The UK will host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow on 31 October – 12 November 2021. The COP26 summit will bring parties together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The Glasgow conference has four goals:
1. Secure global net zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach
2. Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats
3. Mobilise finance
4. Work together to deliver
In this short series of blogs, we will look at each of these goals in turn. We’re looking at them from a futures perspective – based on what our horizon scanning is telling us, are these goals realistic? Are they appropriate? Can they be achieved – and what happens if they are not?
This blog looks at the first goal, which is divided into four subgoals:
- accelerate the phase-out of coal
- curtail deforestation
- speed up the switch to electric vehicles
- encourage investment in renewables.
Is there any more to be said here? The UK is phasing out electric and diesel vehicles by 2035, and aiming to be entirely dependent on renewable energy for electricity generation by the same time. China will stop building coal fired power stations outside of its borders. John Kerry, the US Special Envoy for climate, says COP26 will be a “big leap forward on climate crisis” where “we will have the largest, most significant increase in ambition [on cutting emissions] by more countries than everyone ever imagined possible”
So we’re there, right? The world has finally woken up and is now taking action.
Not according to the International Energy Agency. The 2021 World Energy Outlook, just released, is clear. “Current plans to cut global carbon emissions will fall 60% short of their 2050 net zero target”. Whilst “a new energy economy is emerging” simply – as they put it – “keeping the door open to 1.5 degrees” requires $4tn every year between now and 2050.
SAMI Consulting, as a company, decided to build in climate change to every scenario project we undertook, regardless of subject, about four years ago. Our work was showing us that climate change was not just about the weather, but was going to impact every part of every life on the planet, starting very soon. In the last year, we have seen that impact getting close to home, in floods (China, Europe, US, UK, Philippines), and wildfires (Siberia, California and swathes of Europe).
As time has passed, we have collectively become more concerned. First order effects (excess heat, ice pack melt and so on), second order effects (fire, Gulf Stream changes, flooding) and third order effects (migration, crop failure &c) are increasing. When it used to be possible to say “by 2050” when one was contemplating climate effects, one now has to say “today”.
A useful futures tool is the cone of plausibility – which states, essentially, that the further away from the origin point one goes, the more possibilities are enshrined in the future. Whilst the most likely future travels through the middle of the cone, as it expands away from the origin the cone widens, as the range of possible futures expands.
The range of possible futures as far as temperature increase is concerned is generally taken to be from +1.5 degrees to +4.5 degrees – though these figures themselves are somewhat arbitrary.
The simple increase in temperature, though, does not take into account the second and third order effects – and it is clear from the experience of the last twelve months that these impacts are considerable, even at the sub-1.5 degree level.
So we agree with the IEA. Simply put, too little is being done, in too few parts of the world, too slowly.
Let’s look at the COP26 first goal again, and break it down into what it says – and what it means.
“Secure global net zero by 2050”. Ambitious, probably impossible, unless China, India, Africa and Latin America can be engaged, supported and funded. And in itself, not enough. As long as large parts of the world continue to use cars, boats and planes; provide electricity through the use of coal fired power stations and diesel generators; burn wood for fuel; and prioritise economic growth over climate, it matters not a whit what the UK does.
“Keep 1.5 degrees within reach”. A miss is as good as a mile, and the phrasing “within reach” implies a miss is being planned in.
The subgoals are as bad. “Accelerate the phase-out of coal”, “curtail deforestation”, “speed up the switch to electric vehicles”, and “encourage investment in renewables”. Understanding that these phrases have been argued about in vape-filled rooms for the last few years, they are vague, target-free and narrow. Where is the investment in hydrogen? In carbon capture and storage? In their understanding of the global level of change that needs to take place?
Developing future scenarios is fascinating, and often joyful, work. The range of possible futures for the world is enormously wide ranging – humanity has an endless capacity for innovation, an almost deranged ambition, and both the materials and education to think way beyond its current state into near-paradisical futures. The flip side is that futures can often be intimidating, and nerve-wracking. The same ambition that will take us to Mars can be turned to developing weapons of war and systems of oppression. Self-interest and clannishness slows progress and limits unified action.
And so it is with COP26 Goal 1. The cone of plausibility does not seem to include “swift, effective action” except on the edge of the cone. Based on Goal 1, our “anticipated future” looks a lot worse than it did only ten years ago. Which means our outlying “possible futures” look nerve-wracking indeed.
Our next blogs will address Goals 2-4. Maybe there will be something in them which lifts the spirits a little. Maybe.
Written by Jonathan Blanchard Smith, SAMI Fellow and Director
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.
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