Politicians are preparing to underwhelm the world at the big UN climate summit at Glasgow, unless business and civil society groups put the heat on them to show ambition, reports Rod Oram from the UK.

With a month to go to the start of the UN’s climate negotiations in Glasgow, its hosts have begun to lower expectations of what might be achieved. But given the escalating climate crisis, civil society representatives, notably from business and NGOs, are pushing politicians to redouble their efforts and resolve.

COP26 in Glasgow is meant to build on the momentum created by the Paris Agreement at COP21 in 2015. To that end, nations are supposed to increase their commitments to cut emissions. But the latest UN summary of pledges shows their serious shortfall. Global emissions will rise 16 percent by 2030, rather than falling by the 50 percent required to keep global heating to a manageable 1.5C.

New Zealand is in a cohort of countries which have missed the deadline for making enhanced commitments. It remains to be seen whether our Government will make a commitment consistent with 1.5C and, more importantly, offer credible plans for delivering it.

Reflecting this deeply disappointing preparation for Glasgow, some senior UN and UK officials, unnamed but widely quoted, are saying the goal now is to “keep 1.5 alive”. They hope the negotiations will make good progress on crucial technical issues such as rules for reporting emissions and trading carbon. Those in turn will encourage countries to commit to faster decarbonisation over the next few years, particularly as the technology and economics of doing so continue to improve rapidly.

Such a pathway would constitute a “Glasgow pact.” As a senior UN official described: “We are not going to get to a 45 percent reduction, but there must be some level of contributions on the table to show the downward trend of emissions.”

The UK government, as co-host of COP26, is also hoping for progress on climate finance for developing countries, phasing out of coal, protection of forests and other ways to accelerate decarbonisation, a senior UK official said.

Alok Sharma, the UK cabinet minister who is president-designate of the negotiations, said: “COP26 has always been about delivering urgent action to ensure we keep the path to a 1.5C world alive. Those nations which have submitted new and ambitious climate plans are already bending the curve of emissions downwards by 2030. But we continue to push for increased ambition from the G20 to urgently close the emissions gap. The clock is ticking, and COP26 must be the turning point where we change the course of history for the better.”

Meanwhile, COP26’s co-host Italy has been hosting two events in Milan this week – a youth summit and a preparatory meeting of climate and energy ministers from some 50 countries. As ever, there was a vast gulf in character and commitment between the two meetings, as Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist, summarised with her usual piercing clarity:

“Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah. This is all we hear from our so-called leaders. Words that sound great but so far have not led to action. Our hopes and ambitions drown in their empty promises.”

In contrast, institutional investors are significantly increasing pressure on major companies to become climate leaders. Notably, a new alliance of 220 such investors across 26 countries announced this week they had written to 1,600 “high impact” corporates to align their strategies with climate science.

The investors, such as Allianz, the Germany financial services company, collectively hold US$29.3 trillion of assets. The companies they’re targeting have a combined market capitalisation of over US$41 tr, and they are responsible for 11.9 gigatons of CO2 a year – more than the total annual emissions of the US and EU combined. They include companies such as Hyundai Motor Company, Nippon Steel, Samsung and Associated British Foods.

The investors called on the companies to set credible Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions reduction targets that can be approved by the independently verified Science Based Targets initiative  in alignment with the 1.5C target of the Paris Agreement

“2021 has been a year when global financial institutions have committed en masse to achieve net zero by 2050,” said Laurent Babikian, joint global director of capital markets at CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project) which coordinates the alliance.

“But these goals are impossible to achieve without the companies they lend to and invest in having robust science-based targets that drive rapid decarbonisation in the entire value chain in line with a maximum of 1.5C of global warming. It is that simple, and when so many investors and lenders are collectively saying the same thing, companies must act or risk seeing their cost of capital rise.”

In another sign this past week of increasing business alignment with climate goals, the British Standards Institution and the International Organisation for Standardisation, announced they will embed key climate requirements into all their new standards, and into existing standards as they are revised. It is a revamp “on an unparalleled scale,” they said.

The standard setting bodies called their London Declaration “a game-changing moment for international standards. It will enable a real acceleration in government and industry transition to net zero”.

Also this week, Deutsche Umwelthilfe, a climate activism group, filed lawsuits against BMW and Daimler for allegedly not doing enough to cut carbon emissions from their cars.

“For us it is important to use these cases as examples. It is a starting point,” Jürgen Resch, an executive director of DU, said. “It is possible that some additional suits are following.”

A few weeks ago, Volkswagen was sued by Greenpeace, which says the car company was failing to align with the Paris accord’s 1.5C temperature goal. Greenpeace is basing its case in part on a decision from the German constitutional court in April that said young people’s freedoms are at risk when companies fail to cut carbon emissions.

Globally, the cumulative number of climate change-related cases has more than doubled since 2015, Credit Suisse said in a September 26 report. “Climate change litigation continues to grow in importance.”

But a great acceleration of climate compatible corporate strategies can’t alone smooth the transition to a clean economy. Far too many other, unpredictable factors are in play, ranging from the vagaries of weather and the commodity markets to the vicissitudes of politics and the fickleness of public sentiment.

One example is the current behaviour of energy markets in Europe, marked by soaring gas and electricity prices in many countries and petrol shortages in the UK. While genuine vagaries of supply and demand help explain much of the disruption, it is the social and political responses which often determine the nature of the lasting impact, argues Nikos Tsafos, an energy and geopolitics expert at the US Center for Strategic & International Studies, in a recent essay

“If the political context is favourable to the transition, people are going to leverage the crisis to double down on renewables. If the political context is against the transition, people are going to use it as a way to have it slow down.”

He cites, for example, energy crises over the past year in California and Texas caused by extreme weather events. These prompted many Californians to urge their politicians to accelerate the shift to renewable energy; while many Texans argued for doubling down on fossil fuels.

The conclusion is obvious. We can only solve complex societal issues if every interest is fairly represented at the table, and if every representative plays its role with integrity.

The climate crisis is the ultimate example of this. Business and other civil society actors are stepping up to the mark at COP26 and elsewhere. But if politicians don’t, we will fail.

Leave a comment