Countdown to COP26

Countdown to COP26

What will it take to make the high-stakes climate summit a success?

Warming stripes 1850-2020

Warming stripes 1850-2020. Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins, University of Reading

Warming stripes 1850-2020. Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins, University of Reading

COP26 - the United Nations climate conference - starts in Glasgow in just a few days. We spoke with some of our researchers and asked them what they want to see at COP26, what some of the biggest challenges are in getting to zero carbon, and what gives them hope.

Dr Emily Shuckburgh, Director of Cambridge Zero

What do you think a successful COP would look like?

What do you think is the biggest challenge in getting to zero carbon?
The biggest challenge of getting to zero carbon is the scale and the speed at which it has to happen. It requires a major realignment of the global economy, and that has to happen in an inclusive and fair way. This decade is critical. If we don’t achieve the emissions reductions required, we simply will not avert the worst impacts of climate change. This really is the greatest challenge. 

What’s your biggest (climate-related) cause for optimism?

What do we stand to lose if we don’t act?
We are already seeing the impacts of climate change around the world today, in terms of extreme weather events, wildfires, floods, melting polar ice. These impacts will only increase if we don’t address climate change today, and the impacts of that will be a loss of human society and the natural world as we know it.

Professor Sander van der Linden, Department of Psychology

What do you think a successful COP would look like?
A successful COP26 would mean that countries all across the world come together to agree to stronger terms to try to reduce our carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. I also think a successful COP26 would mean that we raise enough funding to help developing countries do the same. 

What do you think is the biggest challenge in getting to zero carbon?

What’s your biggest (climate-related) cause for optimism?
One of the biggest reasons that I’m optimistic about our potential to reduce our emissions comes from a recent study I conducted with my colleague Lee DeWitt. Among 14,000 people from countries all across the world, we found that the majority of individuals in each country supported more government action on climate change: that makes me optimistic.

What do we stand to lose if we don’t act?

Dr Alison Ming, Cambridge Centre for Climate Science

What do you think a successful COP would look like?

What do you think is the biggest challenge in getting to zero carbon?
I think the biggest challenge is getting the right infrastructure in place. At the moment, UK homes are powered by gas, we have a lot of fossil fuels in our transport industry, and we need to move away from all of this and get to clean energy. Having the infrastructure in place to get clean energy in the right place is going to be a very big challenge for the UK. 

What’s your biggest (climate-related) cause for optimism?
As a climate researcher, I don’t generally use the word climate change in the same sentence as optimism. But the latest IPCC report shows us that the science is really clear. Every tonne of CO2 we add to the atmosphere causes surface temperature rises, but one good thing about the report is that the science is clear, and we know what we need to do. One of the things I’m optimistic about – and I really hope there is the political will to do something about it – is global public opinion supports doing something about climate change.

What do we stand to lose if we don’t act?We’ve already lost quite a lot due to climate change. We’ve seen extreme events – droughts, heat waves, floods – that have gotten a lot of media attention, but also there’s a lot of habitat and biodiversity loss that has been happening as temperatures rise. And behind all of this are people who have had to adapt to the new climate, or have been displaced from their homes, so we’ve already lost quite a lot. We also know that CO2 added to the atmosphere is cumulative, so those effects that we’ve already seen are going to get worse as we add CO2 to the atmosphere, so we really need to do something about curbing emissions. 

Dr Matthew Agarwala, Bennett Institute for Public Policy

What do you think a successful COP would look like?
This year, we desperately need COP26 in Glasgow to be successful. What does that mean? Well, for me it means we have to have clear signals for industry, so that businesses in every sector and every country know exactly what policies are coming. We need to know that internal combustion engines are going to be phased out, that fossil fuel-based home heating and energy is going to be phased out, so that businesses can respond and invest in producing new green alternatives. But we also need to work this through our trade relationships, which are going to be absolutely crucial, given the degree of globalisation and interconnected economic activity that we need to deliver a global commitment to net zero. And finally, we have got to come to terms with the amount of greenwash that is circulating and masquerading as green finance. That means better regulation, better oversight, and science-driven verification of the green credentials of climate investments. 

What do you think is the biggest challenge in getting to zero carbon?

What’s your biggest (climate-related) cause for optimism?
The biggest cause for optimism that we have is that doing the right thing on climate change and on biodiversity is also going to put us on the right track for addressing a whole host of other challenges that we face here in the UK and around the world. Things like rising inequality, things like rising obesity, things like a deterioration in human health and productivity. Fixing the climate and nature can help with all of those challenges. And so the biggest cause for optimism is that we should all and could all be working in the same direction. 

What do we stand to lose if we don’t act?
The pandemic we’ve just been through is very much the appetiser course compared to what climate change is going to deliver if we do not reduce our emissions urgently. At 1 1/2 degrees, the warm corals that we like to see in a David Attenborough documentary are gone. At 2 degrees, the Arctic is gone. And these are things that we cannot reproduce with any amount of technology or engineering. The best option is to keep emissions down starting right now. 

What we stand to lose if we do not get COP26 right is not just another decade of wasted dithering and delay, like we had after the last financial crisis. What we stand to lose now is the coral reefs like those off the coast of Australia, the Arctic ecosystems, and all of the treasured biodiversity that they host. But it’s also very much our way of life. It’s the stable political systems that can only operate if we have a stable food supply, it’s the trade relationships that we have among countries, it's the labour productivity, and the health of you and me and the entire global population.

Professor Diane Coyle, Bennett Institute for Public Policy

What do you think a successful COP would look like?
The key question of the heart of the discussions will be how to share the burden of decarbonising between lower-income countries and the rich world, because although most of the emissions historically have come from the developed economies, they’re growing fastest in some of the emerging markets like China and India. There has to be an agreement that enables those new, growing economies to continue developing and raising living standards for their people, and yet meet the targets that the world needs for decarbonisation. 

What’s your biggest (climate-related) cause for optimism?

What do we stand to lose if we don’t act?
If we don’t take action now, we're going to cement in much worse effects from changing climate than we’re already going to experience. The best case now, the very best case, is that we keep global warming to about 1.5 centigrade. That’s already, as we’ve seen in the past year, triggering some quite extreme weather events, not far away, not in distant places, but in Western Europe very close to home. We’ve seen floods in Belgium, fires around Athens, there’s going to be much more of that. So we are going to be in a world of repeated crises of this kind. And if we don’t act now, it’s just going to get immeasurably worse, with all of the terrible social and human consequences that will imply. 

Dr Kamiar Mohaddes, Cambridge Judge Business School

What do you think a successful COP would look like?
On the surface, it looks like COP 26 is going to be very successful. We have the US, China, the EU, the UK, and we have 100 other countries committing to next zero targets by 2050 or 2060 at the latest. It looks like we will achieve a major thing, but the question is really how we're going to get there, what sort of actions need to be taken today for us to be able to get there. So while there’s a lot of policies announced in getting us to net zero: what is actually achievable? I think that's going to be very difficult. So for a successful COP 26, we really need to see action. We need to see real solutions, and not just talk. 

What do you think is the biggest challenge in getting to zero carbon?
The biggest challenge in getting to net zero is going to be how are we going to sort out the global financing? How are we going to ensure that advanced economies are able to finance the transition for developing economies in the order of hundreds of billions of dollars. And this is not just one year, this needs to be sustained for decades. And it’s not just about capital transfers, it’s also about transfers of technology and know-how. That, to me, is the biggest challenge to get to zero. 

What’s your biggest (climate-related) cause for optimism?

What do we stand to lose if we don’t act?

Professor Marie-Claire Cordonier Segger, Bennett Institute for Public Policy

What do you think a successful COP would look like?
There are actually three things we're looking for from COP26. 
The first and most important is that sufficient commitments have not been made. We need much higher ambition for mitigation, greenhouse gas reduction, also adaptation and resilience, and climate finance. If we can come away from the COP with those three pieces moving forward, galvanised – higher ambition, greater reductions, also bigger commitments toward adaptation resilience that is needed, and especially the climate finance piece, the investment of the trillions of pounds that have needed to be able to turn our economies around worldwide – we will be incredibly successful. 

On a much more modest scale, the other two aspects that are equally important is to solve the Paris rulebook. In Katowice (COP24), we agreed almost all parts of Paris rulebook. What is left is Article 6: the financial mechanisms in the market and non-market mechanisms that make the convention work. 

The UK is seen as a safe pair of hands. Are we though? And especially, last but not least, I want to be able to see civil society from as many corners of the world as possible moving forward on the climate change response. 

What do you think is the biggest challenge in getting to zero carbon?
We have two enormous challenges actually, and they are equally important. The first one is from the scientific side. The loss of the Antarctic and the Arctic, the melting of that ice and the slow-onset events that will get worse and worse, are punctuated by Black Swan events: the things we don’t know we don’t know that suddenly change everything, and in the wrong direction. 

Those challenges are matched by vested interests in an economy that we chose to be based on fossil fuels. Globally now, so much of what we do needs high emissions. 

The second biggest challenge is to actually change that: to turn all of human ingenuity toward a different kind of living, a different, more human way of going about our lives, on all levels.

What’s your biggest (climate-related) cause for optimism?

What do we stand to lose if we don’t act?

Dr David Reiner, Cambridge Judge Business School

What do you think a successful COP would look like?
For COP26 to be successful there are a number of elements that need to fall into place. These are issues that have actually bedevilled previous conferences of the parties over the last four or five years, and so it will be a challenge to resolve them in Glasgow.

A really important question that needs to be resolved, is with regard to carbon markets and what the future of carbon markets will be particularly whether countries will recognise the carbon markets that exist in other in other countries. And I think maybe the biggest question is to do with ambition, and whether countries will be sufficiently upgrading their nationally-determined contributions.

What do you think is the biggest challenge in getting to zero carbon?

What’s your biggest (climate-related) cause for optimism?
The level of commitment that we’re starting to see in a number of countries, putting in place legally-binding obligations, is some grounds for optimism. But maybe even more so the fact that the private sector seems to be taking these issues much more seriously. I think framing the objectives of climate action as net zero means that no sector can escape scrutiny, and we’re starting to see much greater effort on the part of not just say electric power sector, but across the board, whether that’s energy-intensive industries or transport or heating, and to really begin to take the challenge, grasp the nettle of net zero and particularly starting to see that private sector action, I think is it maybe the greatest grounds for optimism that we have. 

What to we stand to lose if we don’t act?
If we don’t act, and arguably for the last 20 - 25 years, since the Kyoto Protocol was agreed in 1997, we’ve seen the continued steady increase in global emissions and global concentrations of greenhouse gases. And not to say that the entire last quarter century has been lost, but there’s no room to continue that build-up of atmospheric concentrations. We’re going to have to see a fairly dramatic change over the next couple of decades where not just the developed world, and many leading countries in the developing world, begin to tackle these questions more seriously, otherwise the rate of change will just begin to overtake our ability to manage changes that we’ll start to see in the coming decades.

Professor Eric Wolff, Department of Earth Sciences

What do you think a successful COP would look like?
I think the important thing for a successful COP26 is that all the developed countries - preferably all countries, but certainly all the developed countries - should give as strong a target as possible for when they going to reach net zero emissions. 

And more importantly, a promise of a road map as to how they're going to reach net zero, because I think that's much harder. It’s quite easy to make a promise that we’re going to do it, but actually getting there, by enabling cars to go completely electric, by changing heating systems and so on that much more difficult. And most countries haven’t yet really confronted to question of exactly how they're going to do it. The technology exists, but they just have to say how they’re going to implement it.

What do you think is the biggest challenge in getting to zero carbon?
I think there are two types of challenge to reaching net zero. The first one is that there are areas of the economy that are really hard to reach. Flying is an obvious one, where it’s not really that obvious what the solution is to get that sector to net zero. 

And the second one is really the scale of the problem. There are areas where we kind of know what to do, like heating systems in houses, but actually introducing it in the UK to 20 million houses (worldwide of course many more) is a real logistical and organisational and financial challenge that we really have to get over. It will involve individuals having to do things that in the short term they might find a little bit tricky, but in the long term they’ll be pleased they've done. 

What’s your biggest (climate-related) cause for optimism?

What do we stand to lose if we don’t act?

Videos by Nick Saffell, Jonathan Settle, Adam Page and Lloyd Mann. Layout by Sarah Collins.