© Financial Times

This is an audio transcript of the Rachman Review podcast episode: COP26: climate goals at stake in Glasgow

Gideon Rachman
Hello and welcome to the Rachman Review. I’m Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator of the Financial Times. This week’s edition is focused on climate change as world leaders gather in Glasgow of the UN climate conference, COP26. The first ever UN climate conference took place in 1995 and this is the 26th, hence COP26. But many believe it’s the most important yet, a last chance to get the world off the path to disaster. Some 30,000 delegates from 200 countries have descended on Glasgow for the conference, which is scheduled to run until the middle of November. Amongst the delegates is the FT’s environment correspondent Leslie Hook, and she’s my guest this week. So does COP26 stand any chance of success? Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, specialises in jokes and light-hearted rhetoric, but even he struck a sombre note at the opening of the climate conference.

Boris Johnson
The longer we failed to act, the worse it gets and the higher the price when we are eventually forced by catastrophe to act because humanity has long since run down the clock on climate change. It’s one minute to midnight on that doomsday clock, and we need to act now.

Gideon Rachman
The most passionate address came from one of the most respected and oldest delegates to the conference. The 95-year-old broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough.

David Attenborough
If working apart, we are a force powerful enough to destabilise our planet. Surely working together, we are powerful enough to save it.

Gideon Rachman
But one possibly ominous sign was the absence of China’s leader Xi Jinping. Something noted by US President Joe Biden this week.

Joe Biden
Look, I mean it sincerely, I think (sic) presumptuous of me to say, talk for another leader. But the fact that China is trying to assert, understandably, a new role in the world as a world leader, not showing up, come on.

Gideon Rachman
Because China’s now easily the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, its participation is crucial to any agreement. And to succeed, the climate conference needs not just passion, but also political commitment and detailed technical agreements. There’s a widespread fear that previously agreed targets such as the goal of keeping warming below 1.5C are already slipping away. Indeed, one of the unofficial slogans of the conference has become “Keep 1.5 alive”. Well, I spoke to Leslie Hook on the line from Glasgow. I asked her why that particular slogan has become so important.

Leslie Hook
Well, Glasgow is often seen as kind of a follow up to the Paris climate summit, which took place in 2015, and that’s where the Paris deal was done. But one of the key ambiguities, which some people see as a strength some people see as weakness in the Paris accord, is that it said our global temperature target is to limit global warming to well below 2C, with best efforts for 1.5C, and that kind of allowed everyone to take what they wanted away from this deal. But now here we are, six years later, the world has already warmed about 1.1 degrees since pre-industrial times, and the science has become a lot clearer on what the impact of a 2-degree warming world is, what that world looks like and the impacts of 1.5 degrees. And so there’s been a real focus from the UK, which is hosting this COP, and from a lot of developed and developing countries on trying to get that 1.5 degree target to be feasible. And that’s much, much harder target to meet than 2 degrees. It will require countries to reach net zero emissions by the middle of the century and cut CO2 emissions by around 40 per cent just this decade. So it’s a really big, big ask, and it’s a long way from our current trajectory, which is for around 2.7 degrees. The UN does a report card just ahead of the COP, where they kind of add up all the climate pledges made by all the countries. And their latest conclusion is that these pledges put us on track for 2.7 degrees, which is still a lot warmer than 1.5.

Gideon Rachman
So did that mean that people went into the conference in some senses already slightly demoralised because committed to a goal that they simultaneously think is incredibly important — 1.5 — but also that is kind of disappearing over the horizon, and it feels unrealistic given the current state of politics that they’re going to do it?

Leslie Hook
Well, there are detractors. Not everyone totally agrees with the focus on 1.5, and one country that finds this target a little bit problematic is China. Their point is, look, we already negotiated the Paris agreement; we agreed the Paris accord; how come we’re changing the goalposts now and saying two degrees is wrong and it must be 1.5? So this goal hasn’t really been embraced equally by everyone. In terms of the just the mood coming into the beginning of Glasgow and the beginning of COP26, I’d say the mood here has actually been fairly upbeat. There is a lot of questions around would this conference even happen? Would it be called off at the last minute due to the pandemic? It’s already been delayed a year, and it’s been quite a tough set of logistics. So there is a lot of sort of question marks hanging over the conference and and so far, just a few days in, it’s gone pretty well. Another boost came from the G20, which met in Rome just days before the COP began. And climate was a very big focus on the G20, and there was quite a bit of progress there compared to previous G20 leaders’ statements on the issue of coal in particular.

Gideon Rachman
I mean, you mentioned China there, and I mean, I hate to be sort of relentlessly negative, but they are the world’s largest emitter, and Xi Jinping is a notable absentee at COP. So what does that say?

Leslie Hook
That’s right, and we knew that Xi Jinping probably wasn’t going to come. He hasn’t left China since the beginning of the pandemic, and so he wasn’t really expected in person. But one of the shocks of the first day of the COP was that he didn’t even send a video message, just a written statement that was uploaded to the COP website so have a sort of very awkward program of world leaders. It’s published the agenda for the speaker’s schedule, and at the bottom of the list, it says, “Xi Jinping, written statement to be uploaded to the website”, so the optics of that are certainly not great. That said, China has made a pretty big step already. Xi Jinping did address the UN General Assembly in September and said that China would quit financing for coal plants overseas so that includes all the coal plants in the Belt and Road, all the coal that China has been funding in developing countries. No more new coal funded by China. And so that was a very major step from China, but all we had seen since then is that China’s been a bit unwilling to sort of participate in the COP cycle of enthusiasm and ambition. And they didn’t change their climate targets. For example, they submitted their formal documents to the UN about what their climate targets are last week, and they just submitted the same numbers that Xi Jinping had already sort of announced. They didn’t make any type of improvement there so I would say in terms of China’s climate policy, it’s certainly not all bad. There was a bit of a rush, I think, perhaps in Europe, to say, “Oh, you know, China’s climate targets are a disappointment”, but you know, in fact, they do have a target to reach carbon neutrality by 2060. They do have a target to peak coal this decade so I wouldn’t say that it’s all bad, but it certainly could be better.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah, I mean, Leslie, I mean, you know China very well. You were based in Beijing for many years. It does strike me that not sending even a video statement sounds like a kind of deliberate snub. And you know, again, to push back on it with stuff you will have heard before, one of the things you hear as well China has made this pledge of not financing overseas coal power stations, but they’re opening, you know, a lot in China itself in response to an energy crunch.

Leslie Hook
That’s true. They certainly are. And I think that one dynamic at this COP that’s quite interesting is how the energy crisis in China and in Europe, which is of course manifesting itself in different ways, plays into the decisions that countries are willing to make around their future energy mix. We’ve seen in China very, very high coal prices, blackouts in some places due to a shortage of coal supply. And at the same time in Europe was, of course, very high gas prices that are really starting to be disruptive to electricity prices here. So both China and Europe are dealing with these energy crisis with different origins. But I think that does make policymakers a little hesitant to forge ahead with a bold new plan, even though in the long term, of course, you can argue that, well, if you weren’t burning coal in the first place, then you wouldn’t be worried about the coal shortage. In the short term I think it’s very, very hard. You’re facing the prospect of blackouts and supply shortages. It’s very, very hard to press ahead with the more ambitious plans.

Gideon Rachman
Yes, indeed. I mean, I suppose that in the UK some already saying, well, you know, Britain has, which is, I suppose, important because it’s it’s the host of the conference, has successfully decarbonised its economy, relatively speaking. But one of the consequences of that is that we may be facing a looming energy supply crunch and that this is something that may be true of other countries around the world. So are we already beginning to face the economic / energy supply consequences of trying to do the right thing in terms of decarbonisation?

Leslie Hook
Yeah, that’s a really big question that’s sort of being debated on the certainly on the sidelines of COP, not maybe at the centre of it. You know, some people argue, oh, look, this is all because of the energy transition and its high carbon prices in Europe have helped push up electricity prices, which is a bit facile. I think it’s about 20 per cent of the increase in electricity prices in Europe is due to carbon prices, and the vast majority of it is due to high gas prices. And there’s others who say, let’s take the long-term view, and if we speed up the transition to low-carbon energy, then you don’t have to worry about supply crises like this. Because if you’re running off wind and solar and batteries and hydro and nuclear, you know, none of those energy sources require this sort of constant fuel supply that the gas plant or a coal plant do.

Gideon Rachman
Right. And technically speaking, I mean, this conference is a big deal. It goes on for two weeks. Do we have or do you have, they have benchmarks of what would constitute success by the end of those two weeks?

Leslie Hook
Well, the way I like to think about the COP is is a sort of two stages, and I mean stage like a theatrical stage. One platform of the COP is very much for the leaders, the politics, the big announcements, a bit of showmanship and also deals that are done between companies, between countries where they sort of use the COP as a stage to announce big things. So on that front we’re expecting a deal on slashing global methane emissions, which will do a lot to cut near-term warming. That’s quite a big deal, although it’s not formally part of the Paris accord or anything like that, it’s just outside of it. And we’ve also seen some very big news on forests and companies and countries committing to end deforestation with a big injection of new investment in anti deforestation projects. And we’re also expecting to see a lot more in coming days on electric vehicles and governments moving forward their electric vehicle targets. So that sort of stage one of COP and then stage two of COP is the bit that takes place in the negotiation rooms where you have all the government representatives in suits speaking into their microphones, and it’s kind of what you think of as more UN-like process. And that part is going on right now, but it’s obscured by all the leaders’ statements and the speeches that are also happening at the same time and so the negotiations are really the core of the COP and they usually run overtime. And this year, the key negotiation issues are really about the rules for implementing the Paris climate accord. So when the Paris pact was signed, it’s sort of 26-27 pages long. It didn’t really iron out some of the thorny details, like if you are reporting your emissions as a country, how do you do that? And who verifies that your emissions reports are accurate or say that, you know, we want to create a global carbon market, which Paris accord does say that, well, how do we do that? What’s the framework? Is there a global ledger for carbon offsets have been bought or sold so that nobody is double counting the same projects twice? And another issue is the timeframes on which countries agreed is that climate pledges. So all of these sound sort of technical, and they’re very much in the nitty gritty. But the sum impact of these negotiated rules will be to determine whether or not the Paris accord really has teeth and whether it has implementation integrity and whether everyone’s playing on a level playing field when it comes to following what they’ve agreed to do in the Paris agreement.

Gideon Rachman
Indeed. And I mean, you mentioned implementation there, and I guess we talked a bit about the role of China. But then there’s also the United States. And although Joe Biden has come to the COP26, everybody knows how hard it is to get climate agreements through Congress. So how do people feel about the role that America is playing?

Leslie Hook
I think there’s really mixed views. I think in public it’s very, very much welcome. But I think in private, you do see certainly here European diplomats saying, well, there’s perhaps a little bit of simmering resentment even that the US was sort of gone for four years, and now they’re back. And the US is certainly trying to demonstrate and make a big show of its climate leadership. At this COP, they’ve brought 12 or 13 cabinet members, a huge delegation along with Biden. And so the US is really trying to make this a moment of leadership, but I think that does ring a bit hollow when the infrastructure bill hasn’t been passed. Of course, I think Biden hopes it will be passed in coming days, but I think that all rings a bit hollow when the US hasn’t actually enacted the policies that will allow it to reach its climate goals itself. So it’s a bit of a difficult position. I think climate envoy John Kerry probably feels the heat from this more than anyone else because he’s been criss-crossing the world, urging countries to do more. But of course, it’s very, very hard for Biden to get his climate policies through Congress. So I think it’s a bit of a mixed reception for the US here.

Gideon Rachman
And final couple of questions. I mean, we talked about the US, China. The UK is host; Boris Johnson, it’s a big moment for him internationally. What’s your impression of how the British have handled it? Domestically there’s been some criticism that they pointed to relatively low-profile figure in Alok Sharma as the person managing the run-up to the COP26.

Leslie Hook
Well, I think the UK as host has managed to pull off a COP, which so far logistically has sort of work. It’s brought everyone together. It’s been a big deal and that’s sort of what the COP host is supposed to do, and they have certainly done that. I think for Boris Johnson, it’s been a moment when he gets to be the ringmaster, the showman. And, you know, we’ve seen everyone from David Attenborough and a video statement from the Queen and there’s a lot of theatricality around these opening days when the world leaders come together and Johnson gets to host them. But I think that if you look more closely at the UK’s position, we did just have a budget which did not mention climate at all. And the UK has been pretty slow to translate its 2050 net zero goal, which is legally binding. It was one of the first major economies to pass a legally binding 2050 net zero goal. It’s been very slow to translate that into policies and to explain where the funding is going to come from to make this transition. The UK, of course, is still extracting oil and gas, and there’s a big debate over this new coal mine, which Boris sort of on if you get him on a good day, he says we’ll stop the coal mine and another day he might change his mind. But anyway, there’s debate over whether this coal mine is going to go ahead. So certainly one thing I hear from a lot of people is that the UK is talking the talk, but maybe not really walking the walk.

Gideon Rachman
And finally, Leslie, you’re in Glasgow for the whole two weeks of the conference. I mean, my recollection of previous COPs is that they’ve generated periods of drama. There was the famous confrontation between the Chinese and American leaders at the Copenhagen COP. There was Laurent Fabius with his green hammer proclaiming success at the end of Paris. Do you think there’s a chance that that kind of thing will happen again? Or is it more likely that once the leaders depart, it just becomes a more bureaucratic process?

Leslie Hook
Well, I think the end of the COP is when things will really get quite heated. So far, it’s been fairly smooth, but the disagreements and divisions will be most on display as the negotiations move into their closing days so that’s certainly something to watch out for.

Gideon Rachman
That was Leslie Hook in Glasgow, ending this edition of the Rachman review. Thanks for joining me. I hope you’ll be able to join me again next week.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

This transcript has been automatically generated. If by any chance there is an error please send the details for a correction to: typo@ft.com. We will do our best to make the amendment as soon as possible.

Get alerts on Transcript when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article