The UK is preparing to host the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, starting on Sunday, Oct. 31st and running until Friday, Nov. 12th. Bloomberg Opinion editor Nicole Torres chatted with columnist Therese Raphael about what COP26 is, why it's a big deal, and what to look out for over the next few weeks.
Nicole Torres: Therese maybe to start, can you just explain what COP26 is and why it matters?
Therese Raphael: So, first of all, COP stands for Conferences of the Parties. It's actually the 26th time countries have gathered under this United Nations convention on climate change that dates back to 1992.
The goal is very simple: To keep hope alive, as the UN and Britain puts it, and that's the hope of containing the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius. That means cutting carbon emissions much faster than countries are already doing. The danger of missing the target is more extreme weather events, from heat-waves to droughts and floods to wildfires, so the stakes couldn't be higher. The purpose of the summit is really to get concrete commitment for action, but that's costly and the UN wants nations to divide the financing between adaptation measures, which help countries adapt to climate changes – for example with coastal defense systems – and the decarbonization measures that we've been hearing about so much.
Nicole: Who is going to be at this conference?
Therese: I couldn't tell you all 25,000 people; it's a very, very big convention. It starts with around 100 heads of state (or government). That includes the host, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Queen Elizabeth II, but there will also be thousands of diplomats in negotiating rooms. In addition, there will be business leaders, activists like Greta Thunberg and academic experts.
Another prominent voice, Pope Francis, will not be in Glasgow, but I think the Vatican's presence will be felt there — he may address the gathering remotely. The Pope issued an encyclical in 2015 called Laudato Si, which was a very eloquent argument for action on climate change.
Nicole: Speaking of who won't be there, are there other absences that we should be paying attention to?
Therese: Russia's Vladimir Putin is not going, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is not going, and China's Xi Jinping, as of this interview, hasn't RSVP'd to his invite, so his intentions are unclear.
China's participation is really crucial. It's the world's biggest polluter, with 27% of global greenhouse emissions. Xi, at the leader's summit in April, committed to controlling coal generation to 2025 and then phasing it out. The problem is China's current targets are not sufficient to meet the Paris goal of 1.5ºC. They're more consistent with warming of about 3ºC, so there's a huge question mark over what China is prepared to do.
Nicole: This is the 26th COP. What have past meetings achieved?
Therese: The first COP summit was held in Berlin in 1995 and that laid the groundwork for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which was the first real attempt to restrict carbon emissions. It largely failed because there was not enough engagement of the developing world and no real agreement on burden sharing. U.S. President at the time, George W. Bush, rejected it, because he said China, India and other major emerging emitters weren't doing enough. Those disputes continued and then COP21 in Paris was really the breakthrough summit. Nearly 200 countries, rich and poor, agreed to limit temperatures to within 1.5ºC, and that's what became known as the Paris Agreement. It was the first time we saw a real joint effort on climate change.
Nicole: Has there been anything significant that's changed since that key Paris COP that might affect what we're going to see over the next couple of weeks?
Therese: The Paris Conference set the bar for climate action, but the hope at Glasgow is that there will be much more specific pledges to cut emissions. I think the big thing that has changed since Paris is public perception and the pressure on politicians to respond to climate change. I think it's no longer a fringe issue, it's central to most mainstream political parties. It's something that most publics, at least in Western democracies, are acutely aware of and activists like Greta Thunberg have done so much to raise awareness of the issue. In terms of the visibility on the global stage, this conference is in another league to the previous 25 COPs.
Nicole: Shifting to the UK for a bit, hosting this conference must be a pretty big deal for Boris Johnson. Can you tell us a bit about what his priorities for this are?
Therese: It's undoubtedly his biggest moment on the global stage. The UK was the first country to commit in law to reaching net zero by 2050, so the host's credibility is on the line. Now, Johnson characterizes his priorities as coal, cars, cash, and trees. He wants an end to coal use, more electric vehicles, more financial support for the transition, and more forestation, but the big goal is going to be to get the developing world to contribute to cutting emissions in exchange for rich countries helping to finance it. They're trying to get to at least $100 billion of financing for green, clean technologies each year until 2025 and that's quite an ambitious target.
Nicole: Maybe we can talk about how the UK is doing? How close is it to reaching that net zero goal?
Therese: On the positive side, the UK has been pretty successful in cutting emissions by 40% between 1990 and 2019. Britain is now a world leader in offshore wind power. But a lot of what's been accomplished up to now was low-hanging fruit: shutting down coal-fired power stations and building up renewable energy supplies. The hard work really starts now: If they are going to cut 78% of emissions by 2035, there's a massive gap to close.
Housing accounts for about 14% of the UK's greenhouse emissions, because there are so many gas boilers in the country and insulation is poor in a lot of the old housing stock. These are very difficult things to change and the government is now issuing a lot of new policies. There was a recent one on helping people switch out their gas boilers and use heat pumps. Getting people to make that swap, or to change from diesel and petrol cars to electric cars, will be big shifts and they're going to be costly.
Nicole: Do you know how costly they will be?
Therese: It's really hard to estimate the cost of getting to net zero. Some time ago, the Climate Change Commission, which is an independent body, put the costs at about $70 billion a year for the next three decades. Boris Johnson himself tends to deflect questions about cost, and even the Treasury doesn't want to get too specific. He recently met a group of high-powered investors in London and his pitch is that there's a lot of money to be made in new green technologies and financing, which is undoubtedly true. The problem for him is that politics isn't very straightforward. Within his own party there are Conservative lawmakers who worry that pushing too hard, too fast, is going to sacrifice economic growth, balloon the budget deficit, and damage the party's reputation for fiscal responsibility.
Then there are voters in the north of the country who Johnson relies upon to keep his majority, and they're suspicious that some of these measures are going to fall most heavily on poor and more deprived areas. He's very conscious of that. He wrote an op-ed in the Sun, a right-wing British tabloid recently that was really directed at those voters. He said, "You know the green shirts, the boiler police, are not going to kick down your door with sandal-clad feet and seize at carrot-point your trusty old combi boilers." He's trying to reassure them, trying to reassure his party, and yet still promising to meet these very ambitious commitments.
Nicole: How do UK consumers in general compare to those in other countries when it comes to environmental and green initiatives?
Therese: In overall terms of controlling greenhouse gas emissions, the UK ranks pretty well, but still has a long way to go. In 2020, just over 10% of new vehicle purchases were electric. That's a big jump from 2.8% in 2018 but still leaves a lot of cars running on gas and diesel.
In terms of meat consumption, Britain ranks among the world's top carnivores. That's a big area where improvement is needed and it's not clear how quickly those sorts of habits can be changed. It's going to take a lot more awareness, better government messaging and some nudging probably, in terms of taxes and regulations.
Nicole: Something else that's weighing on people's minds, consumers, is the current energy crisis. How is that going to affect the world's climate goals and COP?
Therese: We've seen the most extraordinary rise in wholesale energy prices, haven't we? It makes the case for moving to renewables in the strongest terms but the problem is renewables aren't yet entirely reliable. The wind doesn't always blow in Britain, as we saw recently, and that contributed to the increase in prices, too. The government will end up absorbing some of the cost to consumers of this rise in wholesale prices and that will also affect government budgets. That may leave less capacity to address some of the transition costs. We'll have to see how long the energy crunch that we're facing lasts, but the big question is China. It has signaled that there's pressure to ramp-up coal production and imports. If China backslides on its already insufficient commitments, I think we will see a very tangible impact on fighting climate change from this period.
Nicole: COP26 is going to be on our radar for the next couple of weeks. Can you tell us what success would look like and what we should be watching out for?
Therese: In his interview with Bloomberg Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait, Boris Johnson was really trying to play down expectations, saying: "These talks are going to be extremely tough." This is a prime minister who is not sure really what he's going to get out of this by the end.
We should see more countries announcing they're going to ditch coal and reduce methane emissions and we will hopefully get some concrete commitments on halting deforestation and phasing out the internal combustion engine, but there are a lot of details to be worked out. For example, things such as mechanisms for purchasing carbon credits or indemnifying poorer countries to help them meet their climate commitments will be subject to negotiation and most of these big changes are going to be costly. We shouldn't expect immediate effect right after COP26. Some of these are going to have very long phase-in times.
There are very positive signs that countries are taking climate change more seriously than they ever have before. I'm optimistic because investment in green tech innovation is proceeding at a really encouraging pace. I'm less optimistic that what happens at COP26 is going to meet that bar that was set in Paris. Even after COP, there's still going to be a pretty wide gap to be addressed and lots of work still to be done.
Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
Nicole Torres is an editor with Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously a senior editor at Harvard Business Review and co-host of HBR's Women at Work podcast. She was a 2019 Stigler Center Journalist in Residence at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg, and is published by special syndication arrangement.