COP 26 and the rise and rise of net zero

COP 26 was hosted in Glasgow, UK. A curious mix of NGO staffers, private sector sustainability teams and overseas policymakers sported an array of lanyards, all walking with phone in hand, between Glasgow Queen Street train station and the secure zone’s metal barriers about a mile or so away. The roads in between guarded both by the police and a handful of committed activists, literally and figuratively banging the drum.

COP 26 was significant because it marked the (delayed a year due to Covid) five-year anniversary of COP 21. COP 26 required every government to submit their contribution to decarbonisation, their NDC, or “nationally determined contribution”. As such, it was perhaps the most important barometer we have had on progress towards tackling climate change.

Glasgow is cut in half by the M8 motorway, but it’s a city with charm. Its gothic architecture, river bank paths, museums and parks are well worth a visit. The surrounding countryside is majestic. The city’s history is remarkable. Ardgowan Castle, a short drive to the West, is as beautiful as it sounds. And the city has grit. If you haven’t yet read Shuggie Bain, you should.

But, Glasgow just wasn’t a big enough city to host a conference badged ‘make-or-break’ for the future of humanity. For one, there just weren’t enough hotels. One asset manager ferried their staff back and forth from Edinburgh in a taxi. I too stayed in Edinburgh. I took the train.

NGOs hosted well-meaning events attended by a handful of their supporters, often staff at other NGOs. The NGOs’ comms professionals posted photos to their social media accounts, commuting in to Glasgow from a sofa bed at an overpriced, out-of-town Airbnb.

Access to political leaders was tightly controlled. Thanks to Lombard Odier, I briefly met then Prince, now King Charles. King Charles was far more open to conversation than political leaders.

Never failing to disappoint, the star of the show was Greta Thurnberg. COP 26 was home to Thurnberg’s famous “blah blah blah” speech. Thousands, and it may have been tens of thousands, but it certainly wasn’t hundreds of thousands, marched the streets for a “global day of action”.

Alok Sharma, the COP president, was, without doubt, a shining star in an otherwise disappointing UK Government line up. One government insider who, for obvious reasons, asked not to be named told me, “the government put forward its B team”. She went on, “the A team has spent their year flying between London, Brussels and Dublin working on Brexit”.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson barely turned up. He flew of course. He sat next to broadcaster and environmentalist David Attenborough without wearing a mask. He snoozed. He flew back to London for a fundraiser. He made it clear that he just wasn’t interested.

But there were some reasons to be optimistic.

The commitments to cut methane emissions, end deforestation by 2030, and reduce reliance on fossil fuels were important steps forward.

And it was not just the usual suspects; significant commitments from India, Brazil and Russia, with India committing to 500 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2030 and Brazil and Russia joining the commitments to end deforestation.

But, overall, the announcements fell far behind what’s needed.

At the conclusion of the conference, a finalised 10-page negotiated outcome document titled the Glasgow Climate Pact was released. This was the first ever climate deal to explicitly plan to reduce coal, the most polluting fossil fuel.

However, the agreement only promises to “phase down” rather than “phase out” coal, amid statements of disappointment by some.

The World Climate Summit, which took place alongside COP 26, was unfortunately part of the problem. Badged, “the investment COP”, it was a pay-to-play conference. It seemed to me that it was not commitment to sustainability, or actions undertaken, that bagged you a speaking slot, but rather how much you were prepared to pay.

The big asset managers put forward an ESG professional for panel discussions or for the very deep pocketed, a key note. Despite the cost of the conference, the presentations were, on the whole, disappointing. One US key note speaker started by saying “I believe in climate change”.

There was no feet-to-the-fire here, perhaps, because the speakers had paid to speak. Little to learn. No chance for genuine collaboration or problem solving on challenging topics.

It was a missed opportunity.

For the first time in two-years (due to Covid), Glasgow was host to NGOs, companies, investors and policymakers, but each in their own bubble, the continuation of an approach that wasn’t working, and won’t work.

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