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Tue 25 January 2022

Mike Buckley provides his analysis of the outcomes at the COP26 UN climate change summit last month in Glasgow

The Greek Government’s new climate law is a microcosm of the state of global climate action after COP26. Stung by this summer’s devastating wildfires, it has announced an ambitious plan to cut its emissions by 55% by 2030 compared with 1990 levels. 

It has further pledged to reach net zero by 2050 and committed to reduce coal and oil use, to invest in renewable energy and phase-out internal combustion engines. 

“The national climate law is of historic importance to deal with the climate crisis and achieve climate neutrality by 2050,” said Greek Environment and Energy Minister Kostas Skrekas.

The Greek Government’s renewed commitment is not before time. Whereas Germany has cut its emissions 38% from 1990 levels, according to UN data, Greece emissions have reduced by less than 19% over the same period.

But, despite the good news, Greece has not quite left the era of fossil fuels behind. The huge caveat in its plans is the decision not to ban exploration for oil and gas. The Government remains keen to leave open the possibility of developing reserves in the eastern Mediterranean.

In other words, the plan is no more than a half-hearted step forward. On the one hand, it is an encouraging step in the right direction that bodes well for further advances in years to come; on the other a depressing signal that governments – as well as private companies – remain addicted to the accessible energy and potential profits promised by fossil fuels. 

In this respect, it is a national version of the agreement signed-off by 197 governments at the end of the COP26 summit in Glasgow. 

That agreement was celebrated for its commitment to reduce coal use and fossil fuel subsidies, to invest more to help poorer countries adapt to changing weather and to create carbon markets that should – in theory – make carbon increasingly expensive when compared to other forms of energy. But it was also derided for only barely fulfilling the UK Government’s stated goal of the conference: to keep 1.5C alive. 

The goal of keeping global temperatures to less than 1.5C above pre-industrial averages is seen by scientists as the absolute safe maximum. But, instead of delegates leaving Glasgow with action plans which if implemented would keep temperatures below that limit, they left with mere commitments to introduce measures which would keep temperatures to a far higher – and disastrous – 2.4C above historic norms. 

Alok Sharma, COP26’s President, nevertheless claimed that the summit had kept the 1.5C target within reach, pointing to the real progress made in Glasgow and one of the key commitments he secured from delegates: to return to COP27 next year with significantly more ambitious national plans. 

History may judge this to be the most important outcome of COP26. The original vision of the Paris agreement, signed at a previous summit in 2015, was for five yearly updates to national commitments and action plans. That timetable was first derailed by the Coronavirus pandemic; what would have been Glasgow 2020 took place a year late. 

But Sharma’s decision to require countries to come armed with upgraded commitments in 2022 brings the next day of reckoning forward by four years. Given that the 2020s are seen by scientists as ‘the decisive decade’ – 10 years in which global emissions need to fall 45% if the long term goal of 1.5C is to remain within reach – the next four years could hardly be more important. 

Sharma remains a uniquely important figure. Under UN rules, he remains COP President for another year before handing over to Egypt as host of COP27. He has the chance to play a pivotal role in persuading governments to arrive next year with significantly more ambitious plans. 

He recognises his opportunity. “The UK’s work as the COP26 presidency is really only just beginning,” he wrote soon after closing the Glasgow summit. “Over the course of the next year ,we will work with countries, urging them to take action and honour their promises. We must keep up the constructive pressure, and build on the trust and goodwill generated through COP26.” 

In Glasgow, many delegates expressed private frustration with the UK Government. Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s choice to cut aid spending and, days before COP26 began, to cut air passenger duty, hardly set the right tone, while during the conference Boris Johnson and David Frost caused fights with the French over fishing rights and with the entire EU over Northern Ireland that dominated domestic media. 

But, if the general view of the host government was one of despair, Sharma occupied a different space. His commitment to the cause, the success of the summit and calm diplomacy was recognised on all sides. He may lack the full support of colleagues but evidence suggests that he is well-placed to be a trusted intermediary as governments consider their next move. 

Early signs underline how much work there is to do over the next year. For every step forward – such as an EU decision to force member states to invest in renewables above fossil fuels – there is a step backwards to match it, such as the decision of Petrobras, Latin America’s biggest oil producer, to boost its capital expenditure to $68 billion over the next five years. 

To succeed, Sharma will “have to stay strong” says Katie White, executive director of advocacy and campaigns at WWF.  

“The UK Presidency has run with making 1.5C [above pre-industrial temperatures] the anchor,” she told the world’s press as COP26 drew to a close. “They need to listen to the most vulnerable voices in the room. They’ll have to do more on loss and damage,” she said, referring to the demand from poorer nations for a funding mechanism to help them pay for damage caused by the changing climate and extreme weather. 

The Paris summit in 2015 proved that such diplomacy could bear dividends. The credibility, tact and perseverance of Laurent Fabius, the French lead negotiator, is credited with bringing about the landmark agreement made that year. 

For COP27 to end with commitments that put the world to a path to 1.5C, Alok Sharma will have to go much further than Paris or Glasgow. He will need to find a way to persuade governments – including laggards such as Australia, Brazil and India – to go beyond the half-hearted commitments made in Glasgow or presented by Greece to ones that recognise the emergency we are now in and the need for urgent, single-minded action. 

Mike Buckley is a freelance journalist and director of Campaign Central

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