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Home / News and Insights / Blogs / Net Zero / 3: Not much COP?

This week’s entry reflects on a visit to Glasgow for COP26.

I (Angus) attended the second week of COP26 last week having been invited to events by Wood and Skanska, to whom I am very grateful. Here is my report.

For anyone who is unaware, COP26 is the 26th annual conference for UN countries to discuss and agree on steps to combat and adapt to climate change, which was held from 31 October to 13 November in Glasgow. Every fifth COP, as this one was, is a more major one – a full service, if you will – the last being COP21 in Paris that gave us the Paris agreement to limit climate change to two degrees above pre-industrial levels, and 1.5 degrees if at all possible.

Impressions of the overall event

Having been told by someone it was like a cross between the Olympics and the Edinburgh Fringe, by the middle of week two it was definitely nowhere near the scale of either of those. I didn’t have access to the ‘blue zone’ where the speeches and negotiations were actually taking place, but the centre of Glasgow was pretty normal apart from lots of COP26 banners on lampposts, and as you approached the conference area to the south-west there were a few people with lanyards milling around and a bunch of protesters and activists at the blue zone security gates, rather squashed along a street. What was noticeable was the police presence – as well as Police Scotland (Poileas Alba) I saw vans from Northumbria, Merseyside and West Midlands constabularies. They didn’t have much to do, though.

I did visit the ‘green zone’ in the Scottish Science Centre, the outer area where exhibitors could have ‘pavilions’, since although tickets were sold out a long time in advance they dropped the need for a ticket at all by the time I was there. The visitors seemed more interested in the Science Centre’s own exhibits, but there were about 30 stands for sponsors and other exhibitors. I attended the National Grid stand and won a prize in their quiz.

What I learned

I focused particularly on aviation decarbonisation, one of the trickiest areas to decarbonise, probably along with agriculture. The consensus seemed to be that to decarbonise gradually from now until 2050, we are first going to need sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which like biomass removes carbon when it is produced to offset the emissions when it is burned, until about 2035, whereupon hydrogen (for longer flights) and electricity (for short ones) are likely to become viable.

The weight issue posed by these new forms of propulsion was brought home by one speaker who said that with 18 tonnes of fuel you can get a typical passenger plane from Luton to Dubai; with 18 tonnes of state-of-the-art battery you could get from Luton to Dover, and with 18 tonnes of hydrogen you could get from Luton to Sydney. It’s not as simple as that, of course, 18 tonnes of hydrogen would need to be liquefied if it was not to take up far too much space, which would mean keeping it at below -250 degrees, which brings a host of other issues.

More generally, the urgency of combating climate change means that companies who are traditional competitors are going to have to start cooperating more (and this applies to everyone – even you, dear reader). Climate-saving innovations will need to be shared rather than hogged.

Secondly, although the P in COP26 is ‘parties’ who are national governments, I think that companies are where the action will be – they are much more susceptible to carrots (in terms of incentives from governments as well as getting ahead of their competitors – contradicting what I just said) and sticks (in terms of penalties from governments as well as loss of business through reputational damage). For example Arup has just announced it will not work on any fossil fuel projects from next April (the precise wording is ‘it will not be taking on any new energy commissions involving the extraction, refinement, or transportation of hydrocarbon-based fuels’). Other companies, what are your commitments?

Thirdly, companies’ emissions are generally divided into Scope one, two and three. Scope one are direct emissions by the company and scope two are indirect ones. Scope three is more interesting and consists of indirect emissions ‘in the value stream of the reporting company’, ie the company’s suppliers and users. If I am an airport, for example, I can’t ignore the emissions from planes by saying they are operated by airlines and are nothing to do with me, guv; they are part of my scope three emissions.

Fourthly, companies can seek to offset their emissions or they can spend the money on reducing them instead. There is a strong consensus that the latter is preferable (or for the more militant, the only real option).

What COP decided

The conference was due to end on Friday but an overall decision was finally thrashed out on Saturday evening. The official text ‘Glasgow Climate Pact’ can be found here; it’s not that long.

In general the consensus is that it could have been stronger but does keep the prospect of a temperature increase of no more than 1.5 degrees alive. China and India were criticised for a last-minute amendment to remove references to ‘phasing out’ fossil fuels to their ‘phasedown’ a word unknown to the English language. The reality is of course more complicated than that. On the plus side, it is amazingly the first time fossil fuels have been mentioned in a COP decision.

The annual $100 billion from developed to developing countries to mitigate and adapt to climate change agreed in Paris has not been fully forthcoming which was noted ‘with deep regret’; however the figure was not increased.

I learned that ‘requests’ is apparently stronger language than ‘urges’, according to the UN body that drafts these things.

As mentioned in last week’s blog, in addition to the overall decision document, the first week of the conference had various countries adopting pledges in various areas. The UK signed up to many of them, but the likes of China and India weren’t as committed and won’t, at present, commit to the 2050 target, which coupled with Australian denial must be a concern.

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