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What happened to ‘coal, cars, cash and trees’?

The world is preparing to gather in Egypt from this Sunday for the COP27 climate conference, so it is worth taking this moment to reflect on what progress was made last year in Glasgow at COP26. Prior to that event, the UN predicted the world was on a “catastrophic pathway” to 2.7 degrees of heating by the end of the century. Ahead of this year’s COP, recent news from the UNFCCC says we’re on track for 2.5 degrees of warming, which shows minimal improvement over the last year, and is still a whole degree away from the Paris Agreement’s target to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. Every fraction of a degree matters.  

In Glasgow, Boris Johnson set out the UK’s host agenda to broker deals on “coal, cars, cash and trees”, to instigate momentum for negotiations on several fronts to try and keep the aim of 1.5 alive. So how did that go? 

Are we seeing the comeback of coal?
COP26 saw a large coalition of nations pledge to phase out coal power, with 20 committing to build no new coal plants. This put the end of coal in sight internationally, with even the major coal nations Poland, South Africa and Morocco making commitments. But, a year later, the UK is having to keep some coal stations on for power, and is also now considering whether to approve its first new coal mine in 30 years (albeit for coking coal). With the war in Ukraine causing come countries to delay coal phase out, a concerted push is needed to prevent its resurgence.  

EVs are increasing but there’s more to do on transport
On cars, an agreement to end the sale of new fossil-fuel powered vehicles by 2040, or earlier, was reached and signed by over 20 countries, several cities and market players, including Ford and Mercedes-Benz. But it was noticeable that the signatures of many key market players were absent. The US, China and Germany, and car manufacturers Volkswagen, Toyota and BMW, did not opt to sign the agreement. In the year since, international zero emissions vehicle sales have grown significantly: with China increasing uptake of electric cars; the US Inflation Reduction Act offering tax incentives for domestic electric vehicle production and sales to lower income households; and the European Parliament voting to ban internal combustion engine vehicle sales by 2035. And there may be more momentum on this front at COP27. Some campaigners have also called for a broader focus on transport emissions and public transport investment (as we have at Green Alliance), as only relying on electric vehicles won’t reduce transport emissions fast enough.  

Loss and damage will have to be top of the agenda again
As for cash, loss and damage is going to drive discussions again at COP27. It continues to be the case that the most climate vulnerable nations, already experiencing the severe effects of climate change, have contributed least to the problem. At COP26, Scotland made history by becoming the first country to commit to a loss and damage fund. At COP26, the UK also recognised the need for climate finance support to vulnerable developing countries adapt, announcing an additional £1 billion (doubling its international climate finance commitment). While this was positive, it fell short of the previously promised $100 billion by 2020. Then Chancellor Rishi Sunak called to “rewire the entire global financial system” as international firms pledged that 40 per cent of the world’s financial assets would be aligned with the Paris Agreement through the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero. The year that followed has seen devasting floods in Pakistan and Nigeria as well as cyclones in Bangladesh and Madagascar; costing these nations billions, alongside well established evidence that climate change is making extreme weather more likely. It is not surprising that loss and damage funds and climate finance support will once again be a top issue at COP27. 

Amazon deforestation surged in the past year
For trees, a landmark agreement to halt and reverse deforestation was reached between more than 100 leaders representing 85 per cent of the world’s forests, including Brazil. Forests act as carbon sinks, but the loss and degradation of the rainforests of the Amazon, the Congo Basin and south east Asia is diminishing their huge carbon absorbing potential. Stemming the losses, restoring degraded land and planting new forests is essential to any attempt to limit temperature rises. Unfortunately, in the past year, following the agreement, Amazon deforestation surged, although newly elected President Lula has campaigned on the platform to halt deforestation, which brings hope of positive change.  

Beyond these actions, COP26 offered progress in other areas. In terms of negotiations, the words “fossil fuels” were used in a COP document for the first time, marking a welcome (and long awaited) transparency to the proceedings. The Paris Agreement rulebook was finalised, increasing accountability to meet targets set. Net zero commitments were made by countries which account for 83 per cent of global emissions, 91 per cent of global GDP and 80 per cent of the world’s population.  

Very few countries have raised their ambitions as promised
All countries agreed to revisit and strengthen their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). But, disappointingly, only 23 of the 200 countries that signed the Glasgow agreement met the September 2022 deadline to raise their NDC ambitions.  

The Global Methane Pledge had over 100 countries agreeing to limit methane emissions by 30 per cent for 2030. As this is such a highly potent greenhouse gas, this was good news. Although a new report out this week from Green Alliance stresses that the UK still has no plan at all to meet this going into COP27, despite significant scope to exceed its 30 per cent commitment.  

Rishi Sunak has a huge responsibility on climate and nature
As the COP26 President Alok Sharma has pointed out, the year of the UK’s presidency following the Glasgow conference has been “challenged by competing priorities”. A period of extraordinary political and economic instability has seen the COP26 president having to work under three prime ministers. As the UK prepares to hand over the torch to Egypt, after hosting what Boris Johnson saw as the ‘green Olympics’, there are plenty more hurdles to overcome in what is fast being forced into a sprint rather than a marathon. In just 28 years, the UK needs to reduce its emissions by 33 gigatonnes of carbon to hit net zero, and yet it appears that climate is being deprioritised. Alok Sharma has been demoted from the cabinet along with Graham Stuart (the new climate minister). This issue, which entails consequences of such national and global peril, needs to be driven forward at the highest level. So it is right that Rishi Sunak is going to COP27, he must take responsibility in Number 10 for serious and concerted cross government action on climate and nature. The UK should be proud of its achievements at COP26 and lead from the front in its domestic commitments. And it should use international forums, like the UN summits, to drive change from other countries too. 

The hard work to achieve international progress this year at COP27 is being carried out against a backdrop of new global challenges: not least the war in Ukraine which has caused multiple crises for the world, in energy prices, inflation and food security. These all threaten to take attention away from the need for the world to act to steady our climate for future generations. Glasgow kept the dream of 1.5 alive but, as things stand, we are nowhere near on track to get there. Let’s hope COP27 will change that. 

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