Life after COP26: The year ahead in the fight against climate change

Covid-19 has dominated headlines for the second year in a row as the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on populations across the globe.

But while the world battled to conquer the health crisis, the biggest existential threat facing humanity was not quietly waiting in the wings.

Climate change repeatedly proved its deadly power in 2021, when the planet was hit by a series of extreme weather events, including record-breaking heatwaves, droughts, wildfires and floods. Experts roundly agreed these natural disasters were more severe as a result of the world warming up.

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And predictions suggest average temperatures for the year will confirm 2021’s place among the top seven hottest years since records began.

It was against this background the United Nations brought its annual climate talks to Glasgow in November.

COP26 was seen as the most significant UN climate summit since 2015, when the Paris Agreement was set out.

In a speech at the outset of the summit, World Meteorological Organisation secretary-general Professor Petteri Taalas gave a disturbing round-up of recent occurrences and warned they would soon be commonplace.

“It rained rather than snowed for the first time on record at the peak of the Greenland ice sheet,” he said.

The United nations climate summit COP26 was held in Glasgow in November 2021, bringing world leaders and hundreds of thousands of delegates, journalists and protesters from across the globe to the Scottish city

“Canadian glaciers suffered rapid melting.

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“A heatwave in Canada and adjacent parts of the USA pushed temperatures to nearly 50C in a village in British Columbia.

“Death Valley, California, reached 54.4C during one of multiple heatwaves in the south-western USA, whilst many parts of the Mediterranean experienced record temperatures.

Swedish teen climate campaigner Greta Thunberg tells crowds at a mass protest in Glasgow, held during the COP26 climate talks, that the summit has been a "failure"

“The exceptional heat was often accompanied by devastating fires.

“Months’ worth of rainfall fell in the space of hours in China and parts of Europe saw severe flooding, leading to dozens of casualties and billions in economic losses.

“A second successive year of drought in sub-tropical South America reduced the flow of mighty river basins and hit agriculture, transport and energy production.

“Extreme events are the new norm.”

A key feature of the COP26 climate conference was 'people power' - more than 150,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Glasgow on a single day to call for action on climate change

So what happened at COP26?

International scientists have agreed that a global temperature rise of 2C above pre-industrial levels will lead to dangerous and irreversible changes in the earth’s climate system.

But they say restricting warming to 1.5C by the end of the century could protect the planet from the most catastrophic effects – a key goal of the Paris Agreement, signed by nearly 200 countries.

COP26, which was due to be held in 2020, but was postponed due to the pandemic, was the first time countries were expected to report their progress on emissions reductions and set out intentions for achieving the targets.

The final deal calls for greater greenhouse gas cuts and pledges more money for developing countries to deal with the impacts of the warming climate

Accords were also struck on reducing emissions of methane, a short-lived, but potent greenhouse gas, and ending deforestation.

Fossil fuels and a plan to phase down coal were mentioned in the Glasgow Pact for the first time in COP’s 25-year-history.

Signatories will also be required to report annually on climate action instead of every five years.

The final text received mixed reactions, ranging from reluctant praise to disappointment and downright fury.

However, analysts say the proposals are not sufficient to limit warming to 1.5C.

Projections suggest the world is on course to be 2.4C hotter than in 1850 by the end of the century if actions in the pact are achieved – down from the 2.7C predicted under pre-COP plans.

But as well as the official negotiations, COP26 was marked by ‘people power’.

The conference attracted an unprecedented level of public engagement and protest, including high-profile campaigners such as teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg.

More than 150,000 folk of all ages and backgrounds took to the streets of Glasgow on a single day for what turned out to be the biggest climate march ever to take place in Scotland.

What’s in store for 2022?

Biodiversity loss is often paired with climate change as the twin environmental crises.

The issue will take centre stage at the UN’s annual Convention on Biological Diversity, being held in China this spring.

The eyes of the world will be looking to see what progress can be made on halting extinctions and reversing declines.

Results of the UK Government’s largest ever renewable energy auction are expected in spring, revealing whether more marine, solar and onshore and offshore wind projects get built in Scotland.

In coming months the Scottish Government is due to start designating a suite of Highly Protected Marine Areas to safeguard the most sensitive parts of our seas.

An official ban on some single-use plastics will come into force in 2022, although roll-out of the deposit-return system for disposable drinks containers has once again been postponed and is not expected to happen until at least 2023.

The Heat Networks Delivery Plan will be brought to the Scottish Parliament in April, which could push deployment of the technology on a larger scale and at a faster pace.

Long-delayed low-emission zones are due to be rolled out in some places in Scotland in the middle of 2022, in a bid to tackle toxic air pollution from traffic fumes. However, it’s unlikely much impact will be achieved until enforcement begins a year later.

The Scottish Government’s Energy Strategy is also due to come out in 2022 as well and could see official confirmation of an end to support for new oil and gas drilling.

And next November should see countries bringing new, more ambitious plans to the UN table at COP27, due to be hosted in Egypt.

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