectacle. The UN’s COP26 was meant to ‘accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement’ not add to the problem.

The global climate action event was attended by 200 nations and 25,000 delegates. The most noticeable absentees from the Scottish city were the heads of state from China and Russia. While each country would speak about its plans to implement climate change all eyes were on the big players to see who, if any, would step up and advance the cause. The simple headline target for COP26 was to act on the Paris Agreement and limit global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees centigrade to avoid climate catastrophe.

As nation host, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke with surprising coherence about the need to take drastic action. Johnson claims the UK leads the world in its emissions reduction efforts, but many experts suggest otherwise. Johnson, like many leaders of rich, developed countries appears to be talking out of both sides of his mouth. While calling for green energy the UK still supports the fossil fuel industry with its vast financial lobbying power. Delegates heard (and delivered) repeated calls for all nations to stop fossil fuel exploration and harvesting. Climate activists believe the best place for fossil fuels is in the ground or under the sea and they have a strong point. With so much money involved in the oil and gas industries it begs the question what politician is going to kill off that cash cow? Boris also told COP26 of his plans for some noble actions on climate change, including harnessing wind power and reforestation. Scotland will get aid to preserve and plant new forests, yet at the same time its natural bogs are being dug up, releasing tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere to build wind farms. The UK’s plans for hydrogen production see it favour so called ‘blue’ hydrogen over ‘green’. Blue hydrogen is made using power from carbon emitting sources unlike green that is made with carbon-neutral power. It’s clear, even trying to do the right thing will always attract criticism.

Most people are aware of the European Union’s commitment to carbon neutrality by 2050 yet 2030 is the date we have engrained in our minds in Ireland. COP26 called on all countries to set ambitious emission reduction targets such as banning coal burning power generation, ending deforestation, contributing to aid programs where wealthy countries provide financial assistance to poor countries to help them transition to a greener existence, and accelerate the switch to electric vehicles. Many small nations spoke with passion about how they are suffering the affects of climate change through no fault of their own. The clear injustice rallied calls for rich industrial countries to be accountable and act. A yearly aid fund of $1bn was agreed to assist poorer countries deal with climate change. As a direct result of global warming Pacific Island nations are being threatened by rising seas. African countries are in dire straits as the continent is heating up faster than most areas. It has 17% of the global population but produces only 4% of emissions.

Climate activist Greta Thunberg on the streets of Glasgow drew media attention to the exclusion of the world’s youth from the congress. Perhaps Greta did more to highlight climate change by shouting out as part of an estimated crowd of 120,000 people calling for action. Climate change is a subject that terrifies young people, but the uncomfortable truth is the sky won’t fall down in 2030. However, what is at risk is permanent damage to the world’s eco system and this cannot be ignored. There were many famous faces at COP26. Former President of Ireland Mary Robinson drew attention to the lack of action from Australia, China, Brazil, Russia and Saudi Arabia saying their attitude to climate change was not yet in ‘crisis-mode’ but still routed in ‘fossil-fuel’ mode. She also made passionate appeals for leaders to recognise gender equality, pointing out that climate change is in fact man-made. Former US President Barack Obama addressing the congress delivered a great speech encouraging young people to stay angry and to channel that anger for change. Unfortunately, Obama’s speech may be more memorable for his cringe-worthy gaff when he said “Since we’re in the Emerald Isles here, let me quote the Bard, William Shakespeare” as he managed to offend Scots, Irish and the English in one sentence.

COP26 drew attention to the fact that the target dates of 2030 and 2050 are being ignored by many of the globe’s biggest polluters. China and Russia on the face of it couldn’t care less about the planet as they ignore calls to act and reduce emissions. Russia, just before COP26 announced a target date of 2060 for carbon-neutrality. Can Putin deliver? We know from recent history it is very hard to hold Russia to account. Close to one fifth of the world’s forests are in Russia but it is a country incredibly rich in hydrocarbons. Russia’s economy relies heavily on exports of its massive reserves of oil and gas. Experts suggest that if the world stops burning fossil fuels by 2050, Russian exports could fall by 30 per cent – what politician would want to sign off on that!

COP26 highlighted the obvious need for big countries to do big things. To help scale the issue with China has a population of circa 1.44b. If Ireland’s entire population of 5m was a city in China it would just make its top 20. India with its population of 1.39b poses a similar problem to climate change. Knowing it cannot meet carbon neutrality by 2050 its government has declared a target of 2070. When you see what little action large countries are prepared to take, we must ask the question why should we reduce emissions on our tiny island if the big players aren’t going to join us. The moral argument ‘that it is the right thing to do’ is hard to deny. The economic argument to bound ahead with emission reduction and carbon taxes etc. is a tougher ask as it hits people in their pockets. To do the right thing to combat climate change is costly but satisfying. We are starting to witness a backlash against consumerism. People are now checking the origins of the food they buy in supermarkets to check its carbon footprint. Fast-Fashion is under the spotlight too as people look for more sustainable options. But, and it is a big but, until all consumers are led by their conscience and not the bottom line price, change will be slow. For example, in the coming years many affordable zero emission electric cars will come from China where ironically, they will have been built in factories powered by coal-burning power stations. Action on climate change needs to be scaled up and implemented at nation level with large scale systematic change.

The COP26 organisers say the agreements and pledges so far, if delivered, would reduce emissions by 9 gigatons by 2030. By their own estimates, emissions would need to be reduced by 22 gigatons to achieve the Paris commitment of halving them by 2030. What is blatantly clear is that change requires a leap of faith, and it is sadly true that many world leaders are not willing to take that first step as it will cost them too much financially. Thankfully just days before the congress closed there was a significant boost to the cause. US politician John Kerry announced that the USA and China would work together over the next decade on climate change. Kerry said there had been 30 online meetings to date at a senior level. As yet no details of any actions have been announced. China and the US are the two biggest global polluters so anything they can do to reduce emissions will have a dramatic impact on climate change. In a closing statement COP26 said the talking for all delegates will continue with attending nations agreeing to submitting more ambitious carbon-reduction plans by the end of 2022. Almost under the radar COP26 drew attention to emissions of the greenhouse gas Methane. This gas is a massive problem and an agreement by more than 100 countries was reached to reduce its emission by 30 per cent by 2030. COP26 also called for the phasing out of fossil fuels and coal, but no dates were set. The only ‘definite’ we can take away from COP26 is that air pollution in Glasgow went up as a result.

Michael Sheridan is a well-known and highly respected motoring journalist whose credits include The Irish Times, RTE (radio and television), Today FM and Motorhub to name a few. For over 20 years he has judged Irish Car of the Year and many other awards including Fleet and Van of the Year awards.

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