COP26: If Glasgow can learn to reinvent itself, why not the world?

When world leaders arrive at Glasgow’s SEC on Monday morning for the opening of COP26, they will walk among the ghosts of Scotland’s industrial past.

The cluster of conference venues occupies an infilled dockland that once teemed with ships moored five abreast.

The merchants who set sail for far flung oceans – Burrell & Son, Donaldson Line, Paddy Henderson – helped transform the city into an industrial powerhouse. It is a well told story, though its next chapter is still being written.

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This wondrously complex city of contrasts and contradictions is reckoning with its past, and it is here, over the next fortnight, that an emergency plan for the future will be ratified. That, at least, is the hope.

The journey to Glasgow has been tangential, but there can be little dispute that climate change is now the defining geopolitical issue of the 21st century.

Some 42 years have passed since the inaugural World Climate Conference in Geneva, and nearly 30 have gone by since the so-called Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, where nations agreed to establish a united response with the formation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Bonn-based entity tasked with convening annual gatherings known as the conference of the parties (COP).

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Over the years, some COPs have achieved a great deal and others very little. The third session in Kyoto gave rise to a protocol founded on the principle of common, but differentiated responsibilities, placing the emphasis for action on developed countries who were long-term polluters.

COP26 will dominate Glasgow's riverside over the next fortnight. Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP/GettyCOP26 will dominate Glasgow's riverside over the next fortnight. Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty
COP26 will dominate Glasgow's riverside over the next fortnight. Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty

That was the theory, anyway. By 2001, the US, then the biggest polluter of them all, announced that it would not be implementing the agreement, citing nationalist economic self-interest.

There was even graver disappointment in Copenhagen at COP15, which ratified little more than a continuation of the Kyoto agreement. But the deal was not legally binding and set no real targets, sowing further doubts over whether the global community could ever agree on a framework for real change to tackle the climate crisis.

Further COPs came and went, but in 2015 everything changed. Six years now have passed since the world’s nations came together to sign the Paris Agreement, pledging to keep global warming below 2C, and preferably no more than 1.5C, compared to before the industrial revolution.

At the time, it was hailed as a major breakthrough and it was, although excitable claims that it ushered in “an end to the fossil fuel era” were undoubtedly premature.

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We know now the treaty was not enough. Even if the commitments made so far are met, the earth’s temperature is still on course to rise by 2.7C. Without a drastic upscaling of ambition, we are headed for catastrophe.

Scientists estimate that emissions must be slashed by 45 per cent by 2030, compared with 2010 levels, and from there to net zero emissions by 2050, if the world is to have a good chance of remaining within the 1.5C threshold.

A stark illustration of the action required can be found in the analysis of the Climate Action Tracker, a non-profit group that assesses nation’s deeds against the goals they made in Paris.

As things stand, only Gambia – the smallest country in mainland Africa – is on course to uphold its promises. Major powers like China, Russia, Brazil and India are considered either ‘critically insufficient’ or ‘highly insufficient’.

But it is not too late. Not yet.

The Paris Agreement prescribed emission reductions on a voluntary basis, with no sanctions for those nations who miss their targets. Its efficacy – or rather, the lack of it – was underlined when the Trump administration pulled the US out from the agreement.

In Glasgow, the majority of countries are expected to increase their nationally determined contributions (NDCs), setting out how they will reduce emissions.

Indeed, some 116 nations have already done so, although the scale of the predictions will only reduce emissions by around four gigatonnes by 2030 – a third of what is required.

If the likes of China and India fail to commit to NDCs, it will be hard to spin the Glasgow talks as a success, but getting those countries and others to sign up to a long-term, net-zero goal is only part of the challenge facing UK negotiators.

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Developing countries are understandably aggrieved about the lack of finance forthcoming to help them cut emissions, and Boris Johnson’s efforts to wean the world off coal have so far been rebuffed by the likes of Australia, China, Indonesia and Mexico.

The Glasgow talks will also have to make history by overcoming the historic disagreements around carbon trading, an initiative that would allow one country to contribute towards its own reductions by paying for emissions to be cut in another nation.

Amidst all this, there are clear political obstacles to overcome, not least the non-attendance of key leaders such Russian president Vladimir Putin, his Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsonaro and, as is widely expected, China’s Xi Jinping.

There is also a degree of resentment from developing nations towards the UK Government’s swingeing cuts to its foreign aid spending, a decision that did little to demonstrate it is best placed to serve as the vanguard for global change.

But if Mr Johnson, UP COP26 president Alok Sharma and their team can broker key deals against all odds, they will have made history. It is a big if.

"This is going to be a big challenge,” Mr Sharma said this week. "This is getting almost 200 countries to reach consensus on some of these difficult issues that have been outstanding for six years now. It is in the balance."

It has been a long time since the term, Clydebuilt, was recognised worldwide as a mark of quality. What Mr Johnson and his team help forge over the next two weeks will determine whether that old pride remains.

There must be hope. After all, if Glasgow has learned to reinvent itself, why not the world?

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