COP26 and 1.5°C – Haven’t the Foggiest? Here’s a Quick Explainer

January 2022

By Clare Broderick, Founder of Greener Cleaner LIVING, LLC

In the throes of Thanksgiving planning this past Fall, you may have skimmed world news headlines and came upon the abbreviation “COP26” and “limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (℃).” Or maybe you heard a news report from Glasgow that some constructive work around our climate’s future was hopefully at hand. Or like my college-age sons, you don’t have the foggiest idea what “COP26” even is.

From where I sit, I can say I totally get it. You could say I have a leg up in grasping the gravity of the climate crisis. I am a trained professional engineer whose career work required me to understand the climate effects and air pollution regulations of the air conditioning, heating, and electrical power systems I designed for all sorts of hospital and university buildings.

Even with the depth of experience around this technical subject and my current work to help create more sustainable homes and lifestyles, I can honestly say the subject of global warming and what we are even doing about it is one confusing, daunting and overwhelming topic. But it is more important than ever that every one of us – global citizens all – understand the enormous task at hand and the grave and disastrous consequences our children and their children may face if we don’t make real progress on reducing the rate of global warming.

My hope is to provide some clarity and context to climate change. My goal is to make this topic more easily understood and approachable, and hopefully, an everyday topic of conversation in our homes and communities.

Background

COP26 stands for the 26th Conference of Parties (COP) which traces its origins to the United Nation’s first conference on the Environment and Development, the Rio Earth Summit, in 1992. The parties include national governments, non-profit organizations & experts. Among the core objectives put forth in 1992, one notable one was to stabilize the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the Earth’s atmosphere to prevent risks to the climate system, a concern that was first raised among scientists in the 1970’s. The first annual COP was held in 1995 and these meetings have continued each year.

Kyoto, Paris & Greta

In 1997, at COP3 in Kyoto, Japan, binding targets were set by 37 countries to limit greenhouse gasses (GHG). The Kyoto Protocol, as it became known, would go into effect in 2008. By that deadline, developed countries had to reduce their GHG emissions by 5% compared to 1990. However, China and the United States refused to ratify the agreement. Because of that, the Kyoto Protocol lost its teeth, and little was accomplished in the intervening years, resulting in a wasted decade in the race against time.

By 2012 with no real progress made, global GHG emissions, like a runaway train, had doubled compared to 1990. It wasn’t as if red flags weren’t being raised left and right. Science was continually and more concretely proving that global warming is caused by man-made emissions, from cars, trucks, lawnmowers, and power plants, among other things.

In 2013 at COP19 with little progress being made, many of the participating countries and worldwide organizations held a mass walk-out on the last day of negotiations in complete frustration. The following year – 2014 – proved more productive with the U.S. and China, for the first time ever, committed to reducing GHGs – a crucial requirement if the warming limit set by scientists was to even have a shot at success.

At 2015’s COP21, the Paris Agreement was signed, finally signaling that 197 countries around the world would commit to “limit global warming to well below 2℃, preferably to 1.5℃, compared to pre-industrial levels,” by reducing GHG emissions to achieve a climate-neutral world by mid-century (2050).

But once again, since 2015, not much has happened. The following four COP’s were technical meetings with little by way of meaningful action. In 2017, former President Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris Agreement as one of his first acts as president, diluting the U.S. delegation. Yet the science continued to pile on, showing us just what a 1.5°C warmer world would look like – including a sea-level rise that would lead to the complete inundation of many island nations (not to mention parts of our beloved Jersey Shore).

In 2018, as tensions escalated, a high school girl from Sweden who had been refusing to go to school until something significant was done about the warming planet, showed up at COP24 in Katowice, Poland, and confronted the world leaders themselves. Greta Thunberg told the leaders and the world, in no uncertain terms, that they were doing nothing to save her and her generation’s future. Since then, she has become the face of climate activism and an inspiration to young people all over the world to get involved and claim a stake in their future.

What has become increasingly and uncomfortably clear is that there has been a near-total disconnect between what science is illustrating and demanding and what has been delivered in the form of real, concrete action. With the pandemic delaying COP26 from 2020 to 2021, the chances of holding climate warming to 1.5℃ by mid-century are becoming increasingly less likely, putting even more pressure on COP26 to yield real, actionable results.

Held in November 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland, COP26 was the largest climate conference to date with the greatest number of world leaders in attendance. All eyes were on COP26 to see just how strong the Paris Agreement commitments are and what countries are truly willing to do to reduce GHG while also contending with navigating their economies out of the pandemic pressures.

Key Takeaways of COP26

Countries developed commitments to help reach ambitious 2030 emissions reductions targets that align with reaching net zero by the middle of the century. These commitments centered on:

  • Achieving global net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 (which are in reach, though by the slimmest of margins)
  • Reducing reliance on coal and fossil fuels
  • Speeding up the transition to electric vehicles and renewable energy
  • Protecting vulnerable ecosystems & providing financing mechanisms
  • Accelerating deadlines to achieve national goals
  • Creating nation-nation agreements to parallel the Paris Agreements

Spirits were high as the conference closed. Enough forward progress was made to ensure that there still remains an (albeit long) shot to limit global warming by 2℃ by mid-century.

That’s the good news.

But outside the event, there were protests and criticisms. The language around reducing the use of fossil fuels was watered down. The means for financing resiliency and ecosystem protection was undefined. And the commitments, if all are actually achieved, only represent a fraction of the greenhouse gas reductions needed to keep global warming to 2℃. New and additional commitments must be created in the next several years to fill the gap.

The maddening and sad news is that we have wasted nearly two decades with little to no progress. And promises are just promises. How fast and how aggressively nations and private industries act are yet to be seen and all but crucial for saving our planet as we know it.

How invested in global warming we become as adults, as parents, as citizens of our country and the globe, also remains to be seen. Our children are watching, and whether they realize it or not now, they will be soon asking us why we didn’t talk about, fight for and do more for their future.

It is not too late to become informed and take action ourselves. In next month’s newsletter, I’ll provide resources and actions that we can take to help do our part. Every action – no matter the size – can make an impact and help prevent the damaging threat of a warming planet.

 


 

Clare Broderick is the Director of Partnership Development at the WEforum Group and is the founder of Greener Cleaner LIVING, LLC, a sustainable home and lifestyle consultancy.