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Home / News and Insights / Blogs / Net Zero / 2: COP26 – Week 1

Welcome to the second edition of our new blog on all things ‘net zero’. Angus set the scene nicely last week with a ‘net zero’ key facts edition; this week we are looking at the key announcements that have been made during the first week of COP26 in Glasgow.

What is COP26?

COP26 is the United Nations’ 26th climate conference being held in Glasgow from 31 October to 12 November 2021. COP stands for Conference of the Parties; the ‘parties’ refer to 197 countries that agreed to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change at a meeting in 1992. The key objective of COP26 is to ‘accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’. The Paris Agreement was reached at COP21 in 2015 (held in Paris funnily enough) and it requires all the signature countries to work together to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees and aim for 1.5 degrees, to adapt to the impacts of a changing climate and to make money available to deliver those aims.

If you hadn’t noticed, over 120 heads of state and government and thousands of diplomats are meeting over the COP26 fortnight to discuss and agree measures and targets to cut national and global greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists, Greta Thunberg and others have given dire warnings, saying that countries have no choice but to make immediate transitions away from fossil fuels so as to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change. So, have the announcements been full of substance with meaningful and realistic targets or is it all ‘blah blah blah’?

Key COP announcements – here’s a run down of some of the key announcements made thus far

Deforestation and land use – On 2 November 2021 the leaders (or 133 of them; representing 90.07% of global forests and including Brazil, Russia and China – and the UK!) committed to work collectively to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030. This will be financially supported by a Global Forest Finance Pledge, under which 11 countries and the EU committed to provide £9 billion in funding ‘to help unleash the potential of forests and sustainable land use’. Additional US, private sector and donor funding will add at least another £12.9 billion to aid the cause. However, just two days after the declaration, Indonesia – one of the most heavily forested countries – appeared to row back on its commitment, with the Environment Minister stating: ‘The massive development of President Jokowi’s era must not stop in the name of carbon emissions or in the name of deforestation’. A good start!

The Global Methane Pledge – Also on 2 November 2021, more than 100 countries (led by the US and again including the UK) made the Global Methane Pledge, committing to reduce methane emissions by 30% from 2020 levels by 2030. The countries account for nearly half of all anthropogenic methane emissions. But hang on, methane isn’t CO2, it’s CH4? That is true, but methane is the second biggest contributor to human-caused global warming after CO2. Methane emissions from agriculture, fossil fuel leaks and waste have contributed 0.5C of global warming to date, compared to CO2’s 0.8C contribution. Interestingly, methane has a short atmospheric lifetime (~10 years) meaning that cutting emissions can reduce its temperature contribution very quickly. The same can’t be said of CO2.

Following the pledge announcement the Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF) Industry Group has called on the UK and EU to do more to ensure that spare energy from waste (EfW) capacity in Northern and Western Europe is used to divert waste from landfill in other countries, thereby reducing the methane emissions associated with waste management across Europe. According to the RDF Group, one tonne of waste sent to landfill emits 10 times more CO2e overall than recovering the same waste in an EfW facility. However, at present import taxes, incineration taxes and carbon taxes put obstacles in the way of the trade of waste-derived fuels being used in EfW facilities. The RDF Group considers these taxes should be redesigned or removed.

Ending coal investment – On 4 November 2021 over 40 countries (led by, and including, the UK) pledged to end unabated coal powered generation by 2030 for developed countries, and 2040 for other countries. The UK has already stated that it aims to phase out coal completely by 2024. Various financial institutions and countries also made commitments to end the funding of unabated coal facilities. It is interesting to note that since the 2015 Paris Agreement, there has been a 76% drop in the number of new coal plants planned globally, equating to the cancellation of more than 1000GW of new coal plants. Notwithstanding the pledge, it is rather concerning that some of the world’s biggest coal users, including the US and China, didn’t join the pledge. Fatih Birol, the head of the International Energy Agency, stated on the same day that the chances of meeting the Paris Agreement goals were ‘close to zero’ if the use of coal is not eliminated. Following COP26 it will be fascinating to see whether Michael Gove approves the proposed new coal mine in Cumbria, which completed its public inquiry last month.

One Sun One World One Grid initiative – India’s Narendra Modi launched the Green Grids Initiative: One Sun One World One Grid, which aims to develop a more inter-connected global energy grid, which will increase the viability of solar and reduce reliance on energy storage. The Initiative is accompanied by a One Sun declaration, which has been endorsed by 80 countries that are party to the International Solar Alliance (ISA). The next step for the initiative is to establish an action agenda for the development of an international framework for joint efforts relating to long-distance cross-border transmission, investment in solar, wind, energy storage, and other renewable energy technologies. In a globalised world where we need global solutions to help avert a climate crisis this sounds like good common sense. And hopefully it will allow the UK solar industry to take advantage of opportunities and export their expertise around the world (provided they have first done their bit to contribute to the ~80GW of solar and wind that we need by 2030!).

London, a ‘net zero financial centre’ – Rishi Sunak announced last week that London will become the world’s first ‘Net Zero Aligned Financial Centre’ with all financial portfolios aligned with a transition to net zero by 2050 at the latest. In addition, larger firms in the UK will be required to publish their detailed net zero transition plans from 2023. That is excellent news indeed. As the head of BDB Pitmans’ Climate Action Strategy Group, I am passionate about this issue and keen to see as many businesses as possible take steps to measure their carbon footprints and take appropriate (and, in some cases, difficult) steps to reduce their emissions and reach ‘net zero’ by 2050 at the very latest.

Small Modular Nuclear Reactor support – Finally, just yesterday, the Government announced its £210 million grant to Rolls Royce SMR Ltd to develop a design for small modular (nuclear) reactors (SMRs) to assist the UK in reaching its net zero target more quickly. The grant, which will be match funded by private sector investment, forms part of the £385 million Advanced Nuclear Fund that was included within the Government’s Net Zero Strategy that was released days before COP26. The grant will now allow Rolls-Royce SMR to develop detailed designs and undergo the UK regulatory approval process. What has not yet been announced is when a revised version of the National Planning Policy document (known as EN-6) for nuclear generation projects will be released for consultation. It is hoped that that document will provide strong policy support for SMR developments, to allow a decent number of SMRs to be granted development consent orders prior to being constructed.

Good COP, bad COP

So, there have been a raft of new initiatives and pledges announced in the first week of COP26 and it is clear that the UK is leading the way globally in many respects in terms of investment in, and support for, clean technologies and renewable energy and setting ambitious date targets. But what is also apparent is that we are a relatively small nation compared with China, the USA and India, and if those countries don’t make the same level of commitment (India announced their net zero emission target as late as 2070 and China is 2060) to reduce and end the use of fossil fuels and drive faster to decarbonise the energy sector, transport and our homes, then Fatih Birol may well be proved correct. Will the second week of COP26 deliver more ambition? Angus will be back next week to tell us. He will be training his way up to Glasgow tomorrow to spend a couple of days at the conference, and will report back on his COP26 experiences and what gets achieved at the global and UK level.

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