COP 26 Climate Change Summit – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Billed as a last chance saloon to avert profoundly damaging climate change before the 2030 target date, COP 26 in Glasgow from 1-13 November 2021 was characterised by a spate of pronouncements and initiatives.
What did it really achieve for climate and biodiversity, and how can this be built on strategically?
A few bullet points set the scene towards COP27 in Cairo.
- Generous citation of nature’s role in limiting temperature rise to 1.5 C in CP/26 and CMA Cover Decisions – although COP25 had already underlined this (Para 15 1/CP.25)
- Useful highlight of the link between ecosystems and climate change mitigation and adaptation – depending on national level (NDC) implementation. Much also depends on development of key policy models as exemplars for wider adoption. Finalising the right criteria for EU’s Biodiversity and Forest Strategies can play a key global role here – particularly regarding the definition and scale of strict protection for forests and large natural ecosystems generally.
- Massive private sector funding availability for climate change mitigation [see the 2019 G20 Insights Report] and resilience [see EBRD 2021 Report] – but only if used appropriately, based on genuine climate change and biodiversity science. This availability forms part of the emerging Glasgow Financial Alliance [see Mark Carney on Bloomberg Green].
Completion of the Paris Agreement Rulebook, specifically Article 6, will provide support here with international carbon market mechanisms.
- 30 major financial companies pledged to end investment in activities involving deforestation; a relatively modest initiative, but with appropriate criteria (see Glasgow Declaration below), this could be a platform for much wider adoption.
- Opportunity to propose a positive Renewable Energy and Climate Change Strategy (RECCS). Current misalignments in renewables strategy, particularly the focus on climate-worsening forest bioenergy, can best be addressed through this positive initiative to reallocate subsidies to genuine renewables, carbon absorbent ecosystem conservation, and emission suppressing technology. For further information on the RECCS project contact email@example.com.
- Fossil fuels are highlighted at last, particularly coal – responsible for 40% of CO2 emissions. A COP26 Presidency-led initiative seeks to end international government subsidies (currently $420 bn pa for non-renewables see UNDP Report 27/10/2021) – but no date is yet given for this; furthermore, all carbon fuels must be involved or the consequence will be greater use of forest bioenergy with even higher emissions than the fossil fuels it is supposed to replace. A Global Methane Pledge suggested a 30% on 2020 levels by 2030 – addressing a neglected issue
- Opportunity to mobilise economic arguments, current largely absent in the conservation sector. Inappropriate management practice by the forestry sector, and its influence in promoting forest bioenergy, represents a significant obstacle to attainment of emissions targets – yet the entire sector represents only 2% of global GDP (1% in the northern Hemisphere), despite which its well-entrenched lobbying influence continues to hold the remaining 98% of the global economy ransom to the rising costs of climate change. While the need for a healthy timber sector is recognized, urgent reform is needed, underpinned by metrics of economic cost-benefit as well
- COP26 has so far given limited evidence it will reverse a poor overall track record in implementing previous COP decisions. On natural forests for example, the 2014 New York Declaration aimed to halve their loss by 2020 – it has since increased by over 40%.
- This is against a backdrop of the IPCC’s own 2021 Report calculating that carbon dioxide emissions would need to fall 45% by 2030 in relation to 2010 level and to net zero by 2050 to keep temperature rise below 1.5C. The ETC chart on emission cuts still needed (right hand side) shows the massive gap remaining if 2030 targets are to be reached.
- There has been a substantial shortfall in the $100bn annual climate finance from developed to developing nations determined in 2009 and pledged again at COP15 in Copenhagen. So precedent is not promising, despite COP26 acknowledging “climate change will increasingly cause loss and damage”. New initiatives such as the $8.5 bn funding partnership to promote transition from coal-based energy supply in South Africa represent a step forward here. It is also encouraging to see the US back in the fold, although uncertainties currently cloud Biden’s Build Back Better spending plan.
- The two-way link between climate change and biodiversity loss has still be to adequately recognised and actioned. There is to scope build the IPCC-IPBES Special Report into a full strategy, including CBD participation, and feed practical joint solutions into the 2023 Global Stocktake assessment. This should be supported by UNFCC’s two key subsidiary bodies: the UNFCC Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI) and Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA)
- The Glasgow Declaration on halting and reversing deforestation by 2030 sounds decisive with 141 signatories and $19 bn investment so far pledged. But it is already falling foul of a forestry sector able to use the UNFCC’s adopted definition that sees no difference between carbon-rich resilient natural forest, managed forest and plantation monoculture, and even classes as ‘forest’ those areas that are clear-felled pending replanting. So-called ‘sustainable forestry’ lacks scientific basis in the time horizon needed to address climate change and almost always degrades biodiversity. The definitions of forest are in urgent need of revision, and as applied to other key ecosystems and the opportunity costs of exploitation rather than restoration and protection. Standard criteria and finance for monitoring and penalising illegal activity are also lacking. That Brazil and Indonesia signed the Declaration speaks for itself….
- This echoes a failure to activate the ecosystem provisions of the Paris Agreement and UNFCC itself – which could be addressed by adopting the ecosystem service accounting structure developed by the UN Statistical Division (UNSEEA-EA).
- The usage of subsidy-attracting concepts such as “innovative” or “climate friendly” forestry and forest products is a potentially very damaging side-effect of this situation. While close collaboration between conservation and forestry entities is excellent in principle, this concept is currently little more than traditional practice under a new label. [See video of the IUCN hosted session – with Wild Europe intervention at 8:58:10]
- The concept of “net zero” can likewise be seen as deeply flawed. It comprises the balance between carbon emissions, sequestration and storage calculations that are often incomplete, misconceived or even effectively fictional – for example : a) the EU’s current LULUCF carbon accounting for forest bioenergy at the point of felling rather than burning ‘loses’ emissions in overall land use calculations; b) surplus carbon credits from the former Clean Development Mechanism dilute and devalue the system; c) the wrong sort of carbon offset with inadequate capping and fiscal disincentives can merely be a licence for continued high emissions.
This latter argument is also relevant to Nature Based Solutions (NBS). Official funding alone cannot adequately address climate change and its interaction with biodiversity loss. Private sector finance for non-extractive ecosystem services will also be needed to fill the gap for ecosystem protection and restoration. But if adequate safeguards are not in place to deter use of public grants for inappropriate offsets, logging or agricultural extraction, the NBS concept can be counter-productive
…and the Ugly
- The predicted outcome from COP26 so far warns of a rise in global temperature not of 1.5C but a disastrous 2.4C (Climate Tracker) or even 2.7C (the independent UK Committee on Climate Change)
- Softening of COP text language to propose a phase down rather than a phase out of unabated coal, following last minute intervention by China and India, underlines the slender chance of achieving this crucial goal.
- The phrase “unabated coal” is code for co-firing coal in power stations, using forest biomass – heralding a doubling, perhaps trebling of this already fast-growing practice that has higher CO2 emissions than fossil fuels (2.5 times that of natural gas), and is the least efficient source of energy. Its use thus worsens climate change and destroys massive areas of biodiversity rich forest [see press conference Wild Europe with Stand.Earth of Canada]. Closer campaign collaboration is urgently needed between fossil fuel and forest bioenergy networks. For further information on a collaboration project contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Forest bioenergy costs consumers & taxpayers over $7bn pa in subsidies for Europe alone, has been openly questioned by the Environment Minister of the COP26 host nation (see also House of Commons Environment Committee Oral Evidence with Lord Goldsmith) and widely condemned by the scientific community (see at Skynews, Euronews, Scentists letter and EASAC), with forest bioenergy corporations Drax (UK) and Albioma (France) ejected from the Dow S&P Clean Energy Index in October due to high emissions. Yet, under the influence of Europe’s example as a supposed icon of environmental practice, forest bioenergy is currently set for rapid global expansion, supported by comments at COP26 by Frans Timmermans, EU Vice President and misconceived reform of RED II (Renewable Energy Directive) with forest bioenergy still included.
The route ahead
In the run-up to COP27 in Cairo, it is beholden on environmentalists to further build their position on these linked issues – with a positive, costed alternative strategy for renewables, biodiversity and climate change based on socio-economic as well as ecological principles.
This can in turn secure support from a more powerful alliance of conservation, consumer, taxpayers and business representatives against the narrow sectional interests of the forestry-bioenergy nexus, and the short-termism more broadly prevalent among decision takers.