record greenhouse gases

COP26 reality check in the face of record greenhouse gas emissions

COP26 really had just one job, and that was to keep alive the 1.5C global warming target prescribed by the 2015 Paris Agreement. After two weeks of frantic negotiations and a bewildering blizzard of carbon-cutting. Well, after the two frantic weeks of COP26 in Glasgow, this figure still has a glimmer of life left in it, but little more than that.

“1.5 is still alive if we don’t rest on our laurels and see how things go,” commented Nigel Topping, a veteran climate economist tasked with drumming up private sector action during the COP, in an interview on the final day of the summit.

It’s fair to say that, by the end of proceedings on 13th November, COP26 had produced a few noteworthy achievements, including the first ever mention of fossil fuels in a UN climate agreement, India’s first ever commitment to reach net-zero emissions (by 2070!), and an agreement by all governments to accelerate their deadline to publish more ambitious climate goals.

Overall, in theory, if countries follow through on their commitments, the temperature rise by 2100 could be limited to 1.9°C, according to Carbon Brief. Based on current policies, a more likely outlook is around 2.4C.

However, the best proof climate diplomacy is working even a little is that, before Paris, the projection was as high as 3.7C – which as we now must know is a figure of Armageddon-like proportions. Unfortunately now the all the relatively easy targets for carbon abatement are in the bag, getting down to 1.5C is going to be a herculean task!

For that to happen, countries will need to reinforce their commitments every year. Governments, the media, and civil society groups especially need to hold the private sector accountable, and most likely demand a climate action plan from every company. i.e. passing the buck big-time. And rich countries need to finally follow through on their ages old promises to provide funding for clean energy and climate impact adaptation in poor countries. This is a promise neglected to such an extent at COP26 that their failure was even condemned in the formal agreement.

Scientific uncertainty about the atmosphere’s exact sensitivity to greenhouse gases leaves open the possibility that 1.5C may already be a mere pipe dream. But mounting public pressure, fueled by the clear worsening of the climate crisis itself – the reality – may in the end wake it up.

“1.5 stretches credibility,” said William Pizer, a former US climate negotiator and current vice president for policy engagement at think tank Resources for the Future. “But 2C is really possible, and just a few years ago it really wasn’t.”

Look out for the upcoming “heated” debates over statistics, measurement calibration, as we get more and more pseudo-technical looking for excuses and justification of whatever happens to be the final outcome.