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Cop26 has raised hopes, but how can climate cliff edge be avoided?

Ireland has made ambitious pledges, although the rhetoric is failing to meet reality

For some, warnings about the cataclysmic climate threat facing the world can sound endlessly repetitive, but scientists’ warnings about the dangers that lie ahead are getting more and more stark.

As the Cop26 talks open in Glasgow this weekend – arguably the most important United Nations climate summit ever – it begs the question: "Which bit do you not get?"

Latest indications of “Code Red for humanity” – as described by UN secretary general António Guterres – came this week from the UN Environment Programme (Unep) and the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO).

The Unep 2021 "emissions gap" report highlighted glaring gaps between countries promises and their emissions, while the WMO measures greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.


The promises made to date to cut emissions by 2030 would still leave the world 2.7 degrees hotter by the end of the century, resulting in an irreversible catastrophe and making most of the Earth unliveable, the Unep warns.

Despite all of the talk, current pledges would reduce carbon by only about 7.5 per cent by 2030, far less than the 55 per cent needed to keep temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees.

Guterres described the findings as a "thundering wake-up call" to world leaders as they gather in Glasgow, while climate experts demanded drastic action against fossil fuel companies. Failure, as of now, to get all G20 countries – responsible for 80 per cent of emissions – on board is a bad omen, with the current energy crisis forcing some back to using coal.

Previously, the Unep has warned that planned production of oil, coal and gas over the next decade is “dangerously” out of sync with climate change targets already made, never mind new ones.

Ireland in the shade

Ireland has made some of the most ambitious pledges, promising to cut emissions by 51 per cent by 2030 and to hit net zero by 2050 – but ranks a poorly 80th out of 193 countries when it come to rhetoric meeting reality.

"If everyone in the world had the same per-capita emissions as Ireland, the planet would already have warmed by a catastrophic 3 degrees," noted Dr Hannah Daly of MaREI energy research centre in UCC.

Global concentrations of CO2, the most important greenhouse gas, are now 50 per cent higher than before the Industrial Revolution which sparked mass burning of fossil fuels, the WMO bulletin confirmed. Methane levels have more than doubled since 1750. All key greenhouse gasses rose faster in 2020 than the average for the previous decade. Despite coronavirus lockdowns, they hit record levels in 2020.

Calling this week for much greater urgency, Prof Peter Thorne of Maynooth University, a lead author in the latest UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report offered a bleak assessment. Humans have pushed the climate system to a state not seen in thousands of years – arguably, not seen since the peak of the last interglacial period 125,000 years ago.

All of human development has happened during “a remarkably quiescent” climate period on Earth but that is changing and “all of the warming is down to us. It’s not a question of how much; it’s all of it,” said Thorne this week.

“Greenhouse gas emissions, sadly, despite of 30 years of negotiations, are still stubbornly going upwards. That is not a good look if we want to stabilise the climate, we have to get down,” he added.

Warming can be limited to 1.5 degrees, but that means half of CO2 now produced annually will have to be taken out of the atmosphere every year from 2050 onwards. “That is a very risky bet. The longer we continue to emit carbon dioxide, the more we will have to draw down later to limit warming to 1.5.”

And it’s not just CO2, nitrous oxide must be reduced and methane halved by the middle of this century: “Each action, every bit of warming matters,” according to the IPCC – and failure is not an option.

Climate action should have started 30 years ago, he suggested.

“We would have had a gentle glide path. The longer we leave it the steeper the cliff is getting and that cliff is already terrifying steep. If we leave it longer it will become impossible . . . We will be committed to expensive solutions to bring us back after a period of overshoot.”

However, the “good news” is the climate can be stabilised within our lifetimes: “We can stabilise rainfall; temperature, other aspects – the fast responding aspects of the climate system,” said Thorne.

However, the “slow-acting” consequences of climate change – the rise in sea levels, ice sheet collapse, ocean warming – cannot be stopped by humans on the planet today. “Those are a multigenerational commitment. If we don’t act soon, we will be committing on a multigenerational two to 10,000-years basis to tens of metres of sea level rise.”

And it is not something that will trouble people living in faraway places, said Thorne: “Many of this island’s great cities would not be viable under that level of sea level rise.”

The fundamental question in his view is: “Will we be seen as a people who knew we had a problem and fixed it quickly to make it liveable for many generations hence? Or will we be the damned?”

Prof Euan Nisbet based in Royal Holloway, London, backs that verdict. "Greenhouse gas measurements are like skidding into a car crash. You can clearly see the crash ahead, and all you can do is howl." The "extreme" growth in methane emissions is especially worrying, he said – figures are now rising faster than ever suggests the warming [is] feeding the warming.

Diplomatic efforts

US president Joe Biden desperately wants to lead collective global action on climate in Glasgow, but his domestic agenda is stuttering so he faces credibility issues on the international stage.

His virtual climate summit in April was a chummy affair with Chinese president Xi Jinping and Russian president Vladimir Putin and other big emitters declaring willingness to muck in on climate action. Geopolitical tensions on other issues have surfaced since but the UK government, as Cop26 hosts, is hoping they can be parked.

Biden faces a major challenge in trying to reassert American credibility after the US returned to the Paris fold following the difficult Trump years of climate denialism. All this heaps pressure on his climate envoy John Kerry, whose famed diplomatic skills backed by understanding of climate science will be needed to have any chance of a deal with substance.

Cop veteran Sadhbh O’Neill, a Dublin City University climate researcher, says every country must sign up in Glasgow to real emissions cuts that are in line with science, that are real, and in time to make a difference.

Wealthy countries should stump up $100 billion a year as promised since 2009 for the countries most at risk from the effects of climate change. Such a sum is “pennies” compared to the trillions spent on Covid by rich states, yet pledges are falling short. A big problem, however is countries want to do different things at different paces, she explains. Yes they have credible net-zero plans so there is ambition is there at a time they are required to rachet up commitments under the Paris pact, but it has to be matched by action from governments.

A big question of Cop26 is "what will success look like?" according to Prof Dave Reay of Edinburgh Climate Change Institute. "More money for global climate action? Bigger commitments from China and India? An international elbow bump on agreeing the geeky intricacies of article 6 and the rule book for implementing the Paris agreement? They'd all be good. But the true success, or failure, of Cop26 will be written in our skies in the form of greenhouse gas concentrations."

So far, the response is “an epic fail,” he said and the small window of opportunity that exists is about to vanish: “Will this 26th Cop find success where the previous 25 have fallen short? Our atmosphere will bear witness.”

There is no doubt climate action is being ratcheted up, but is it enough? Is it happening quickly enough? Is the Paris Agreement enough to avoid a 2.7-degree scenario?

Based on hard data, and to borrow a famous phrase from Margaret Thatcher, the emphatic answers are: "No! No! No!" If a "Yes! Yes!" could be nailed down at Cop26 on the first two questions at least, it would make for a meaningful outcome.