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Thoughts From Engineers: The Elusive Plea of COP26

Chris Maeder on January 28, 2022 - in Articles, Column

I’ll confess I’m probably more fixated than most on climate-related news. When the media began to post updates on the progress of the United Nation’s 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Scotland in early November 2021, I was ready to see the “points” roll in. I was rooting for the underdog: the team of international players I hoped would show extraordinary grit, resolve and strategy to drum up financial resources, brawn, brain and, above all, the willpower to slay the climate “beast”—or at least keep its most destructive forces at bay.

Here’s the issue in blunt terms: The fight to drastically cut carbon emissions is (or should be) an epic battle of singular proportions, pitting a thinly unified international community against an opponent that threatens to seriously tinker with—if not thrash outright—aspects of life we hold dear. We know more about the mechanics behind climate change now than we did 10 years ago: the science, the scale of what needs to change, the most-polluting sectors and the renewable alternatives. But for real progress to be made, all the gears and working parts of this war machine need to be in sync. In fact, to take this analogy a bit further, this machine should be armed, ready and marching onto the battlefield.

My cynical side observes that the widely publicized nationally determined contributions (NDCs) or emission targets, declarations and ceremonial awards presented at COP26 amount to something like “looking busy” with little else to show. But hope prevails in this highly complex undertaking. Hats off to the players—countries with impactful laws in the pipeline; and corporations, municipalities and others that influence trends on the ground—that are already grinding through the tough decisions and chipping away at the net-zero goal. This is a huge topic, but what follows are a few takeaways from the Glasgow summit.

The Preliminary Game: NDCs

In any contest between opponents, an overarching strategy to rack up points early in the game typically is an excellent start. The Paris Climate Accord of 2015 (technically COP21) was the first international treaty to require that every country quantify a target to reduce CO2 emissions. Although no more than a verbal commitment or pledge, these NDCs set a baseline against which a country’s progress can be measured. Early analysis of the NDCs leading up to COP26 yielded dreary results, with global warming projected to reach 2.7 degrees Celsius (C) above pre-industrial levels, not the 1.5 degrees C goal first identified in Paris. A few countries revisited targets, and COP26 came to a close with global warming projected somewhere between 1.8 and 2.4 degrees C. In a positive show of global commitment, nearly 200 countries submitted NDCs for analysis in 2021.

The Big Plays and the Bigger Players

The goals and strategies of the world’s largest emitters are obviously of huge importance in the big picture. According to the United Nation’s NDC Registry (bit.ly/NDC2021Registry), the United States set “an economy-wide target of reducing its net greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels in 2030.” The U.S. NDC further points out that it expects to achieve net-zero emissions by no later than 2050. Further on in the report, in reference to work done to date, the United States claims to have met its 2020 target and be on track to be roughly 25 percent below 2005 levels by 2025.

China’s 62-page NDC pledges that CO2 emissions will peak before 2030, and carbon neutrality will be achieved by 2060. The United States and China also developed their own agreement (bit.ly/US-China-COP26) to work jointly to reduce carbon and methane emissions per the Paris Agreement; share and deploy technology; and implement regulations, policies and standards that lead to decarbonization, renewable resource use and elements of a circular economy, to name a few.

India pledged to achieve a net-zero target by 2070, and the United Kingdom pledged to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 68 percent by 2030” relative to 1990 levels. The EU “endorsed a goal of climate neutrality by 2050.” For additional detail on submitted NDCs, take a look at the United Nation’s registry (noted above).

The Race to Zero: Tracking “Minor” Players

Equally (if not more) important in this battle are the secondary players: the corporations, cities and other entities that collectively drive purchasing decisions, influence economic activity and shape trends. The purpose of the Global Climate Action Portal (bit.ly/GCAP-UNFCCC), also affiliated with the United Nations, is to collect data on how businesses, cities, investors and other interest groups rate on various sustainability metrics. The database has more than 22,000 registered climate actors. The “Race to Zero” campaign has a similar goal and gives its current 6,000 registered members a platform to share progress on net-zero goals, impacts on resources such as forests and water, and other sustainable practices.

Clearly, financial markets will play a huge role in whether a carbon-neutral agenda moves forward, and some indicators suggest global financial markets may be responding favorably to net-zero trends. In fact, here’s another encouraging bit. The Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero represents roughly 450 financial institutions that collectively manage more than $130 trillion. These organizations intend to raise private capital for developing countries’ efforts to move toward carbon neutrality. Also following COP26, several financial institutions and 35 countries committed to stop supporting projects driven by fossil fuels by December 2022.

The Momentum of the World Community

Shortly after the conclusion of COP26, major newspapers ran some version of the following headline: “1.5 still alive, but hanging by a thread” or “1.5 is on life support.” The problem isn’t just the NDC targets falling short, but implementation of existing targets, particularly among the strongest economies, is still behind.

Leadership by key players with the highest emissions—such as the United States—is extremely important, but America’s ability to lead on this issue tends to shift from one administration to the next. A major piece of legislation, namely the Build Back Better bill, which forms the basis for the United States’ submitted NDC, was seriously undermined recently.

The Glasgow Climate Pact concluded with an agreement to meet again next year in Egypt to revisit emissions targets, a positive sign of global will to ratchet up goals and press on with implementation. Our largest economies may not be the leaders we need in the short term, but other parties (and processes) at work on the climate issue may carry us forward in the interim.

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About Chris Maeder

Chris Maeder, P.E., M.S., CFM, is engineering director at CivilGEO Inc.; email: [email protected].

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