Everyone for themselves – the world after COP26

Everyone for themselves – the world after COP26

COP26 concluded on 12 November. Since then, we have seen quick takes, considered reviews, relief and anger. Too little has been done; too much has been done. The ground has been laid for 1.5 degrees, or we are heading to 2.7 degrees or more.

In our final blog before COP26, we introduced a scenario set, which encompassed the various possible outcomes of the conference – and what they would mean. The scenario set looks like this.

“The advantage of having low expectations,” my mother used to say, “is that you can be reasonably sure they will be met.” We certainly went in with low expectations. In our blog, we said: “Instead of “Disaster averted”, we suspect the future looks like “Children’s football” or “Everyone for themselves”. The consequences of either scenario, in lives, economies, peace and war, and what world we leave our children, are grave.”

There are many takes on the conference outcomes, and this is not the place to rehearse them again. Carbon Brief has produced a superb, extended, detailed analysis, which we recommend.

Alok Sharma’s tears, though, which came at the last minute as India insisted on an amendment giving coal yet more breathing room, set the scene for our analysis.

There are many good things to have come out of the conference, which include:

  • The ending of deforestation by 2030
  • Expanding the Galapagos reserve
  • Pledges to move to net-zero
  • Big promises from Brazil
  • India pledging to get to net-zero by 2070
  • The US pledge to help developing nations financially
  • An agreement on methane
  • An unexpected (not least by the British organisers) agreement between the US and China
  • Seventy-seven countries agreed to phase out coal by 2040.

As António Guterres, the UN secretary general said, Cop26 “is an important step but is not enough.” He said that what was achieved at the conference was “some building blocks for progress.”.

After the conference, we have three questions:

  • Is it enough?
  • How does it map against our expectations?
  • How does it map against our scenarios?

It is not enough. The victorious tweet from the organisers cannot disguise this one vital fact: “The Glasgow Climate Pact has been agreed. It has kept 1.5 degrees alive. But, it will only survive if promises are kept, and commitments translate into rapid action.” Alive, then, but on life support, and the overwhelming consensus is that we are heading for at least 2.7 degrees of warming.

Does it map against our expectations? Unfortunately, yes. Readers of this series will know that our only significant hope was that government sets the correct regulations, which industry – after all, the prime emitter – will follow, and finance.

Further, and it seems absurd it has taken this long, in the final declaration, fossil fuels were acknowledged as the leading contributor to climate change. The recognition of climate science is another crucial building block in developing international cooperation.

And there are concrete actions. President Biden’s declaration that the US Government will be carbon neutral by 2050 is a sign of hope. The federal government is the largest energy consumer, landowner and employer in the USA – when it commits like this, things will have to change. Portugal is the fourth EU country to quit coal (Belgium 2016, Austria and Sweden 2020); Germany aims to stop using coal by 2030 (but Nord Stream 2 may still be an issue). And China will plant 36000 km2 of trees every year to 2025.

This is just a tiny sample. There is much happening, and much of it is positive.

Mapping these points against our scenarios gives us an idea of where we are going. The relevant issues, looking at our quadrants:

Do we have an agreement? Yes, we do. It’s not enough to limit us to 1.5 degrees, but there is an agreement in place, and it focuses on actions, not just ambitions.

Do we have collaboration? Some. The Glasgow Climate Change Pact is important, but perhaps more so is the agreement between the US and China – two of the world’s largest emitters making their own agreement which in many respects is superior to the Glasgow outcomes. But net-zero dates are all over the place. Brazil, one of the most important nations in climate mitigation, made promises of little value. Alok Sharma was reduced to tears.

The good news, then, is we seem to be above the midline on our scenario set. “Hothouse earth” and “Children’s football” seem to be avoided. We are not in the full agreement/full cooperation quadrant, though – the agreement is weak, and cooperation is limited.

In our view, the world after COP26 is in the quadrant we called “Everyone for themselves”. We know what we need to do, but nations will do it mainly by themselves, in the hope that the combined effect of all their actions is enough. Or at least, enough for them.

There’s a precedent here, in the rise of the Omicron variant. Omicron is believed to have developed – and is at the time of writing doubling every two days in the UK – because of the inequity of vaccine availability in the developing world. The developed nations are now at the booster stage, having moved beyond vaccination. Developing countries are only just getting going.

As with vaccines, so with climate change. Action begins at home – so the developed world will move relatively swiftly to net zero, with the rest of the world, forced to use their own resources in the context of expanding populations and poverty, will trail behind. And just as in vaccines, the failure to bring everyone up simultaneously will mean that climate change effects are felt worldwide, no matter how much the UK, for instance, becomes carbon neutral.

Every year that passes now only increases the risk of our projection of 3.5 degrees, absent rapid, radical change. COP26 did not lay the groundwork for that change. COP26 had many positive elements. It was not enough. Our future seems to be, on this brief survey, the scenario we have called “Everyone for themselves”.

Written by Jonathan Blanchard Smith, SAMI Fellow and Director

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

Future-prepared firms outperform the average by 33% higher profitability and 200% higher growth. SAMI Consulting brings 30 years of experience delivering foresight, futures and scenario planning – enabling companies and organisations make “robust decisions in uncertain times”. Find out more www.samiconsulting.co.uk.

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Featured image by Gerhard Gellinger from Pixabay

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