What Really Happened at COP26

This is the first time that notably limiting the use of coal and fossil fuels was unanimously included as a priority

What Really Happened at COP26

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, countries agreed to hold the increase in the planet's temperature to below 1.5 C in order to avoid a major disaster caused by climate change. Experts claimed that to achieve this greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions would have to be reduced to “zero” before 2050.

The conferences, exhibitions, and presentations of COP26 (Conference of the Parties in which 197 nations secured a new environmental agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change ( UNFCCC)) came to an end on November 12 in Glasgow. With more than 40,000 attendees, where Brazil had the highest representation of any country (perhaps to justify its high deforestation rate, which grew 45%, and 9.5% increase in GHG during the past year), the group that had the highest attendance and on which journalists, technocrats, environmentalists, bureaucrats, corporations, and the occasional politician focused the most, was the one devoted to “how to tackle the impact of fossil fuels on global warming.” The initial objective of the working groups was to assess how the plans of the different countries have evolved since 2015, in order to propose adjustments along the way, redefine legislation, and implement best practices and technologies, thereby reducing fossil fuel emissions to 0 by 2050, with significant progress by 2030.

What does “net zero” mean?

It means not adding any GHG to the atmosphere, which implies reducing emissions from CO2 (from gas, oil or coal combustion), methane (product of agriculture and livestock), and other gases, as much as possible. It also means transforming waste as it is produced, by natural means such as reforestation and increased plant biomass, or the conservation and restoration of wetlands, or through circular economy processes to redesign the technological cycles of waste and create an effective regional capital system (social, environmental and economic), mainly for developing countries. This is the theory; the practice is highly complicated and requires the convergence of many factors for its application.

Some facts

China, the largest CO2 producer, and Russia, the third largest, aim for carbon neutrality by 2060, but without saying how. India, the fourth highest emitter, has set a goal for net zero by 2070, with no visible plans. Other large countries have also made the same promise, but there is no measurable evidence of how they will achieve it. Environmentalists and some scientists claim that the main leaders (USA, China, Russia, India, Brazil, etc.) have failed to reach an agreement and that the goal of not going above 1.5 C cannot be reached, with or without COP.

The host, Boris Johnson, said that the UK is the country with the largest offshore wind generation on the planet, and has invested heavily in clean hydrogen technology. He wants to export know-how and lead green investment to drive the “green industrial revolution” across the planet (The Economist, 11/6/2021). It is yet to be seen whether, with the consequences of Brexit, this can be achieved in the long term.

President Joe Biden was optimistic, though somewhat timid, in his proposals. He stated that this time the US will react positively to meet the targets. On the other hand, he criticized Russia and China for missing the plenary assemblies of the event.

Together with Johnson and Biden, other leaders agreed that Covid-19 has caused huge economic imbalances and a significant delay in investment priorities in climate transition plans and projects.

In one of his speeches at COP26, Bill Gates said that although progress has been made regarding the Paris agreement, it has been neither sufficient nor uniform. In other words, some countries have only partially done their job. The countries with the most commitments (including the United States) have announced that they will reach the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050-60, but this cannot be achieved without implementing concrete, effective global action plans. Moreover, it seems that developing countries, which are also large GHG producers, only went to ask for money to achieve their goals.

The main topics of COP26

Innovate strongly and effectively towards the use of clean energies, in generation, in distribution, in the cooling and heating of buildings. Also innovate in the green industrial revolution, which will make production chains and supply chains take overall responsibility for decarbonizing the entire economy. Large oil corporations and the hundreds of new companies that have been created to offer alternative clean energies more efficiently and at very competitive costs agreed to this.

This topic was underpinned by Bill Gates, who highlighted the strong, decisive involvement of the private sector, which, together with the government and NGOs, is supporting the transition, particularly in the mining, transportation, financial (green energy) sectors, as well as one that has become increasingly important: agriculture and livestock systems, due to their enormous impact on GHGs. An interesting case is the successful international Breakthrough Energy Catalyst (BEC) program, in which a handful of corporations promote the creation of new technologies and practices aimed at reducing the Green Premium (extra costs for being clean) of the large polluting sectors (energy production, steel, cement, plastics).

Another issue on the agenda was the mobility of economic funds to support the “adaptability” of countries that have done the least owing to their poor readiness for natural disasters, since they are the ones that are most affected by the increasingly frequent major catastrophes, getting into debt and becoming poorer. Several organizations from African, Asian and Latin American countries underlined this when they emphasized the need to redefine financing to improve adaptability and the fight against extreme poverty. Without adequate financing, closely monitored by the economic powers, this problem will continue to be unresolved.

With regard to agriculture and livestock systems, two activities that cause high levels of environmental pollution, the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate program was presented, designed to help countries adapt their land, processes, and crops to counteract the worst and most frequent disasters such as droughts, fires and floods. However, unless rule of law is given its due importance and clear transparency measures in the use of funds are in place, these programs will disappear in the long term, according to the donor countries.

Finally, while public service enthusiasts, regulators, lobbyists, and activists deliberated on the policies needed to achieve the goals, numerous technologists discussed the most appropriate and economically feasible technologies to reduce the impact of the fossil fuels. The aim is to reduce the Green Premium and accelerate the fulfillment of the global climate change goals.

The technologies mentioned included:

  • Long-duration energy storage, which will make solar and wind energy more practical and effective.
  • Power grid recharging through water-based batteries.
  • More sustainable, lightweight, high-octane aviation fuels.
  • Direct air capture to extract CO2 from the atmosphere, and mobile carbon capture systems.
  • Production of clean, affordable hydrogen, although a low-cost solution that does not emit more GHGs is yet to be found.
  • Efficient technologies for plastic waste reduction and ocean de-acidification.
  • Strengthening concrete with CO2.
  • The use of the bioeconomy as a key factor in sustainable decision-making processes.

During the presentation, dozens of companies displayed their proposals for marketing innovative technologies, resulting in an enormous offering of effective and economically viable possibilities. Even though the estimated market runs into several billion dollars, there is still a long way to go to raise awareness among industries, governments, and the general public to achieve the Paris goals. This is due to the ineffectiveness of the business plans used to value these new technologies, and to governments’ shortsightedness in decoupling economic growth from the environmental and social impact that uncontrolled growth can create.

Sustainability is expensive, complex, and requires the alignment of collective interests. And if there is no return on investment, it is still very difficult to persuade private initiative and governments to invest in sustainable strategies in the long term.

How will we know if COP26 worked?

  • If the plans generated by industrialized countries to achieve neutrality display early victories (2030) in decarbonizing economies.
  • If the plans announced at COP26, related to reducing deforestation, methane, and the use of coal and fossil fuels, are accompanied by financing and clear, measurable rules, so that all countries, poor and rich alike, can jointly reach the 2050 goal.
  • If uniform, transparent, well-managed and borderless laws and regulations and rule of law are established for all.
  • If the Green Premium (extra costs for being clean) of the most polluting materials, (energy production based on fossil fuels, steel, cement, plastics) is reduced using innovative, flexible, affordable and competent technologies against the current versions of carbon emitters, with attractive incentives for their adoption, mainly for developing countries with the greatest environmental impact.
  • If large energy corporations, which currently focus on oil, change radically and engage in producing clean, renewable, and economically viable energies (such as green hydrogen), with a trillion-dollar market by 2050.
  • If countries invest in nature-based solutions (NBS) to strengthen the resilience of ecosystems and redirect social challenges, such as food and drinking water security, etc.
  • If global warming, as well as the pandemic, creates a global interest that concentrates the capacities and wishes of all countries in a common purpose to survive and leave a healthy place for future generations.
  • If politicians stop talking and act consciously, competently and ethically, as Greta said outside the convention halls -she wasn’t allowed into the plenary sessions-, “less blah, blah, blah and more action” seeking to solve the climate crisis.

Finally, some of the achievements of COP26

  • Most of the plans per country to cut emissions and maintain the 1.5°C goal were revised. Although there were no concrete conclusions, there was unanimity on the main actions to reach this goal.
  • This is the first time that notably limiting the use of coal and fossil fuels was unanimously included as a priority. The Glasgow Climate Pact is the first climate plan to explicitly reduce the use of coal, the largest source of GHG emissions. Even though China and India changed the term elimination to “reduction” at the last minute, the Pact will continue to be a priority worldwide.
  • Funding for developing countries that are most vulnerable to natural disasters was increased, since the target of $100 billion per year, promised for 2020, has not been met.
  • More than 130 countries (including the US, Brazil, Russia, and Mexico) decided to halve deforestation and land degradation by 2030.
  • Over 100 countries signed the US and European proposal to reduce methane generation by 30% by 2030.
  • Stress was placed on the importance of youth participation, through NGOs devoted to the inclusion of young people and local communities, and the participation of civil organizations, in matters related to the effective solution of sustainability problems and regional resilience.

However, if all the countries fail to follow all the guidelines, avoiding the tragedy of the commons - "what’s good for a few is harmful for all" -, with a holistic win-win vision for all, global warming is imminent, and the entire planet will suffer the consequences. 

After listening to and reading multiple opinions, news reports, and comments from COP26, I would like to go out on a limb and conclude something I did not hear explicitly, but that I believe is necessary to add and emphasize. No project, technology or program will work without a collective consciousness that works harmoniously and holistically, with the single, key purpose of leaving a planet that can effectively self-manage its vast, but limited, resources, even its human resources.

Humanity could disappear under innumerable natural or artificially created threats, but whether the planet will remain and sooner or later recover or be reborn is something we cannot know or control. Nevertheless, it is up to us to keep our world as healthy as possible, for the well-being of future generations.

The author is professor emeritus at EGADE Business School and director of the research initiative Sustainable Wealth Creation Through Innovation and Technology (SWIT).

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