But if the window for taking action to avoid runaway climate change was precarious then, a year on “that thread is getting pretty thin”, according to Lord Adair Turner.
Turner, a businessman and academic, chairs the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC), an international think-tank focusing on economic growth and climate change. He spent part of his youth living in Scotland – in East Kilbride, going to school in Glasgow and Perthshire.
The self-professed “technocrat” considers COP26, hosted by the UK in November last year, to have been a “moderate success”, but stresses a huge amount of work remains to be done – and very quickly. “We can’t say that it shot the lights out and changed the world, but positive progress was made,” he said. “It kept the possibility of 1.5C on the table.” Just.
International climate scientists have agreed 2C of warming will spark irreversible and catastrophic impacts, including increasingly extreme weather, loss of ice sheets, sea level rise and ocean acidification. Global temperatures have already risen by 1.1C. If the rise reaches 1.8C above 1850s levels, it’s estimated half the planet's population could be exposed to life-threatening heat and humidity.
Analysis suggests current emissions reduction pledges and commitments from countries do not put the world on track to limit temperature rise to 1.5C. More like 2.4C. In a new report published this week, the ETC has warned extra measures will be required on top of full implementation of the promises to have even a 50:50 chance of meeting the Paris objective. And COP27, which gets under way todayin Egypt, is the place to get the ball rolling.
The baron, a former chair of the Climate Change Committee and the Financial Services Authority, acknowledges this year’s talks are taking place against an especially challenging economic and political background. As well as lingering pressures resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, the world is also dealing with a major cost-of-living crisis caused by the war in Ukraine.
Together these are leading to high inflation, lower growth and threat of recession in many countries. And at the end of a year marked by record-breaking temperatures and climate-related disasters such as floods, droughts, wildfires and heatwaves.
Turner admits there is a danger that short-term economic pressures and fears over energy security, coupled with increased geopolitical tensions, could distract attention from environmental issues. However, he is confident many of the measures being taken to safeguard energy supplies – like an increasing shift towards renewables such as wind and solar – could also speed up the transition to a low-carbon economy.
“Clearly, since COP26 there has been the terrible thing of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and what is happening to Ukrainian people,” he said. “Us having a few power cuts is piffling compared to Ukrainians having to queue for fresh water.
"But from a climate change point of view, there should be – and will be – an acceleration of progress towards energy transition. Countries will be making moves away from oil and gas and coal to greener energy.”
The UK government has already upped its target for offshore wind power from 40GW to 50GW by 2030. And other countries are doing similar, despite a ‘temporary’ increase in burning coal – the most climate-polluting of all fossil fuels – in some places.
The US has introduced the Inflation Reduction Act, offering subsidies for green technology. Australia has upped its commitments to “sensible, but not transformational” levels.
Turner concedes this year’s COP has a slighter lower profile than Glasgow’s event, which was especially significant because it was the fifth since the Paris Agreement was set out and required countries to submit their action plans to cut emissions and adapt to climate impacts – known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs).
“All COPs are important, but COP26 had a formal position as a big stocktake of climate action, so there was a lot of activity in the run-up to bring things to fruition,” Turner said. "But it is not repeatable. Like COP21 in Paris. So unless there are some big surprises in Egypt, there won’t seem to have been a big step forward.”
Finance and deforestation will be top of the agenda during negotiations in Sharm El-Sheikh, he says. The richest nations have promised to provide $100 billion [£89bn] a year in funding to help poor countries adapt to and protect against climate change, but this has so far not materialised. Developing countries are also pushing for loss and damage payments, to help recovery from climate disasters that have already happened.
And in the past 12 months, despite the COP26 agreement to halt and reverse deforestation and land degradation by 2030, 166 square miles of the Amazon rainforest was felled in the first two months of this year. That’s more than double the average over the past ten years.
Turner is hopeful the election of new president Lula in Brazil could, with the right support, reverse the losses under predecessor Jair Bolsonaro. He’s making his own efforts to help reduce the clearing of woodlands by dramatically cutting his intake of red meat, restricting it to one meal a week – usually venison, because there are too many deer.
“As long as we continue to eat as much meat as possible then some part of the world will be chopping down forests to clear the way for cattle,” he said. “It’s the single biggest driver of deforestation. We need to either change our diets or grow artificial meat.”
As Egypt takes over the COP presidency for the next 12 months, Turner hopes the UK will continue to be a leader in climate action and help drive the green revolution. However, he stresses the importance of delivering on our own climate commitments, which have been called into question during the political upheaval of recent months. “It’s key because it illustrates to other countries that it is possible to stay a healthy and successful economy and decarbonise,” he said.
Turner said he believed the UK was doing pretty well in efforts to reduce emissions from certain sectors – particularly transport and energy, with strong progress in renewable power and electric vehicles. Housing, not so much.
“We’re a long way from a vision of how to deal with residential homes,” he said. “In other sectors, it’s professionals who are the implementers. Once they know what needs to be done, they have to get on and do it.
"The challenge with housing is that it is the residents – of 25 million households – who will need to take action. This is a very, very big challenge and will need new policies brought in to deal with it.”
And he has personal experience. He is getting an eco-friendly heat-pump system installed at his Hampshire cottage.
“Householders are the ones who have to put the effort in, take action, find suppliers, workers they trust and the spending,” he said. "It will eventually pay off, but requires capital investment, and lots of people just don’t have the cash and cannot borrow it. The UK needs to be imaginative about how we can get people to do it.”
So, as the two-week talks get started, Turner said all the stops must be pulled out to accelerate emissions cuts. “We’re seeing what’s happening at 1.1C,” he said. “We’ve absolutely got to redouble everything agreed in Glasgow to address the overshoot. The idea that nothing is happening is wrong, but there needs to be a lot more action.”