Show us some action: Protestors around the world are piling pressure on government and big businesses to step up their commitments and actions for a sustainable future | Photo: IISD Reporting Services

After a summit of despair, comes a season of hope

As the hunt for new global leaders for climate action heats up, the UK is showing signs of stepping up

“We have had a number of devastating setbacks; how these are handled is the making of a great team.”

I’m still recovering from Rugby World Cup fever so excuse the oval ball focus, but looking back at Sir Clive Woodward’s reflections on England’s victorious World Cup run in 2003, defeats played an integral part in his side’s eventual triumph.

The 76-0 humiliation in Australia in 1998 and a 20-14 loss to Ireland that deprived England of a Grand Slam in 2001 are frequently referred to as seminal moments.

It probably feels a bit like that for many involved in the global climate process, after a bruising UN climate summit in New York last week.

One view is that UN secretary general Antonio Guterres made an ambitious pitch for climate ambition and got his fingers burnt.

“You’d be gobsmacked at the number of bureaucrats and diplomats who think you should not plain-speak,” his outgoing climate special envoy Rachel Kyte told a panel in New York last week.

Guterres staked his asks early: no new coal after 2020, an end to fossil fuel subsidies, carbon neutral plans for 2050 and better climate plans for 2020.

Only a few of these were met. We know 66 countries are working on or exploring a net zero emissions target and that 59 countries will definitely boost their climate plans in 2020.

That’s a start, but it’s not the radical shift required to close the emissions gap. To avoid 2°C of warming efforts need to be tripled; 1.5°C means a fivefold increase. While a the requirements are steep, a new PwC report has warned that “progress on climate seems to have stalled”. Most leaders “don’t have a clue” how to play their part in meeting a 1.5C compatible global target, former French climate ambassador and CEO of the European Climate Foundation Laurence Tubiana told CHN.

It feels bleak, especially in light of the grim warnings from the IPCC’s latest oceans and glacier report. Rising seas, disappearing drinking water. But is this shock to the political system what’s needed ahead of the so-called 2020 super-year where the UK and China will spearhead efforts to limit warming and safeguard biodiversity?

I’m open to being accused of naivety or forced-optimism, yet I feel there are lessons and positives from the last week that we’d do well not to ignore.

1 – Guterres was right

If this summit achieved anything it drew a line in the sand, where the final frontline on climate was drawn, a ‘You Shall Not Pass’ moment built around 1.5C. That’s not to say it guarantees a win, but by staking his reputation on killing coal and carbon neutrality, Guterres set the terms for the game.

Some of the biggest global players in finance, retail, energy, shipping, steel and cement responded with initiatives to deliver here, joining those on the 1.5C barricade. A small group of small island states joined Guterres, while the likes of the UK, France, Finland, Sweden, Chile and Germany emphasised their commitment to a zero emissions world.

The transition to low carbons always likely to be a mess, sectors are moving at varying degrees yet there is – now – and element of clarity on the end-destination, one that wasn’t apparent when the Paris Agreement was signed.

2 – Don’t rely on politicians

‘What we saw on Monday was political violence.’

That was the take of a senior diplomat this week, reflecting on the response to Greta Thunberg’s passionate challenge to world leaders. For those inside who witnessed the limp applause from delegates to Thunberg’s excoriation of big emitters – and for those who cared – the response was an exercise in cynical brutality.

If we’re honest, the politics in most countries is not set up to deliver the rapid emission cuts required. India and China are treading water (and may be doing so literally sooner than they imagine). The US, Brazil, Mexico, Australia and Japan failed to make it onto the field of play.

The tepid response by several of the world’s biggest emitters underlines the need for layers of leaders at regional, city, council and community levels in order for the UN process to have any teeth.

There were signs of this last week, with Dalmia (cement), SSAB (steel) and Maersk (shipping) setting out their visions for a speedy industrial transition to net zero. We need businesses that have committed to science-based-targets to explain why they’ve taken this step, and for those investing in climate resilient supply chains to share their logic.

We’re beyond the stage where sitting silently on the fence is a sustainable strategy.

3 – Oil giants lack vision

The 13 majors who form the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative couldn’t even agree not to fund anti-climate policy lobbying in the future.

A report they released was, the New York Times reported, stacked with proposals that appear  ‘designed to perpetuate the use of oil and gas for decades to come, rather than transition quickly to cleaner options.’

But the reality is for all their talk, the majors and the far larger state producers like Gazprom, Pemex and Petrobras have one aim: get as much oil out of the ground as fast as possible.

$50 billion investment in new reserves since 2018 is not an encouraging sign, nor is research that methane emissions from oil production have been under-sold.

Some speculate OGCI will split, with the more ambitious such as Shell and Equinor ditching Exxon, Chevron and BP. Still, any sense the majors have a climate plan should probably be binned for good.

As Michael Liebreich argues here, lawsuits against big oil are mounting and it could take one big win to open the floodgates.

4 – Mobilisations will grow

Four million people on the streets on September 20. 3.6 million on September 27. October too, has been a month of protest for the global movement Extinction Rebellion. Is this the new normal? I asked Jamie Henn, strategic communications director at major campaign group 350 how he saw 2020 coming together in light of this summit. Here’s his take:

“I think we’ve finally reached the tipping point when public concern over the climate crisis has transformed into a movement powerful enough to create real political change. We saw over 4 million people take to the streets for the Global Climate Strikes [on Sept 20]. Going forward, our job is to keep up a steady drumbeat of actions, strikes and protests that gets louder and louder throughout 2020. These actions will go after the key barriers to climate action: intransigent governments, the financial institutions that are still funding fossil fuels, and the industry itself.” 

On those financial institutions, Blackrock and JP Morgan Chase should likely be most concerned. Both pay lip service to climate but the reality is different: Blackrock is the world’s largest investor in coal plant developers, while JP Morgan Chase has invested $196 billion in finance for fossil fuels since 2015.

5 – Enter trade

Last Monday Emmanuel Macron repeated his threat not to sign trade deals with countries in breach of the Paris Agreement. It’s a stick he has already used against Brazil at the G20 when it wavered over its future in the UN accord. Indonesia and Malaysia are also under pressure over continued deforestation levels in favour of palm oil. Last year the European Commission decided to clamp down on palm oil imports for transport fuels by 2030. Brussels seems to be taking this seriously – incoming EC chief Ursula Von der Leyen has proposed a new carbon border tax to be applied to imports and has asked for advice by early 2020 on how such a tax could work. This August the UK Parliament’s International Trade Committee opened an enquiry into the relationship between international trade and the environment. Popular wisdom is that Brexit will determine all when it comes to UK environment policy. Perhaps it won’t.

6 – Money money money

The political dynamics will only change if the poor guys see the rich guys coughing up. That has always been clear, but it was made very clear again by this summit. The developing countries that want to hit carbon neutrality before 2050 can only do this if they get support. Others – who were silent or holding cards to chests in New York – are waiting for the same thing. India and China made this clear ahead of the summit.

It’s not just an issue of the famed $100 billion promised to poorer nations or the Green Climate Fund, which has a pledging conference in Paris this November. Increasingly there is an expectation from vulnerable nations that at one end they need urgent help to adapt to fast-changing weather conditions and at the other – like the Bahamas post Hurricane Dorian – urgent finance to rebuild after devastating storms.

Major shifts of capital are underway: see the commitment to shift investments by Allianz, Zurich, Swiss RE among others last week or the 87 companies with market cap of $2.3 trillion launching 1.5C business plans. These are mixed, a little scattergun and not enough. It’s evidence that the ball is rolling. It needs to roll faster.

7 – The UK can deliver

UK officials were out in force in New York, laying the groundwork for the vast COP26 diplomatic effort that is starting to grind into motion. If this summit taught us anything it’s that countries and leaders rarely come laden with offers unless there’s a reward, and altruistically saving the planet from dangerous extreme weather impacts is not enough.

It means Whitehall will soon need to hit the ground running – deploying its significant army of climate envoys, flexing the UK’s financial muscles and leveraging its (still) global soft power to encourage countries to crank up their climate plans by 2020. A tough ask but if any country can do this – Brexit chaos notwithstanding – it’s the UK.

Is this another example of rampant British nationalism? Well – not entirely. The UK has a 2050 net zero emissions target locked in place, a decent climate finance offer, can draw on huge civil society support, still has strong links to developing countries through the Commonwealth and desperately needs to show it’s still a major player on the global stage. Chatham House’s recently published roadmap for success at COP26 is worth your time. We can expect the government to reveal part of its hand by COP25 in Chile. This is a negotiation we all have a stake in, and one where unlike Brexit, there might actually be light at the end of the tunnel.

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