Creative climate accounting at COP26 will not solve the climate crisis

The upcoming COP26 Summit presents an opportunity for change, says Green Party MP Caroline Lucas. However, the elephant in the room must be addressed – if we are to avert the climate crisis, we can no longer continue pursuing endless growth on a planet with finite resources.

Caroline Lucas at Spring Conference
Caroline Lucas at Spring Conference

Image: Nick Hooper

Caroline Lucas

The days are ticking by to the start of the most important climate summit since Paris. Given the accelerating climate breakdown, it’s arguably the most important international summit of any kind, ever. One that could decide whether we avert climate catastrophe or leave future generations to face its impacts. 

The Government’s COP26 unit has published its goals for the summit, making its priority to “secure global net-zero by mid-century and keep 1.5C within reach”.

And there’s the problem – keeping 1.5C of global heating within reach means driving down the UK’s emissions to net-zero much sooner than mid-century. As the recent IPCC report made clear, we are in danger of hitting 1.5C of heating in the near term and certainly well before 2050 if the world fails to urgently cut emissions. That is why the UN Secretary General said the IPCC report was “a code red for humanity”.  

Even the International Energy Agency, the standard-bearer for the oil and gas industry, has warned that exploitation of new oil and gas fields must stop this year, and no new coal-fired power stations must be built, if we are to have a chance of net zero emissions by 2050.   

So it is astonishing that the UK did not immediately call in the Cumbria coal mine, and is still considering whether to allow the development of the Cambo oil field  – on the eve of hosting the UN climate summit. This isn’t only deeply hypocritical, it also undermines what UK efforts there are to ensure COP26 is a success. COP president Alok Sharma cannot cajole other countries to take tougher climate action when his own Cabinet colleagues are giving the green light to fossil fuel projects at home. 

It is also really worrying that 80 countries have missed the UN’s deadline to submit updated climate targets (NDCs) when the pledges currently on the table would lead to 2.4C of warming – if they were even met.  

The COP26 unit’s second goal is to “adapt to protect communities and natural habitats”. It is absolutely right that the climate and ecological crises must be addressed together, and it was a positive sign to see progress on the ecological crisis earlier this year when world leaders pledged to protect 30 per cent of land and sea for nature by 2030.   

But the UK Government is already displaying some creative accounting on this, claiming that 26 per cent of land is already taken care of, while in reality as little as 5 per cent of land is adequately protected for nature. The UK has also failed to meet 17 out of 20 biodiversity targets it signed up to a decade ago.   

Adaptation to protect people and nature is absolutely critical as the impacts of climate change wreak havoc around the world – from wildfires across every continent bar Antarctica and deadly floods caused by extreme rainfall in Europe, India and China.   

But supporting climate vulnerable countries to adapt to the changing climate must include a recognition that there are impacts which they simply cannot adapt to – be they hurricanes or the loss of land to sea level rise – and these countries need to be compensated.  Those countries who have done almost nothing to cause the climate crisis must not be left bearing these costs on their own. 

The issue of loss and damage has stalled negotiations at previous climate summits and there is a real danger that it will undermine negotiations in Glasgow, so I am glad that the COP26 unit has also prioritised the need to mobilise finance.   

There is a lot of ground to make up. Climate vulnerable countries are still waiting for richer nations to make good on their commitment to deliver $100 billion of climate finance by 2020 – let alone agree to the additional funding for loss and damage. The climate finance fund, which was agreed in Paris six years ago, is billions of dollars short of its target – a shortfall which must be made up before the summit begins or there is a real danger that the negotiations will collapse. Alok Sharma himself has said – delivering the $100 billion is a matter of trust, and trust matters in international climate politics.  

That’s a message which needs to be heard in Downing Street. The Government boasts that its climate finance has been increased to $11.6bn, but this has come at the expense of the overseas aid budget which has been slashed by £4bn. Paying for climate finance by reneging on commitments made to the world’s poorest is no way to build trust – and ignores the fact that the $100bn climate finance promise is supposed to be a new and additional source of money. 

The final goal of COP26 is to “work together to deliver” – an ambition that few would disagree with. But the small print reveals that this is actually about finalising Article 6 of the Paris rulebook on carbon markets. While Article 6 is ostensibly about raising climate ambition, it also opens the door to further carbon offsetting and the perpetuation of business as usual. 

We will not successfully tackle the climate crisis with creative accounting and allowing tree planting to be a cover for continued fossil fuel exploitation. Instead, we need to shift to an economic system that values the long-term health and wellbeing of people and the planet above endless economic growth. 

It is the pursuit of endless growth on a planet with finite resources that has created this crisis. That is the elephant in the room needing to be addressed. We cannot wait for any more COP summits before it is.