This post is by Jim Skea, professor of Sustainable Energy at Imperial College. It is one of six essays taken from our publication Countdown to COP26,
Three decades after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established and preparations started for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), there are encouraging signs that action is finally picking up pace.
The 2015 Paris Agreement set governments the challenge of stating their ambitions to tackle climate change, measuring the collective impact of their actions through a regular global stocktake and encouraging them to ratchet up their aspirations. Countries have now started to set net zero targets.
Radical changes are required
Many companies and sectors, notably the financial sector, have bought into the climate agenda and are taking steps. But, in spite of emerging action, the news is not all good. The IPCC’s special report on Global warming of 1.5°C and the regular UNEP Emissions gap reports show unequivocally that current government pledges do not set the world on a path to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above preindustrial levels”. As the Paris Agreement also obliges countries to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C”, the implied gap between aspiration and planned action is even wider.
The IPCC’s report makes it clear that radical changes are required, including in energy, land, urban and industrial systems. The share of renewables in the energy mix would need to grow rapidly. Changes in energy supply have to be accompanied by large scale investments in energy efficiency, the electrification of energy demand and, possibly, changes in patterns of consumption, including our dietary choices.
Climate action can’t be taken in isolation
Whether through the IPCC or UNFCCC, countries have emphasised that climate action cannot be pursued in isolation. It needs to be “in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty”, to quote from the full title of the IPCC’s special report. It is important to take all climate action in the wider context of sustainable development. Since Paris, the UN has adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030. The positive message is that many specific actions, especially those relating to consumption and energy demand, can contribute positively to the SDGs. Most measures relating to energy supply and land management can also make positive contributions, as long as there is careful and measured implementation.
The required “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all systems” are not without socioeconomic challenges. The 24th Conference of the Parties (COP24) of the UNFCCC in December 2018 highlighted the importance of a just transition to gain social approval.
Unless managed well, a fast transition could have significant negative repercussions for some industries and communities that have been reliant on high carbon production. Attention to high quality jobs, skills and retraining, and processes which engage communities and the workforce in an inclusive transition will be vital in securing climate ambitions.
COP26 will be the next big test
We are still a long way from where we need to be. Obvious steps to be taken at the next COP include establishing means for countries to share their climate ambitions. The next big test will come at the UK COP26 in Glasgow in 2020 when countries are urged to submit enhanced climate pledges. Then it may be clearer whether we are on the right path.