Grantham Institute lecturer Dr Joeri Rogelj, member of the United Nations’ Climate Science Advisory Group, blogs on why hosting the 26th Conference of the Parties in 2020 is an unrivaled opportunity for the UK to take the lead internationally on climate change action.
For the last 40 years, each consecutive decade has been warmer than the previous one. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been going up since fossil fuel use started pumping out emissions in the eighteenth century, and levels are now 50% higher than they were back then. This, along with other greenhouse gases, has already warmed the Earth by 1 degree – and the world is now feeling the impacts.
Solutions to cut greenhouse gases are local, but their effects have to add up because, ultimately, global emissions need to be brought back to zero to halt climate change. One of the most important forums to do so is an internationally agreed treaty adopted by the United Nations, the Paris Agreement, which seeks to halt this trend and limit global warming to well below 2°C and preferably 1.5°C. The treaty came out of a meeting of government representatives called the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21), in Paris at the end of 2015. Under the leadership of the French conference hosts, about 190 countries made entry-level pledges to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. They also agreed to strengthen these commitments at five-year intervals, making 2020 a crucial climate summit.
To date, only two of 190 countries have ‘ratcheted up’ their proposals, and calculations show the current pledges would see the world continue to warm, likely reaching 3-4°C by the end of the century – with globally disruptive consequences. Hot on the heels of last year’s climate summit, Claire Perry, UK Minister of State for Energy and Clean Growth, has thrown the United Kingdom’s hat into the ring to host the Conference of Parties in 2020. COP26 is a big deal – the major conferences go in 5-yearly cycles, so this is the next important opportunity after the Paris conference to improve global climate action – and I believe the UK has the qualities needed to lead these talks to success.
The host country: Inspiring – and delivering – global climate action
The right choice of host country is pivotal. Over the year preceding the conference, lead negotiators for the host must encourage others to pledge emissions cuts below what is required to limit global warming to as close as possible to 1.5°C. The host provides a vision, shapes discussions, and develops momentum in the build-up to the summit at the end of the year. They build alliances with other countries to achieve this, for example, by providing technological and financial support to developing countries, identifying solutions, and working towards a common goal across governments, businesses and civil society. Overall, a huge challenge for any single country, but the UK has excellent credentials suggesting it can deliver this.
A champion in science and innovation, with ideas, solutions and credibility
Italy has also bid to host the conference. However, as the UK has a long-standing diplomatic tradition, it is uniquely placed to take up this important international responsibility in 2020. As a researcher, I value science and science-based climate policy, and the UK has championed both for many decades. This is not only reflected in the world-leading research that is carried out in the UK, but also by the strong support the UK provides to organisations like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Building real momentum around climate action will require ideas, solutions and credibility, and the UK can confidently lead here too. The City of London is a global leader in low-carbon finance and, through its Green Finance Initiative, is in the process of developing new financial products and services to enable the low-carbon transition globally. As a city, the UK capital is a bigger player in the area of cleantech than any city in the United States. The UK is also home to innovative renewable energy providers that are playing a critical role in decarbonising the electricity sector. These success stories can be used to inspire and help catalyse transformative economic change in other countries.
A great opportunity for the UK
Hosting COP26 in 2020 would provide an unrivaled opportunity for the UK to capitalise on its reputation in science, innovation and climate leadership by driving forwards change on a global stage. The UK was one of the very first countries to adopt robust carbon legislation through the Climate Change Act back in 2008; and last year, when the IPCC published its Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C, it was among the first countries to explore the implications of the report’s insights on its domestic policy. This resulted in advice by the UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC) that the UK should reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Now, some 10 years on from the Climate Change Act, the UK should reassert its position as a global climate leader by anchoring this vision into national legislation, and inspiring climate action on an international scale.
The four years since the Paris conference have been the warmest on record across the world and we are experiencing more extreme rainfall and flooding, glaciers are melting, and ‘exceptional’ heatwaves have become an almost annual occurrence here in Europe. If the UK does succeed in its bid to host COP26, I will be looking forward to a 2020 climate summit where acceptance of our shared future, and belief in science and innovation, come together under UK leadership to deliver the ambitious climate action that we need for years ahead.
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