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Climate Targets: The Role of the COP Process

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Sir Alok Sharma MP

President for COP26

Sir Alok Sharma reflects on international climate targets and looks towards COP28.

In November, world leaders, government ministers, negotiators, civil society representatives, and businesses will arrive in the UAE for the 28th Conference of the Parties, or COP28 as it is commonly known. Around 200 countries (or Parties) are signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. 

Since the first COP, held in Berlin in 1995, an annual drumbeat of meetings has brought countries together to agree collectively on how to reduce emissions, adapt to climate change and finance decarbonisation.

In the Paris Agreement struck in 2015, countries agreed to do all they could to limit average global temperature rises to well below 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, whilst pursuing efforts to limit warming to 1.5 degrees.

Before COP26 in Glasgow, 30 per cent of the global economy was covered by a net zero target. Under the UK’s presidency, that moved to over 90 per cent. In the historic Glasgow Climate Pact, countries reaffirmed their commitment to limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. Developed countries agreed to double the amount of finance provided to help developing countries adapt to climate change. And, for the first time ever in these UN discussions, countries agreed to phase down their use of coal, the most polluting of fossil fuels.

Why 1.5?

The world has already warmed by 1.2 degrees and devastating effects can be readily seen around the world. Last year, excess rain submerged a third of Pakistan, Europe experienced its worst drought in 500 years and, here in the UK, the temperature hit 40 degrees for the first time.  Heatwaves and floods hit Asia and wildfires raged across Australia and North America.   

Scientists tell us that beyond 1.5 degrees of warming, natural systems will be pushed into dangerous territory and some effects may be irreversible. At 2 degrees of warming, we will have lost the Greenland ice sheet and 99 per cent of our coral reefs. Every fraction of a degree that we avoid beyond 1.5 will increase the likelihood of hitting more tipping points.

In May this year, the World Meteorological Organisation announced that we are likely to see average temperature rises breaching 1.5 degrees in the next five years. This doesn’t mean that the breach will be permanent but it is another huge wake-up call. And we must remember, there is a huge economic cost to inaction. Lord Nicholas Stern’s review estimated that runaway climate change could wipe 20 per cent off global GDP every year.

Yet, it’s important to recognise that we are bending the temperature curve downwards.

Bending the Curve

Before the Paris Agreement, scientists estimated that policies in place would lead us towards a temperature rise of around 4 degrees. Post-Paris, the estimate was 3 degrees. And the International Energy Agency has estimated that if all the commitments made in Glasgow at COP26 are delivered, we are heading towards 1.8 degrees.

Although global emissions are still rising, the rate of increase is slowing and in all G7 nations, emissions have already peaked. UK emissions have halved since 1991, whilst the economy has grown by 70 per cent – demonstrating that green growth is possible.

COP negotiations can be unwieldy and frustrating. Trying to get almost 200 countries, through a process of consensus-building, to agree to the same set of goals can feel a bit like playing Jenga. It takes just one country to object to the agreement to bring the whole negotiation crashing down.

The success or failure of COP negotiations is built upon the level of trust between countries and their willingness to compromise. In the year leading up to COP26, my team and I invested a great deal of time in building relationships with counterparts around the world. These relationships paid off in the final crunch hours when a deal seemed to be slipping from our grasp.

Despite a deteriorating geopolitical backdrop, we managed to forge the Glasgow Climate Pact. I believe that ultimately, countries were willing to come together because they understood it was in their common interest to address the pernicious and chronic global threat of climate change, which does not recognise borders.

The Power of Business

COP26 was the first COP where business leaders turned out in force. Indeed, I have seen businesses in some countries pushing their government forward to make more ambitious climate commitments. Many companies see the pursuit of net zero as a huge economic opportunity. As the CEO of a major multi-national company said to me, “A few years ago, a company was considered an outlier if it was setting out plans to go to net zero, now, they are an outlier if they’re not.”

The effects are transformational. The International Energy Agency now predicts that one in three cars sold in 2030 will be electric and by 2025, renewables will be the world’s biggest source of electricity. Business has seen the direction of travel, responded to changing policies and is surging ahead in the race to decarbonise. All of this delivers economic growth, good new jobs, and a cleaner environment.

Staying on Track

The world has changed since we hosted COP26 in Glasgow. Putin’s illegal and brutal invasion of Ukraine has created intense headwinds and countries’ urgent focus has been on dealing with energy and food security and rising inflation.

But the chronic threat of climate change is also getting worse, and leaders must maintain their attention on climate at the same time as they deal with the most pressing issues. If anything, the crisis has reinforced that climate, energy, and national security are intrinsically entwined. Countries have understood the risk of relying on hydrocarbons controlled by a hostile actor and are therefore accelerating plans for generating cheap, homegrown, clean energy.

Looking Ahead to COP28

COP28 will see the first ‘global stocktake’, a key mechanism of the Paris Agreement. It will assess collective progress towards our global climate goals, but we already know we are well off-track.

Therefore, the outcomes of COP28 should include: strengthened emissions reduction targets from countries and a commitment to peak global emissions by 2025; a plan to turbocharge the clean energy revolution and a commitment to phase out fossil fuels; and a meaningful agreement on how to scale up finance (both public and private) to support developing nations to decarbonise their economies – moving from the billions to the trillions of pounds that are needed.

In March this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change showed that every sector now has affordable clean technology options that could halve emissions by 2030 and keep alive the prospect of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. But we are not going anywhere near fast enough in terms of deployment – this needs to change urgently. World leaders owe that to their people.

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