Rapturous pledges of emissions reductions coming out of COP26 are enough to worry one that climate cooling is in our future!
Promises to end rainforest destruction, aggressively cut back methane emissions, and of course the popular ‘net zero’ pledges.
Even China and India have joined the parade, the former pledging ‘net zero’ by 2060 and India by 2070.
But here’s the rain …
- Unfortunately, a handful of Pacific Island nations will be gone – underwater – by then. To underscore the point, the foreign minister of Tuvalu delivered his message to COP26 standing thigh-deep in water.
- As various credible ‘emissions trackers’ – both UN and independent others (e.g., Climate Action Tracker, International Energy Agency) – keep emphasizing, many if not most of the nations making future-pitched ‘net zero’ pledges have no formal, legislated policies or programmes in place to achieve those pledges. Without stipulated actions and milestones between now and 2030 (or 2050), there’s no basis for ensuring accountability.
New Zealand falls in that category. We have recommended pathways from our Climate Commission, to which the Government will respond in mid-2022.
- Muddying the waters are the assorted pledges made by corporates and financial institutions – e.g., asserting their own ‘net zero’ pledges, cessation of financing for coal-fired energy or investment in carbon-intensive businesses, enforcing sustainability measures down their global supply chains. How to count these often multi-national pledges against national targets is yet to be sorted.
- Potential birthing of a formal, global emissions trading (carbon offset) marketplace. A useful development if full transparency (including no double-counting by the buyer and the ‘do-er’), measurability and watch-dogging are guaranteed, since it could accelerate eliminating the low-hanging emissions.
But even if an agreement is negotiated at COP26, this market should be a transitional substitute for nations (and other players) actually reducing their own emissions as opposed to buying offsets and/or simply paying others to do the actual hard yards. Meeting New Zealand’s ‘net zero’ target will require heaps of offshore offsetting.
- And perhaps most discouraging of all, there appears to be a huge gap between what governments claim they are emitting and the actual emissions recorded in scientific datasets and satellite measurements.
So while the ‘emission trackers’ count the pledges and crank those into their models to assess how close the planet might get to a given temperature target goal (be that 1.5 Celsius or 2.0 Celsius), it now appears – according to a rigorous analysis by the Washington Post of the most credible reporting data – that global emissions might already be under-stated by the equivalent of 23% of humanity’s total contribution to the planet’s warming (approaching the total emissions of China).
Thus, we need to make up those ‘lost’ emissions before we make any real reductions progress! Our 100 yard dash is actually 125 yards.
What does this all add up to?
Taking pledges at face value, we will still far overshoot the temperature targets – most estimates now put the planet at 2.4C this century or more. Globally we will emit roughly twice as much in 2030 as required for 1.5C. To reach that goal, emissions would need to fall 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and hit net zero by 2050.
COP26 is a showcase for good intentions and incremental progress at best; mischievous evasion at worst. The best we can do for now is give the UN (COP26 organiser) an ‘A’ for effort; but for the nations that must act, the grade is still ‘Incomplete’, if not ‘F’.