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What will COP26 really achieve?

December 7, 2021

reading time: 8 minutes

by Simon Usborne, guest author

Reto Knutti

COP26 is history – and has already disappeared from the headlines. How much was pure PR, and how much will the conference really accomplish? Climate researcher Prof. Reto Knutti gives his assessment.

Reto Knutti spent his first years in the Swiss ski resort of Gstaad, where his father was a teacher. He did not realise that he was growing up in a landscape being shaped by climate change – the subject to which he would later devote a career.

Knutti is now a professor and leader of the climate physics group at ETH Zurich. He has been a key contributor of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He is now perhaps more keenly aware than anyone else of what is happening around the world, including in the retreating glaciers above Gstaad.

COP26
“There’s a huge gap between the claimed ambition and the actual things that happen on the ground.” © KEYSTONE/Christoph Soeder/dpa

“Most of the changes we talk about in the climate are not something that you can see,” Knutti says. “But when you watch a glacier disappearing, it’s very dramatic.”

It is this awareness, backed up by 24 years of research into climate change and modelling, that frustrates Knutti during conferences such as COP26 in Glasgow last month. Rather than watch as world leaders turn evidence into real action, he says he is consistently disappointed.

“In German we call it ‘hot air’, I think it’s the same in English,” he says. “We promise things that we know from the beginning will probably not happen. There’s a huge gap between the claimed ambition and the actual things that happen on the ground.”

Is COP26 all hot air?

Knutti says the Paris Agreement has been a significant achievement of the COP conferences. Agreed at COP21 in 2015, it aims to keep the rise in average global temperatures to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels - and preferably below 1.5°C.

“It finally gave us guidance of where we should be heading,” the scientist says. “But other than that, for the 26 conferences, the outcome has been relatively modest. And the other side of it is the circus - a show and a shame-and-blame game with lots of people who have nothing to do with the negotiations.”

Climate youth
"Finally countries are starting to accept that this is a problem and that we need to get rid of fossil fuels.” © Shutterstock

Knutti felt the same about Glasgow. He had low expectations, but says it was by no means a total failure. Since Paris, attention has focussed on 1.5°C as the severe impacts of a 2°C rise became clearer. There was a hope at Glasgow of “keeping 1.5°C alive”, and nations agreed to meet more regularly to pledge to cut carbon emissions and make net-zero commitments - the only way to get close to the target.

As part of this mission, there was for the first time at a COP conference a plan to reduce (or “phase down”) the use of coal, which is responsible for 40% of annual CO2 emissions. “It’s kind of strange that fossil fuels or coal had never even been mentioned in a document until now,” Knutti says. “I think finally countries are starting to accept that this is a problem and that we need to get rid of fossil fuels.”

With more countries making net zero pledges in Glasgow, Knutti also sees more hope that 2°C at least may be a realistic target, even if 1.5°C feels more remote. “And that’s great compared to the 3°C we had before Glasgow, or the 4°C we had a decade ago”, he says.

Yet he also sees the temptation in many governments to make bold commitments for 2050 - but more guarded pledges for 2030. “It's easy to make promises for 2050 because no one will be around from those who are negotiating now,” he says. “It's like my kids, when they say: ‘Today I'm not going to clean up my room. Tomorrow, I'm not going to clean up my room - but next year I will do it.”

When clients matter more than pledges

Knutti sees in his own country worrying signs that even if governments are starting to move in the right direction, popular support for change can still lag behind. Months before COP26, the people of Switzerland voted narrowly in a referendum to reject measures designed to slash emissions by more heavily taxing car fuel and air tickets.

“The government wanted to do something reasonably big – it wasn’t even enough for the Paris targets – but even to that the people said ‘no’,” Knutti says. “The big question is not the pledges you make at a conference but how you make things happen in your own country - what are the political instruments, and the incentives?” 

Climate youth
"I have two kids who might still be here at the end of the century." © KEYSTONE/imageBROKER/Nathalie Lieckfeld

Knutti sees opportunity for the business world to fill that gap. Consumer-facing corporations are already doing more than environmental regulations require of them. The scientist takes as an example the race among car manufacturers to switch to electric. “They used to laugh at Tesla and now they’re all frantically trying to put billions into developing new technology because they realise that, if they don’t, they’re going to be out of business - not because of regulation but because soon customers will no longer want to buy a combustion engine,” he says.

In the meantime, Knutti says he learned a long time ago to manage the frustration that comes with working hard on science that does not always prompt swift action. “I have two kids who might still be here at the end of the century,” he says. “I worry about them but sometimes you have to accept that the scientific evidence is just one step in a long chain of things that need to happen until something moves.”

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