The government needs to shift gear fast to make COP26 a success

~ai-0c4adc82-9be6-46bf-9261-4cabaca6eff5_The COP26 UN climate conference opens in Glasgow in just under nine months’ time. That really is not much time, and the conference matters deeply. In a relatively trivial sense, it matters to the UK’s reputation. More seriously, it matters to the planet: the world is on a path to catastrophic global heating and COP26 is conceivably our best chance to get it under control.
Green Alliance’s Countdown to COP26 conference tomorrow aims to focus minds on some of the things that need to happen, and happen soon, to make COP26 a success. Here are a few of them.

Acting on net zero now
First, to be able to persuade world leaders to do more, the UK itself must do more. It is good, as the prime minister reminded us last week, that the UK has reduced emissions while growing its economy, and ministers are justifiably proud of the legally binding target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. But the reduction in emissions so far has come almost entirely from the power sector, with transport emissions actually rising in recent years. However admirable the net zero goal, we will not achieve it without a big gear shift.

COP26 provides the perfect motivation for the UK to take the steps necessary to get on track to net zero and demonstrate that climate action has multiple other benefits: cleaner air, warmer homes, increased productivity and a richer natural world among them.

Our Cutting Carbon Now project aims to provide solutions for rapid carbon reduction. We have set out relatively affordable and uncontroversial policies in five areas to get the country on track, and our new net zero policy tracker shows the gaps, both in carbon emissions and funding commitments, that need to be filled, and filled rapidly, before November. The headline annual spend required – £42 billion or five per cent of government spending – is frighteningly large, but much of this can profitably be provided by the private sector, once the UK government and devolved administrations show the clear commitment needed, particularly on increasing the energy efficiency of the country’s homes. There are encouraging signs that this is beginning to happen.

A net zero club
Even if the UK demonstrates it has credible plans, delivering a successful COP will not be easy. Failure to commit to action that will keep global temperature rises down to 1.5 degrees is almost baked into the conference, given the approach of the US (assuming President Trump is re-elected), Brazil, Australia and others.

But states are not the only important actors. As Dustin Benton argues in a recent Green Alliance blog, we need a net zero club that reaches beyond nation states and embraces provinces, regions, US states (between them, California and New York account for 21 per cent of US GDP), cities, progressive corporations and others. Within the UK, the devolved administrations have a vital role to play. A net zero club of states and others with credible plans to achieve net zero could easily account for well over half the world’s wealth and would quickly change the economics of climate action.

An all of society approach
For the Glasgow COP to be a success, we need an ‘all of society’ approach. That entails a particularly important role for civil society in Scotland and for the Scottish Government. Fortunately, Scotland has been in the vanguard of climate action, setting a 2045 date for achieving net zero, and we are delighted that Nicola Sturgeon will be laying out the her government’s plans at our conference tomorrow.

Connecting nature and climate
There is no hope of tackling climate change without also tackling the ecological crisis, which means this year’s other big UN conference, the COP15 Biodiversity Conference taking place in October in Kunming, China, is another crucial moment.

The two events should relate. COP26 should have a particular focus on natural climate solutions that also help biodiversity and climate adaptation. This is of particular interest to the UK, as it develops farm support systems to replace the Common Agricultural Policy, and to Scotland, given its rich natural resources. But it will also resonate with China and the Least Developed Countries who are hardest hit by climate change.

The greatest single challenge we face
The UK government’s preparations for COP26 are not going entirely to plan. It is embarrassing to have mislaid the COP president.

What is the overall theme of the climate conference? What are the government’s main aims? We need answers to these questions soon, but in the absence of a COP president, it is encouraging that Michael Gove, the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, has stepped in to speak at our conference tomorrow. Just six months ago, at our summer reception, he said: “The single greatest challenge that we face in the next 18 months is making sure that the climate and environment emergency… is addressed with the force, passion, and determination that it deserves.”

Michael Gove is right, and I very much hope that he, or someone with the same drive and commitment, will be leading the UK’s efforts at COP26.

‘Countdown to COP26’ takes place from 10am to 4pm tomorrow, Tuesday 11 February. You can watch it on our YouTube channel and follow on Twitter at #CountdowntoCOP.

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