Featured image (above): Mangrove forest along the Urumajó river, Augusto Corrêa, Pará state, northern Brazil. Mangroves provide habitat, are highly productive, protect against storms and erosion, store carbon and are vital for fishing and tourism.
This post was edited slightly since publishing to improve formatting and readability. Material changes are indicated by Updates.
Update 2021-11-11: The Climate Action Tracker article on the effectiveness of different emissions scenarios on end-of-century global temperature increase relative to the pre-industrial average is a major reality check for COP26 ambitions (Figure below).
The 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) is taking place in Glasgow. Some serious decision-making and concrete action are expected from delegates in the wake of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that unequivocally blamed human activity for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and their effects on climate and weather, and the dire consequences for habitats, wildlife, people and their livelihoods.
The opening speeches by leaders in government, business and civil society are more convergent in their language with growing recognition by politicians and the business community of the climate crisis and the clear evidence of its consequences. But words have to be turned into action. Although we need to be optimistic, there is a feeling that the conference may turn out to be simply a talk shop without the absolutely critical immediate action that is needed. Or that any action is dispensed out slowly for years or decades to come, or in some cases, not at all!
The return of the United States of America to the climate agenda is welcome, yet the absence of China and Russia, two of the top GHG emitters, means there may be less consensus at COP26. Most of the countries present are not doing enough to limit global heating to 1.5°C, according to the latest Climate Action Tracker ratings. The difficulties that representatives of smaller nations, indigenous groups and others have had getting to and being accommodated in Glasgow, added to reports of more restrictive access to sessions, means the conference may be less diverse and representative than before.
The COP26 Agenda has the following goals:
1. “Secure global net zero by 2050 and keep 1.5 degrees within reach”.
The IPCC predicts that Earth’s temperature will be 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average by 2040 at our current rate of emissions and so reductions will have to be extremely ambitious to keep us below the 1.5 °C target agreed in Paris in 2015. However, business and governments alike are still investing in gas and petroleum projects and emissions are returning to record levels after the COVID-19 lockdowns ended.
Where I live in northern Brazil, reports [Sindipetrosp 2021] indicate the discovery of huge fossil fuel reserves in the very deep waters outside the Amazon continental shelf. The latter has unique biological and geomorphological characteristics: the largest continuous mangrove forest belt in the world, now recognised as being even more important for carbon storage [Macreadie et al., 2021], distinctive freshwater and marine hydrodynamic interactions, and a recently discovered unique and extensive coral reef system [Moura et al., 2016], among others. Despite the climate emergency and against all common sense, there are plans to exploit these deep-water fossil fuel reserves. For the moment, objections by environmental agencies and civil society have prevented these areas from being auctioned off for drilling by fossil fuel companies. At COP26, some limited agreement over the ending of new financial investments in coal power is at least a step in the right direction.
2. “Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats”.
The idea is to help countries affected by climate change to protect and restore ecosystems and develop resilient infrastructure and agriculture. Poor and vulnerable countries are suffering disproportionately due to the climate crisis. Since most of the GHG emissions have been from richer nations, we should be discussing reparations and compensation to mitigate effects of climate change. The agreement on ending deforestation globally by 2030 is a good thing but has two major problems. Firstly, the deadline is far too forward in the future and during this time biodiversity losses and changes in forest structure and carbon storage capacity will diminish, and may be impossible to replace in some areas [Gatti et al., 2021]. Secondly, proper investment and management of reforestation of native vegetation is needed on a global scale. Deforestation should to be stopped today and robust reforestation plans for at least 30 – 50% of the planet immediately implemented [Dinerstein et al., 2019]. This would create commodities, jobs and services, while at the same time would represent a major long-term investment in global climate resilience.
3. “Mobilise finance”.
The first two COP26 goals depend on a previous agreement that developed countries make available at least $100bn in climate finance per year by 2020. That is obviously overdue but the money is now expected to be released in 2022. It’s not that much money compared with quarterly profits of large corporations, banks and Big Tech, many of which avoid taxation while the Fossil Fuel industry stills gets massively subsidised. Even worse and somewhat bizarre, but not surprising, is that there is an international agreement, the Energy Charter Treaty (ECT), which allows the fossil fuel industry to sue governments for loss of profits due to changes in public policy. There is now discussion in COP26 of a major overhaul of the international financial system that is needed to deliver trillions in private and public sector finance required to achieve global net zero by 2050.
4. “Work together to deliver”.
The climate emergency can only be properly dealt with through collaboration between governments, businesses and society. It may seem obvious but this goal was only formally endorsed by governments in Paris in 2015 and indeed some rules that make the Paris Agreement operational still remain to be finalised during COP26.
Other important topics…
Some topics need better discussion at COP26.
- Disproportionate GHG emissions from the richest 1% of the world’s population, contributing to 16% of total emissions, are putting the 1.5 °C target at risk and must be curtailed.
- We can’t wait for the fossil fuel industry to transition to clean, renewable energy; fossil fuel production must stop right now.
- Plastic production is set to double or more in this decade and and will cause GHG emissions to increase. Plastics also cause serious physical and toxicological contamination in habitats, wildlife and people.
- Big Tech has large GHG emissions but is not well represented at COP26, perhaps because the Web Summit in Lisbon is being held around the same time. Some companies have taken steps to increase their use of clean renewable energy, however.
- The global human population is too large to be sustainable. We need to invest in decent employment, facilitate family planning, make homes affordable and climate-resilient, and make education accessible, especially for girls and women. This would help ensure good quality of living for a smaller, better educated and better paid global population in the carbon zero future.
Sindipetrosp 2021. Estudo indica descoberta de 30 bilhões de barris de petróleo na Bacia do Pará-Maranhão (in Portuguese) https://sindipetrosp.org.br/estudo-indica-descoberta-de-30-bilhoes-de-barris-de-petroleo-na-bacia-do-para-maranhao/
Macreadie, P.I. et al. Blue carbon as a natural climate solution. Nature Reviews Earth & Environment (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-021-00224-1
Moura, R.L. et al. 2016. An extensive reef system at the Amazon River mouth. Science Advances Volume 2, Issue 4 https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.1501252
Gatti, L.V. et al. 2021. Amazonia as a carbon source linked to deforestation and climate change. Nature 595, 388–393. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03629-6
Dinerstein, E. et al. 2019. A Global Deal For Nature: Guiding principles, milestones, and targets. Science Advances Volume 5, Issue 4. https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aaw2869