COP26 and the UK’s Net Zero Strategy

COP 26 is the 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change ‘UNFCCC’. It is due to take place in Glasgow, Scotland on 1st to 12th November 2021, and it is widely seen as a turning point in the heated debates about what can, and should, be done to address climate change.

In Paris in 2015, parties to the UNFCCC came together and after tortuous diplomatic negotiations agreed on several key aims. Notable among these was the aim of –

“Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2ºC above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels, recognising that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change. (Article 2.1)”.

What has changed since the Paris Climate Agreement?

In the period since the conclusion of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, several things have become even clearer. First the scientific consensus that man made activity is causing global warming has moved from overwhelming to “unequivocal”. Secondly the urgency of addressing climate change has been brought home by drastic and immediately pressing alterations to weather patterns, and scientific proof that these are already under way in all parts of the world – from floods in China and Europe to droughts and wildfires in America, Australia and the Russian Arctic. The difference between 2ºC and 1.5ºC according to one Chair of a Working Party of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ‘IPCC’ is to be measured in terms of hundreds of millions of people living in poverty.

On 9th August 2021 the IPCC brought out a report on the physical science basis of climate change. This was described by the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres as “code red for humanity”, and he went on to say that it should be the death knell for the continued use of fossil fuels. Very importantly, 195 governments around the world endorsed the scientific consensus that this report represented.

So in terms of the big picture, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change summarised the basic governmental framework of how to address climate change – not fully complete or perfect, but a large measure of agreement on what is actually needed and how to address it. The IPCC reports since have produced an almost universal world consensus on what the science is telling us. COP 26 is both a vital staging post in countries being required to update and share their own plans for climate change litigation and adaptation, the Nationally Determined Contributions. And the success or failure of the conference will be measured on the extent to which it delivers the political will to address climate change with the urgency of a real emergency.

COP26 and the United Kingdom

The UK’s policy on climate change has been to some extent shaped by its assuming of the host role of the summit. It is the UK’s high responsibility to try to galvanise world activity, to encourage and apply political will, to the task of addressing climate change. Success or failure of the summit will shine a spotlight on UK aspirations for leadership by ‘Global Britain’.

The UK was one of the first countries to enact a structured Climate Change Act, establishing the Committee on Climate Change as an advisory body to governments and UK Parliaments, and five yearly carbon budgets which are proposed and, if agreed, enacted as laws.

The UK’s position as prospective host of COP26 led it to set a very ambitious Nationally Determined Contribution, pledging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 78% by 2035, and the UK also set in law the target of achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

The process, and the detail in achieving these ambitious goals is proving more elusive. First COVID-19 derailed the efforts by many countries to achieve orderly progress on climate change, and it has produced a major political movement calling for a “Green Recovery” as an alternative to embedding continued support for fossil fuels by vast subsidies from reconstruction packages.

The scale of the energy transition from fossil fuels to renewables and cleaner energy is still becoming apparent, described by the International Energy Agency ‘IEA’ as “nothing short of a total transformation of the energy systems that underpin our economies”. This energy transition will in turn affect all aspects of whole economies and the jobs, skills and work needed to maintain them.

The UK’s Net Zero Strategy

On 19 October 2021, the UK government launched its “Net Zero Strategy”, claiming to set out its detailed roadmap for achieving net zero no later than 2050. This covers power, fuel supply and hydrogen, industrial policy, heat and buildings, transport, natural resources, waste and F-gases, innovation, green investment, green jobs, skills and industries, local climate action and other topics: it would be easier to try to assess which aspects of life are not going to be affected by the energy transition.

Some aspects of the UK’s Net Zero Strategy are genuinely dramatic, such as the aim for the UK to be powered entirely by clean electricity by 2035, or ending the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030. In other areas such as home heating the scale of available subsidies has not caught up with the scale of the task of replacing gas boilers with currently expensive heat pumps, or even with ensuring that adequate insulation is in place to deliver greater energy efficiency.

Significant changes are also being made in many areas of finance, with changes to the UK Infrastructure Bank, extensions to the Sustainability Disclosures Regime that will come to affect many companies, and a UK green Taxonomy, which like its EU counterpart will give a steer towards those aspects of investing that are judged to be sustainable. Financial regulators have new responsibilities for publishing policies and seeking alignment of their rulebooks with Paris Agreement targets, and in some cases this is already translating into specific legal responsibilities such as the new climate obligations placed on the managers and trustees of pension fund schemes by the Pension Schemes Act 2021 and the Pensions Regulator. The overall objective of the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosure is to ensure a proper assessment of climate risk in every financial decision, so part of the pressure for change will come not just directly from laws and regulations enacted by governments, but from the climate expectations of investors, banks, asset managers, insurers and their Environmental, Social and Governance or ‘ESG’ policies.

In some key areas the UK’s Net Zero Strategy is strangely silent, such as the future plans for exploration and production of oil and gas. Reports from the IEA, IPCC and UNEP in the last couple of months have made it completely clear that limiting global warming to 1.5ºC will be impossible if fossil fuel production continues unabated. Yet many fossil fuel producing countries, including the UK have made it clear that they intend to continue to pump and mine fossil fuels up to and beyond 2030 at levels which may even increase. The results of this failure of collective political will can be accurately measured by the levels of atmospheric CO2, which have been continuously rising since 1958, and which are now at levels last seen in the Mid-Pliocene Warm Period from 4 million years ago, when sea levels were 78 feet higher.

There is a huge amount at stake at COP 26, and not many more opportunities or much more time to put the world on course to avoid the worst effects of climate change. It is difficult to overstate the level of expectations that the summit represents. But whether it succeeds or fails, it would seem that the otherwise remorseless rise of CO2 levels resulting from continued high emissions is translating into irreversible effects on the world’s climate.

About the Author

William Wilson is an environmental and energy lawyer who has worked in government, private practice and consultancy. At Prospect Law he has given workshops on the Green Recovery and on COP26, Net Zero, Climate Change and the Energy Transition and what it means for business. For the last year he has run a website, blog and events with information and resources for young people on climate change with events including the Milan Youth Summit and the November COY16 Youth Summit in Glasgow.

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Prospect is a multi-disciplinary practice with specialist expertise in the energy and environmental sectors with particular experience in the low carbon energy sector. The firm is made up of lawyers, engineers, insurance and risk management specialists, and finance experts.

This article remains the copyright property of Prospect Law Ltd and neither the article nor any part of it may be published or copied without the prior written permission of the directors of Prospect Law.

This article is not intended to constitute legal or other professional advice and it should not be relied on in any way.