'How we will know whether COP26 has been a success'

Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) greets US President Joe Biden at the Cop26 summit in Glasgow

Prime Minister Boris Johnson greets US President Joe Biden at the Cop26 summit - Credit: Alastair Grant/PA

A week on Saturday, as international climate negotiators leave Glasgow, the spin doctors will tell you that it has all been a marvellous success. You need to know whether they are telling the truth. Here’s how:

Follow the Money

Six years ago in Paris the world agreed to provide at least £100billion a year for developing countries to take the action they need to reduce their emissions and adapt to the problems they are facing. Developed nations recognised that this was fair. They got rich whilst causing the problem that is now hitting those poorer countries the hardest. The trouble is we haven’t paid up. So there will be no successful agreement unless that promise is delivered. 

But some of the damage caused by a changing climate is already here and it is not possible to adapt to your island being lost underwater or your farm land becoming a desert. That is why a separate fund is needed for such loss and damage. This is one of the key sticking points of the negotiation. Poorer countries who are already suffering from climate change do not trust wealthy countries to pay their fair share

Power Past Coal

The world needs electricity. In the past we have produced it by burning coal. But this has been one of the worst things for climate change. Some of the biggest polluting countries plan to build even more coal fired power stations. A sign of real success will be for them to commit to building no new ones and to set an early date like 2025 when their emissions from coal and other fossil fuels will start coming down. Solar power in the region is already 14% cheaper than coal so this makes it a key economic as well as environmental policy. Some countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan have already pledged to build no new coal-fired power stations. India, Australia and China need to join them.

Dates Matter

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We need to do a lot quickly. At the moment all the promises to reduce emissions still leave us set to experience 3.7 degrees of warming. If we are going to keep global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees it is important we set targets. That’s the way we can measure progress. But promising a net zero economy by 2050 is no use if there is no delivery strategy in place now. That just makes it some other politician’s problem. 2030 is the point when global emissions have to be on a pathway that will deliver 1.5 degrees. That means we need to cut emissions by 55% by 2030. The more you hear politicians say we will do X by 2035 or 2040 the more you know things are going wrong.

Negative Emissions

We need to reduce our emissions to keep the planet fit for us to live on. But it makes no difference to the planet whether we reduce the emissions we put into the atmosphere or if we take away some of the emissions that are already there. That is why people talk about “negative emissions” and “net zero”. Everyone knows that CO2 can be taken out of the atmosphere and stored in trees, but there are also other high tech ways of doing this: carbon capture and storage (CCS) and direct air capture (DAC) are now increasingly part of countries’ plans. The trouble is there is a limit to how much we can store. It is also very expensive — much more than avoiding creating them in the first place. So another test will be how much the commitments countries make depend upon these technologies. The more they need “negative emissions”, the less robust their plan actually is to reduce the the CO2 they produce.

Can’t you all just work together?

Often people look at events like COP and wonder why, when the science is so clear, it is so difficult to get countries to work together and solve the problem. People ask me why politics is allowed to get in the way. My reply is that politics doesn’t get in the way. Politics is how we solve the problem.

Imagine you go out for dinner, but at the end of the evening there is just one bill and it includes all the other tables in the restaurant. Some people had starters, some ordered an extra bottle of wine. Others complained because they thought the bread was free. The people who ate the most actually suggest dividing the bill equally between everyone. I am guessing you would not think that a great idea! You need politics to sort out what everyone pays. The arguments in that restaurant are what COP is like; only on a gigantic scale. Politics is the way we get everyone to pay their proper share. 

A week on Saturday the spin doctors can say what they like, the planet will not be fooled. Unless the deal is fair, it will not be delivered. Unless it is delivered we will find this Earth an increasingly uncomfortable place to live. That is when all the arguments about who is to blame suddenly seem so foolish.

Barry Gardiner (Lab) is MP for Brent North.