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Guest post: Any COP? – mixed messages at UN climate summit as usual platitudes belie call for action

As the 2021 United Nations Climate Change conference enters full swing in Glasgow, Tim Baines, counsel in Mayer Brown’s environmental team, assesses the mood on the ground.

Monday (1 November) marked the first day of COP26, also known as the 26th United Nations Climate Change conference. As usual, the conference started with the ritual display of private jets congesting the airport.  For the non-VIPs, travel delays and the chilly (these are the northern latitudes, after all) wait to register, kicked off the proceedings as tradition dictates.

The opening ceremony marked the arrival of the big guns.  The Prince of Wales (whose Aston Martin was recently widely reported to run on fuel developed from wine and cheese) and Sir David Attenborough, underscored what people have been saying for many years.  In essence, more needs to be done, and world leaders jolly well need to get on with it. Meanwhile climate activist Greta Thunberg rallied the troops of demonstrators outside with some choice words against world leaders’ inaction on the matter.

Clearly though, doing more will be an uphill struggle.  The G20, which immediately preceded COP, came up short on climate-related matters, and the resulting communiqué makes no reference to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. It did though result in a pledge to stop financing new, unabated coal plants internationally (ie in other countries) by the end of this year.  However, three of the world’s biggest emitters, China, Russia and India, are reliant on coal and G20 leaders stopped short of agreeing to end coal power in their own nations.  Will a further two weeks of meetings make the difference?

On the topic of India, on Tuesday (2 November) prime minister Modi announced five new targets: increasing non-fossil fuel energy capacity to 500GW by 2030; 50% of energy requirements from renewable sources by 2030; reducing one billion metric tons of carbon emissions between now and 2030; reducing carbon intensity by 45% by 2030; and achieving net zero emissions by 2070. 2070 is in 49 years.  Forty-nine years ago was 1972.

Finance was never far away.  Modi expressed the need to match finance with increasing ambition, and for developed countries to provide $1trn  of climate finance as soon as possible.

Overall though, if COP was going to lead to any massive strides in enhanced ambition, the first day was an auspicious moment for announcements to be made.  Thailand announced new net zero targets. The Republic of Korea committed to increasing its climate ambition and the US announced its long-term strategy towards net zero.  The US president stated: ‘We will demonstrate to the world the United States is not only back at the table but hopefully leading by the power of our example … I know it hasn’t been the case, which is why my administration is working overtime to show our climate commitment is action not words.’

The White House’s strategy for achieving net zero includes switching to clean energy sources for electricity generation; making many parts of the economy run on electricity, including cars, buildings and industrial processes; increasing energy efficiency and scaling up the use of technology that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Many have been disappointed by how long it is taking to operationalise article 6 of the Paris Agreement’s market mechanisms for combating climate change.  The COP is assisted by a number of bodies, including (wait for it) the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA). The chair of SBSTA referred to an options paper released prior to COP to assist parties in navigating the remaining unresolved issues, promised an updated paper on 2 November and another before the end of the ‘contact group’ on 6 November.  In a familiar refrain from COP, it was noted that agreeing an outcome will take engagement and compromise. Cynics might say that market mechanisms remain a useful bargaining chip.