Cleaning up energy

At the heart of COP26 is the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, 80 per cent of which come from energy generation and use. A day dedicated to a future of clean energy saw multiple announcements of new initiatives, funds and pledges to reduce and end coal use, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels. The United Kingdom called for consigning coal to history. Since the Paris Agreement in 2015, the number of planned new coal plants globally has dropped by 76 per cent. 

The pledges were enough for Fatih Birol of the International Energy Agency to say that meeting all of the most recent commitments could limit temperature rise to 1.8°C. But UN Assistant Secretary-General Selwin Hart responded that based on national climate plans to date, “we are still a long way away from keeping the goal of the Paris Agreement alive. We cannot be complacent. We can’t celebrate before we’ve done the job.”


No more coal

More than 20 countries made new commitments to phase out coal power. They included some of the world’s biggest users, such as Egypt, Indonesia, Poland, the Republic of Korea and Viet Nam. Major international lenders like HSBC, Fidelity International and Ethos committed to ending funding for unabated coal. 

A group of 25 countries, including Canada, Denmark, Italy and the United States, together with public finance institutions, signed a United Kingdom-led joint statement on ending international public support for unabated fossil fuel energy by the close of 2022. They vowed to prioritize support for the clean energy transition, which could shift an estimated $17.8 billion a year in public support from fossil fuels to clean energy. 

“The age of coal is ending,” said COP26 President Alok Sharma. “A clean, green future awaits the world.”  But he added that there is still much to do, particularly to expand access to power to everyone.  


Don’t forget oil and gas

The move to phase out coal in richer countries in the next decade and soon after in developing countries is gaining steam. But the move away from coal must be to clean and renewable fuels, not to other fossil fuels such as oil and gas. In a worrisome sign, investments in oil and gas seem to be rising, according to the German NGO Urgewald. It issued a new report showing that companies are expanding production, including in frontier and environmentally sensitive regions. 

“Our numbers show that the industry as a whole is on a reckless expansion course,” said Nils Bartsch, who led the research at Urgewald. “Adhering to our carbon budget requires an immediate end to oil and gas exploration and to the development of further oil and gas fields. The decisive decade for action is now.”


A twin challenge of emissions and access

With much attention on cutting emissions, another important concern remains: energy access. Globally, 759 million people still lack basic electricity and more than 2.6 billion do not have clean cooking options.  

The Secretary-General’s Special Representative for sustainable energy, Damilola Ogunbiyi, said there are two imperatives. “If this is the year we are to put an end to coal, it also must also be the year that we prove to developing countries that clean power is the most attractive and most affordable option, by providing them with a clear clean energy offer,” she remarked. “We must do this through technical assistance, collaboration and making finance for clean energy drastically easier to access.”  

She added, “We must show why clean energy is an important part of the blueprint for a sustainable future and move beyond thinking that providing clean energy for basic household access is enough. It must be clean energy for access, economic growth and industrial development.”


Getting shipshape and reducing slime

As global trade continues to grow, attention has increased on emissions from shipping and aviation, two sectors not covered by the Paris Agreement. At the start of COP26, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Honduras, Hungary, Iceland, Germany, Marshall Islands, Norway, Panama, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States backed a goal to reduce emissions by the global maritime industry to zero by 2050. They agreed on ambitious intermediary targets by 2030 and 2040. 

The International Maritime Organization released a report that the accumulation of even a half millimeter of slime on the bottom of big ships can increase emissions, depending on ship characteristics, speed and other conditions. Biofouling, as it is called, is the build-up of microorganisms, plants, algae and/or small animals. 


The science behind the negotiations

“Whatever our political beliefs or political leanings, science is the most accurate picture we have of reality,” said UN Climate Change Chief Patricia Espinosa. 

Climate scientist Johan Rockström stresses 10 scientific messages that every negotiator in Glasgow should know. One is that stabilizing at 1.5°C of warming is still possible through immediate and drastic global action. Costs are high but justified by multiple immediate benefits to the health of humans and nature. “I am increasingly seeing promising signs of recognizing that we have crossed the tipping point to irreversible transition to a fossil free energy system in the world, but it is going too slowly,” he said.


Young people take the floor

Young people plan to gather on the first Friday of COP26, as part of the Fridays for Future movement, to protest the lack of ambition in slowing climate change. Young climate activists said they feel like they have more impact outside COP26 than inside.  

At a press conference organized by UNICEF,  Magali Cho Lin Wing said,  “I’m one of the few young people here to have the privilege to access the blue zone but tomorrow I’m going to go out and strike. What does that tell you, that I don’t want to be sitting in very bureaucratic, slow-moving discussions and instead go out and strike on the streets?” 

Bernard Kato Ewekia, 25, from Tuvalu, said his island nation is already feeling the impact of climate change. “We have sea level rises, drought, and the past few years have been a struggle. Two of our islands have already disappeared,” he said. 

Nicki Becker, 20, from Argentina, added that being a climate activist is not a choice but something they need to do. “They tell us we are the future but they pollute our present.”


Glasgow’s coal past

Glasgow, ironically, was where James Watt developed the steam engine, which burned the coal that powered the industrial revolution. In a country where coal was king, however, it now provides just 2 per cent of the country’s energy.