Wish list for COP26

Author: Kenneth Van den Bergh, co-founder Carbon+Alt+Delete

The 26th Conferences of the Parties (COP26) will take place in Glasgow in early November. This annual high mass of global climate policy is a prime time to reflect on the state of the climate. I am happy to participate in this. Below is my wish list for COP26.

(1) Climate neutrality by 2050 is a necessity, not an ambition. Climate science is very clear. To reduce the impact of climate change somewhat, we need to limit the global temperature rise to less than 2°C, preferably 1.5°C. To do so, we need to roughly halve our emissions by 2030 and achieve climate neutrality (i.e. net zero greenhouse gas emissions) by 2050. The climate goals of the European Union and an increasing number of other countries and companies are in line with this trajectory. These countries and companies deserve respect for their ambitions, but we need to realize that they are doing what needs to be done, not less but not more either. True climate pioneers will achieve climate neutrality much earlier than 2050.

(2) Targets are nice, plans are better. Ambitions are important, but concrete plans are needed to drastically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. If we add up all the national and regional climate plans that have been adopted or are in the pipeline (i.e. the so-called Intended Nationally Determined Contributions), we level off our global emissions at current levels to then fall slightly towards 2050. Thus, current plans are largely insufficient to drastically reduce our emissions and achieve climate neutrality. The COP is an important moment when countries provide transparency on their (lack of) climate plans. Through naming and shaming, laggards can be encouraged to step up their game.

(3) Measurement is knowledge. Transparency on greenhouse gas emissions of countries, companies and products is a necessary condition to efficiently make the switch to climate neutrality. Without this transparency, we are sailing blind. Emissions at country level are reasonably well mapped, but at company level and certainly at product level, more transparency is needed on the relevant climate impacts. Experts expect COP26 to emphasize the importance for companies to measure and publicly communicate their climate impact. Once this climate impact is known, customers will buy more sustainable products, investors will invest their money in more sustainable companies and young employees will start working for more sustainable companies.

(4) Investment is not a cost. Making the transition to a climate-neutral economy requires handfuls of money, think for instance of electric charging infrastructure, renovation of buildings and massive rollout of solar and wind energy. An important note here is that these are investments, not annual recurring costs. In accounting terms, it concerns capex, not opex. By investing massively in climate-neutral technologies over the coming decades, we will avoid annual recurring costs due to climate change in the future. Just as we as a society invest in educating young people so that we do not have to bear the recurring costs of uneducated and illiterate adults later on.

(5) Invest massively in existing carbon-free technology. The bad news is that it is not technically possible today to make a complete transition to a climate-neutral economy.

Certain technologies do not yet exist or only in smaller pilot projects (e.g. CO2-free freight traffic or air traffic). The good news is that we can already take a big step towards climate neutrality today with existing technologies (up to 65% according to the Boston Consulting Group). These include renewable electricity, electric cars, heat pumps and energy efficiency. Moreover, a significant part of this technology is already cost-competitive or even cheaper than fossil alternatives. It is vital to invest massively in this existing carbon-free technology over the next decade, so that we buy ourselves time to take the currently unresolved steps between 2030 and 2050.

(6) We’re in this together. The elephant in the room of climate politics is social (in)equality. Poor countries suffer more from the consequences of climate change than rich countries, while the latter historically bear greater responsibility. Inequality debates also play out within countries, think of the gillets jaunes for whom the end of the month is rightly a greater concern than the end of the planet. The basis of a just transition to a climate-neutral future is a clear and recruiting vision of the future that everyone can rally behind. Such a vision of the future is the foundation on which a government can build concrete social corrections. In this respect, the Corona crisis has clearly shown us that we are capable of mass solidarity (“reduce our own social contacts”) if there is a clear (“our elderly and sick are in mortal danger”) and recruiting (“back to the old normal together”) narrative. Such a recruiting and positive narrative is also needed for the climate transition, providing the basis for just climate politics.