November 12th marks the end of the 26th edition of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), held in Glasgow, UK. It all started in 1992, when more than 100 nations signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, a treaty conceived to help countries cut back on global emissions and preserve Earth’s climate. Since its first meeting in Berlin, in 1995, world leaders, scientists and climate activists reunited to address the ever-growing concern for climate change and find practical solutions. During these conferences, COP’s role is to assess the measures taken by the Parties and the progress achieved in the field of climate action. This year’s Glasgow conference, which started on October 31st, represents a fundamental and maybe final opportunity for governments and scientists to cooperate and come up with a collective plan to curb climate change, as the decade out to 2030 will be crucial.
As predicted by researchers and scientists, the Earth is facing a rising in world temperatures that started in the 50s and kept going until today, when we are presented with data that shows temperatures rising to more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. The Earth is warming as a consequence of emissions from fossil fuels, like coal, oil and gas. Extreme weather events like, frequent wildfires (as seen in Australia, in the Western United States or in the Amazon), progressive desertification (as seen in the Middle East) and frequent flooding (as seen in China, Belgium and Germany), are all events resulting from this dramatic climate change. Also, sea levels are rising in a way that could result in the disappearance of entire island nations of the Pacific.
The first to detect the impact of the greenhouse effect on climate was NASA climate scientist, Jim Hansens who, in 1988, told the US Congress that it will result in inevitable changes. In 1990, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its first report on global warming, described as “the greatest global environmental challenge facing mankind”. And it really is the greatest challenge that humanity is facing, because climate change is affecting and threatening the lives and livelihoods of the whole world’s population.
During the previous COP conference, held in Paris in 2015, countries signed a legally binding treaty, the Paris Agreement, and pledged to make important changes and keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, in order to try and aim for 1.5 degrees Celsius, above pre-industrial levels.
It is clear that what was agreed in Paris did not happen, countries have not done enough because, according to Climate Analytics, carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are still rising at a fast pace. The main goal that world leaders and scientists aim to achieve now, with COP26 is to keep cutting emissions until they secure net-zero by 2050 and keep global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius; moreover, pressing is the need to cooperate in order to protect vulnerable and frail ecosystems and communities. It is fundamental to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, because if global warming stays at 2 degrees, there would be a severe impact on people and nature. The world would be even more exposed to severe heat, that will sooner or later lead to health problems, to the destruction of warm water coral reefs and to the melting of the Arctic Sea ice. As a result, the more ice will melt, the more dangerously sea levels will rise. Nonetheless, keeping the temperature at 1.5 degrees Celsius does not mean that there will not be serious impacts on nature. However, the risks of food and water shortages will be lower, resulting in fewer chances of extinction of some species essential for preserving Earth’s ecosystem.
To deliver on these goals, countries will need to work on the gradual elimination of coal, limiting deforestation, cutting methane emissions and working more on the transition to clean energy schemes, switching to driving zero-emissions cars, vans and trucks.
Let’s have a look in more detail at what has been agreed at the Glasgow conference:
Coal is probably the single element that contributes the most to climate change. It is also one of the major producers of energy in the world. More than 40 countries agreed to swift away from it and they should commit to not financing any new coal-fired power stations in the world. Instead of using coal, natural gas could be used, since it is the cleanest of the fossil fuels.
Methane is one of the most powerful greenhouse gases, having more than 80 times the heating power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it has reached the atmosphere. It is responsible for at least 25% of today’s human-generated warming, coming from activities such as waste disposal and cattle production. More than 100 countries have agreed on cutting at least 30% of current emissions by 2030.
Forests and trees are extremely important in the attempt to tackle climate change, because they can absorb vast amounts of CO2. Man’s deadly touch on these invaluable resources had a really negative impact on nature and climate issues and for this reason, more than 100 world leaders promised to stop deforestation by 2030.
Within the framework of COP26, climate diplomacy and cooperation between countries and leaders is extremely important. It is worth highlighting how the United States of America and China have agreed to work together in order to enhance climate action over the next 10 years. Their work will mainly focus on cutting methane emissions (of which China is a big emitter), setting in motion the transition to clean energy and reducing carbon emissions, produced by the burning of fossil fuels.
Possible future scenarios Based on the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, researchers identified five possible future scenarios.
In the two more optimistic scenarios, nations come together and act immediately to reduce fossil fuel emissions, reaching net-zero global emissions by the end of the 21st century. In these two possible futures, Earth will warm by 1.4 degrees Celsius and 1.8 degrees Celsius, resulting in the sea levels rising up to two feet, but avoiding more severe climate impacts. According to the less optimistic and more probable scenario, the carbon emissions will remain high and by the end of the century, Earth will have warmed by around 2.7 degrees Celsius. This will happen if world leaders will fail to take more aggressive action. In the last two, darker scenarios, the Earth’s future is at risk because of nationalism will have taken over. The first dark scenario shows a world led by nationalism and countries’ individual interests, where joint action to tackle climate change will not work. Carbon emissions will rise, as well as global temperatures, reaching 3.6 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, by 2100. Arctic ice will vanish completely and heatwaves and floods will be even more frequent. The second dark and more “fictional” future involves a world that will totally fail in save the Earth, with more and more coal burnt throughout the century, doubled down fossil fuel extractions and a global warming up to 4.4 degrees Celsius.
From the more optimistic future, to a dark, almost fictional one, the report helps show what could happen if the world’s leaders, scientists and governments will not cooperate, in order to leave a better Earth to future generations. Once the conference is over, every single country will have to work non-stop to keep up with the pledges made. It will not be easy to implement the decisions taken, but it is not over yet. As the climate scientist, Zeke Hausfather said, “we can still choose to go down the better pathway”.