The agenda for COP26

Guest writer: Nick Butler, Visiting Professor, King’s College London

This autumn’s major climate conference to be held in Glasgow has been long anticipated as a crucial milestone in the pursuit of action to reduce the risks of serious and potentially highly damaging climate change.  After a year in which the climate issue has moved from street protests to the mainstream political agenda expectations are high.  But how should we define success ?  The best outcome would be to restore at least some of the broken trust which is now pervasive.

That distrust extends from climate campaigners who do not trust the energy companies to deliver any change which disrupts their existing business models, to the companies themselves who do not trust the loose, insubstantial promises of net zero being made by Governments without attention to the detail or cost of the transition. The distrust also exists among investors, crucial partners if a low carbon economy is to delivered but sceptics when it comes to understanding how businesses will be able to produce acceptable returns.

Endorsing a new Green Deal

The surge of political interest in the climate agenda over the last year has been remarkable. The United States under President Biden has endorsed the Paris Agreement and has joined more than 120 other countries in making commitments to achieve net zero emissions over the next three decades.  China has joined the process setting itself a net zero target of 2060. The European Union has endorsed a new Green Deal and plans to link the climate agenda to the post Covid economic recovery.

The Glasgow meeting will no doubt seek to win commitments to net zero from those who have not yet signed up – including India and Brazil. There will also be an attempt to secure shorter term targets for 2030 which will move the agenda from long term aspirations to detailed immediate plans.  That second step is particularly important because as things stand the physical reality is that emissions are still rising creating a sharp divergence between the rhetoric of net zero and the actual pattern of energy consumption.  Unaddressed that divergence will simply fuel the distrust of the energy sector, and of Governments which already exists among climate campaigners.

The decline has turned
The most recent analysis by the International Energy Agency sets out the problem.  Energy demand and emissions fell last year but the fall was concentrated in the first half of the year, since when both have returned to a growth path.  By the end of this year oil demand will be back to 2019 levels. Emissions are already above 2019 levels, because the post Covid upturn in the economy is strongest in Asia and is being driven by increased coal use. Coal demand was actually more than 3 per cent higher in December 2020 than it was a year before. Emissions were 2 per cent higher on the same measure. Even greater emissions  growth is likely this year – not least because China’s economy grew in the first quarter by a staggering 18 per cent – much of which was powered by the use of coal. In terms of energy demand and emissions the world after COVID will look much as it did before the pandemic began.  Hydrocarbons will still account for around 80 per cent of global energy demand.  Renewables will keep growing but from a base of just 5 per cent of demand they have a long way to go until they seriously impact the inexorable growth of emissions. Short term plans are therefore an important issue for COP26 but they should not be the whole story.
Maintaining trust

Equally important is trust is maintained in the credibility of the longer term objectives. Nothing is easier for any politician to promise that everything will be settled by 2050.  Political life spans are too short.  Credibility and trust in the process depends on taking steps now which can produce material results in the future.  That means investing now in a series of technologies which can give energy user options in the future.

Science and engineering will solve climate change but both need the focus and resources of public policy. There will be widely different views as to which technology will make the greatest difference – but that provides an opportunity for Governments to spread their bets. 

A series of programmes

The best possible outcome for COP26 would be the creation of a series of large scale research and development programmes on a limited number of prospects any combination of which could offer the world low cost low carbon energy on a scale sufficient to change the energy mix and to reduce emissions to a manageable level.   These programmes would draw together the efforts already being done in different countries and fund the work needed to deliver real breakthroughs.

The list should include:

  • The storage of electricity through batteries or other mechanisms applicable to multiple forms of energy use.  This has to go well beyond light vehicles which are the focus of current efforts to grid level storage, and parts of the transport sector including freight which are currently sources of growing emissions.
  • The development of a new generation of small, modular nuclear reactors which can be brought on stream at a speed and cost which would make them easier to build and more attractive investments.
  • A radical reduction in the costs of carbon capture and storage which would make its use viable – something which is critically important if oil, gas and coal are, as seems inevitable, going to be part of the energy mix for decades to come.
  • The development of hydrogen – produced from either natural gas, with the carbon safely captured and stored or  through the use of low cost wind and solar generated power.

In each area the challenge is to find a way of making proven but expensive technologies viable at a scale which gives consumers across the world access to low cost, low solutions.  Over the next year in further posts I will look at each one and try to assess progress and prospects.

Trust around any issue depends on common understanding and a belief the words and actions of each party are grounded in a genuine conviction that the desired result can be achieved. Success at COP26 would be to establish coalitions of the willing to identify credible ways forward in each of these areas.  That is the best if not the only way to transcend the distrust which is now holding back the transition.