New City readers will be aware that a major conference on climate change is happening in Glasgow over the period 31st October to 12th November. This is COP26, but what does it mean and where has it come from? David Williams introduces us to the key issues.

[New City Magazine – November 2021 page 4-6]

The past few decades have highlighted the fact that the Earth’s natural resources were running out and that human beings needed to change their behaviours and in particular, their use of fossil fuels such as coal, gas and oil.

These are called fossil fuels because they were created by the remains of millions of carbon-based marine organisms over hundreds of thousands of years – and it is the burning of these carbon-based fuels that adds carbon dioxide and methane to our atmosphere – leading to a steady rise in global temperatures.

Rio Earth Summit 1992

 Despite the various calls for concerted and worldwide action, it was not until the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 that led to opening the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). All countries of the world were asked to be a part of this, and it entered into force in March 1994. It provided a framework to bring together efforts by the world’s governments to tackle challenges posed by climate change.

Virtually all countries signed up to the UNFCCC, and those that did are referred to as ‘Parties to the Convention’, and since then a ‘Conference of the Parties’ or COP for short, has been held every year (except in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic).

The Paris Agreement 2015

 Many countries – mostly from the global South – pushed for agreements at COP15 (in Copenhagen) but a ‘Copenhagen Accord’ was not based on international negotiations and so failed to deliver any meaningful agreement. So, year on year and ‘behind the scenes’, there were continuing discussions with a focus on agreeing global climate targets at COP21 in Paris in 2015.

However, rather than a final agreement to set out exactly ‘who will do what’, the Paris agreement was based around voluntary ‘nationally determined contributions’ (NDCs) from each country (or Party to the Convention). Each country agreed a ‘ratchet mechanism’ to increase ambitions every five years until voluntary pledges became enough to collectively deliver on the agreed global targets.

The overall Paris Agreement target was:

‘to hold the increase in the global annual temperature to well below 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognising that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change’.

In 2018 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), drawing on studies across the world, stated that CO2 emissions needed to decline by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, and reach net zero by 2050. This gave a time frame to the Paris Agreement targets.

So far the collective total of NDCs offered from countries across the world is insufficient to meet the Paris Agreement target. The 2020 UN Emissions Gap Report estimates that current NDCs would lead to a global average temperature increase of at least 3°C by the end of the century.

This has led to increasing reference to ‘climate crisis’ rather than climate change – as the impacts of global warming are already with us, with floods and fires on a massive scale, occurring more regularly in more places, especially in the global South.

As a result, COP26 is vitally important – looking to use the ‘ratchet up’ mechanisms, agreed in Paris, to bring emissions reduction pledges in line with the overall target (net zero emissions by 2050).

In 2019 the UK Government enshrined net zero by 2050 in law (updated Climate Change Act of 2008) and sets out legally binding 5 year ‘carbon budgets’ towards this net zero target.

COP26 (2021)

The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) produced their latest report in August 2021 – described by the UN as a ‘code red for humanity’. This stated that ‘unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach.’

Globally, we are currently well off track to reduce carbon emissions by 45% by 2030 from 2010 levels, which the IPCC’s 2018 report said was necessary to limit global average temperature rises to 1.5°C. In the week of 20th September, the UN reported that the world is on track for an emissions increase of 16% by 2030.

This does mean that COP26 is hugely significant as it is the coming together of leaders and nations to both review the progress (or lack of it) since the Paris Agreement and to identify key global actions and commitments that need to be made. As host nation and chair for COP26, the UK government has the opportunity to lead the way in pushing for other countries to set more ambitious climate goals – essentially to cut emissions enough to halt dangerous temperature rises and get the world on track to reaching ‘net zero’ as soon as possible.

Negotiators will also discuss plans to provide climate finance support to countries worst hit by the climate crisis and how to help countries adapt to climate change impacts. COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009 recognised that the poorer countries of the world, often most impacted by the climate emergency, needed help to adapt. Wealthier nations committed to providing $100 billion per year to developing countries in climate finance by 2020, yet this target has not been met. At the G7 Summit in June, G7 leaders simply reiterated the $100 billion a year target that has still not been reached. Therefore, at COP26, it will be crucial to hold the UK and other developed nations to account to meet and exceed the promised $100 billion in climate finance.

UK response

It is important that we all tell our politicians how important this is. Here are extracts from the reply received from one MP – which does highlight what steps are being taken here by the UK Government.

‘Climate change is one of the greatest challenges we face, and I can assure you that I recognise the importance and urgency of action on this issue. The recent report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that the world is warming faster than previously anticipated and climate change is already affecting every single region of our planet. This stark report must be met with immediate global action to limit warming, heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and loss of Arctic Sea ice, snow cover and permafrost.’
‘I am pleased that the UK was the first G7 country to legislate to achieve net zero by 2050, and we are decarbonising faster than any G20 country. We have set ambitious climate targets in law, such as a commitment to reduce emissions by 68 per cent by 2030, and also to reduce emissions by 78 per cent by 2035, both compared to 1990 levels.’
‘The UK accounts for approximately 1.2 per cent of global emissions and the Government and COP26 Presidency is working to ensure other countries, particularly other G20 countries which account together for 80 per cent of global emissions, to urgently submit new or updated 2030 targets (Nationally Determined Contributions) with their plans for ambitious climate action ahead of the vital COP26 summit later this year in Glasgow’.
‘The next decade will be decisive and every country, government, business and citizen must come together to tackle this huge threat to our planet and humanity.’

The concern from many is that there is often a big disconnect between rhetoric and real action. One example of this is the Cambo oil field that the UK government is set to approve later this year, when the International Energy Agency (IEA) has stated that there can be no new oil and gas exploration and extraction if we are to limit global average temperature rises to 1.5°C. So there is a need to push for action to match the promises made.

An integral ecology

 The recognition that everything is closely related calls for a vision capable of taking into account every aspect of the global crisis – and this gives rise to the term, an ‘integral ecology’, set out clearly by the Pope in Chapter 4 of Laudato Si’ – on Care for Our Common Home.

Momentum is building. A wide range of activities are being planned across the globe to call for ambitious action at COP26: active citizens, businesses, artists, doctors, architects, academics, religious leaders, parents, young people and NGO’s (non-governmental organisations) are calling for deeds not words.

Faith responses

 Increasingly the major faiths of the world recognise that it is not enough to push governments to act, but we need to take action in our communities – and to make best use of the resources (land, buildings and money) that they have. A very recent example is the decision made by the Archdiocese of Birmingham to divest from fossil fuels, in September 2021.

October 4th – the feast day of St Francis of Assisi – saw the launch of Faith Plans by different religious groups across the world, co-ordinated by a coalition of partners including FaithInvest and the WWF Beliefs and Values Programme.

The climate crisis can seem something vast and impossible for us as individuals to contemplate, but what is clear is that every action, at every level, can have an impact, and it is our collective unity that will be most important.

We hope that sharing this encourages us all to both pray and act for the care of our common home, and to start by saying ‘thank you’ to our creator.

If you would like to find out more about the Focolare GB ecology group and how you can get involved, contact David Williams on williams-hartwell4@hotmail.co.uk
Photo: Good Free Photos/ FastFlash
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