As the dust settles on COP26 it is clearer than ever that the climate crisis is not going to be averted by inter-governmental negotiation. That’s not to ignore the momentum generated by COP26, or the incremental progress made in Glasgow. But the commitments on the table from national governments when the gavel came down fell well short of locking in action to halve global emissions this decade, and that was the ultimate indicator of success or failure. As a result there is an even more urgent need for cities and other non-state actors to lead immediate science-based climate action, and increase the impetus on national leaders.
The goal for COP26 was very simple at one level – to secure commitments to action that would constrain global temperature rise below 1.5°C. Equally importantly, COP26 needed to be the moment when the wealthy societies which have been responsible for the lion’s share of greenhouse gas emissions to date came good on their promise to financially support the Global South’s transition to resilient, thriving, low pollution societies.
Coming out of COP21 in Paris six years ago governments made pledges that put us on track for global heating of 4°C this century. As a result of COP26 we are heading for 2.4°C. That follows significant ratcheting up in commitments from China, the USA, the European Union and India in particular. Millions of lives will be saved if these promises are delivered in full.
But movement in the right direction is not ‘success’ in relation to climate breakdown. 1.5°C is not an arbitrary target but a science-based upper limit of the heating we can risk before eco-systems upon which all human life depends breach irreversible tipping points. At the current 1.2°C of warming many leading scientists believe we have already careered past several important ecological boundaries. To get on a 1.5°C pathway, emissions had to reach a peak in 2020 and decline by at least 6% a year thereafter. Instead, after a small fall due to the pandemic, all the indications are that emissions in 2021 are returning to pre-COVID levels.
Perhaps the most important outcome of the Glasgow Accords, therefore, was an agreement that countries should come back to COP27 next year with stronger commitments, rather than waiting for another 5 years to ratchet up as envisaged in the Paris Agreement. Similarly, the declaration signed by many nations to cut methane emissions 30% by 2030 was important, as was the bilateral agreement between China and the USA to work together on stronger climate action in the 2020s.
All of these outcomes suggest a long overdue shift in timeframes for climate action, moving away from arguing about mid-century pledges of carbon neutrality – which even fossil-fuelled governments like Australia have signed up to, despite having no plan or intention to deliver – to focusing attention on halving emissions by 2030, which is essential to stay on track for 1.5°C.
This is something that C40 – the network of big city mayors for whom I work – has been pushing on for some time, having adopted 1.5°C as our science-based target in 2016 and made it a condition of membership that cities deliver their fair share of halving global emissions by 2030. I was delighted at COP26 we could announce that over 1,000 other cities have joined C40 members in taking that speed and scale of action, as part of the Cities Race to Zero initiative. This was the most aggressive set of commitments of any group of governments at COP26, but it is only the start of what can – and must – be delivered in 2022 to get the world on track to 1.5°C. Expect to see that number grow.
But now we need to narrow the timeframe for action even further, and focus attention on delivering annual action targets, as C40’s incoming Chair, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, argued at COP26. He speaks with authority, having recently successfully delivered an 18-fold expansion of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone – boasting the world’s toughest vehicle emissions standards, which now protects 4 million Londoners from vehicle pollution.
Shifting the focus to what needs to be delivered this year in order to be on track for halving emissions in 2030 is something that C40 is going to prioritise in 2022, including starting a new programme of annual ‘climate budgeting’ with 11 of our cities.
Inspired by the leadership of Mayor Johannsen and the city of Oslo, ‘climate budgeting’ sounds nerdy, but I believe it is the single most important climate policy lever governments can exercise. Oslo has used an annual climate budget since 2016 in order to deliver its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 95% (from 2009 levels) by 2030.
In short, it requires two things:
- To umbilically link financial and carbon budgets so that annual spending can only be signed off if it will deliver carbon targets;
- And to reorganise the entire machinery of government – every department – on the same basis.
It’s tough and even Oslo is struggling to stay on track, but this is what is required from government at all levels if science-based targets are to be turned into immediate, real-world action.
While failure to secure national commitments commensurate with halving emissions by 2030 was expected, Global South countries went home from Glasgow bitterly disappointed at lack of progress on climate justice. In particular, continued delay in providing the $100 billion promised annually by rich countries to support the global south means only 80% of that figure has been committed, and $100bn a year is unlikely to be achieved until 2023.
Reparations for loss and damage inflicted upon the most climate vulnerable countries was shamefully left out of the Glasgow Accords altogether.
In C40 we can see the impact that is having. Global south cities are not waiting for handouts before tackling pollution – there is a huge pipeline of projects waiting to be delivered and Dhaka North in Bangladesh is the latest to issue a green bond to fund delivery of its climate action plan. But the poorest cities are also those most immediately impacted by climate breakdown and each new extreme weather event reduces capacity to invest in developing cleaner, fairer and more thriving societies. Delay by wealthy countries in providing the funding they have a responsibility to provide is costing lives and reducing the chances keeping global heating below 1.5 degrees.
So, as Nigel Topping, the COP26 High Level Climate Champion for Climate Action, said in the Race to Zero closing plenary: “Despite all that has been achieved, we are still woefully short of what future generations deserve.”
Nigel and his fellow Champion, Gonzalo Muñoz, did a superb job in rallying businesses, cities, regions and others around a series of 2030 breakthroughs and ‘Race to Zero’ commitments. Let’s hope the big polluting countries step up their climate action similarly before COP27. But as an immediate action, national governments should ramp up their support to cities and other non-state actors, empowering those who are ready and willing to immediately shift up the gears and deliver emission reductions in the next year that put us on track to halve by 2030.