COP26: a missed opportunity for climate leadership

At the start of August, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the first part of its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), systematically summarising the extent of our knowledge of how the climate is changing, the contribution of human activities, as well as the effects on climate change on impact drivers such as heatwaves, precipitation and sea ice, and permafrost loss. The report makes clear that immediate and drastic decarbonisation—with global emissions declining from now onward, and becoming carbon negative by the second part of the century—are required to avoid the worst human and environmental costs of more than 1.5°C increase in surface temperatures relative to pre-industrial levels.

The UK’s rhetoric in response to these findings was predictably bombastic. While admitting the report made “sobering reading,” the UK prime minister Boris Johnson proudly announced that “the UK is leading the way, decarbonising our economy faster than any country in the G20.” In advance of hosting the latest round of negotiations of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Glasgow this November (COP 26) both the PM and COP 26 President Alok Sharma have proudly proclaimed the UK’s ‘ambition’ in leading global efforts on decarbonisation. The reality, however, is somewhat less flattering.

It is true that the UK’s commitments to emissions reductions—a 68% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2030, and achieving net-zero by 2050—go further and faster than the targets set by most other industrialised nations. Given the length of time for which the UK also led the world in carbon emissions—such that it remains one of the highest per-capita sources of cumulative emissions globally—one might hope for nothing less. However, existing policy commitments fail to show how this will be achieved in practice.

The Climate Change Committee’s 2021 report to Parliament highlights the true extent of this policy gap. While the government has been keen to embrace techno-fixes like electric vehicles, and the as-yet largely notional hydrogen and carbon capture and storage industries, it has “largely ignored” the “politically difficult” decisions around diet change, transport modal shift, and challenging the political influence of heavily-polluting industries. 

The disproportionate power these industries hold is most starkly demonstrated by the government’s continuing willingness to licence, and even finance, new coal, oil, and gas extraction projects despite the fact that a third of already-listed oil reserves, and half of gas reserves, must not be burnt if we are to keep global heating even within 2°C relative to pre-industrial levels. The government has failed to rule out the possibility of licensing a new coal mine in Cumbria that would commit to a further 8.4MtCO2e of emissions annually, and is set to greenlight production-level drilling in the Cambo Oil Field near Shetland that would produce emissions equivalent to running 18 coal-fired power plants for a year. The industry continues to be propped up by public funds—whether through tax breaks or the £1.335bn the oil and gas industry received from the Bank of England’s Covid Corporate Financing Facility.

The dissonance between rhetoric and reality is replicated time and again across climate-relevant policy sectors. Boris Johnson appeared dismissive of some of the headline recommendations of the National Food Strategy report, despite the food sector accounting for one-fifth to one-third of all UK emissions. Transport plans are big on electrification, but have too little to say on reducing traffic volumes and no funding to promote the most sustainable and healthy solutions of public and active transport. Despite the CCC highlighting the need for aggressive demand management in aviation, new infrastructure such as the Leeds Bradford Airport expansion continues to be approved.

The irony of this failure of ambition is that the tools to support a genuine, just, and sustainable decarbonisation are already available, and would promote human health at the same time as mitigating our intersecting climate and ecological crises. Transitioning UK energy generation entirely to renewables could prevent nearly 14,000 deaths annually by 2030, chiefly through reduced air pollution. Infrastructure and policy to support public transport, walking and cycling over privatised vehicles could save the NHS £17 billion in 20 years. Converting existing houses into climate-smart, well-insulated, energy-generating homes would pay for itself in just seven years through reductions in winter cold-related illness and energy savings—not to mention the lives saved.

With COP 26, the UK had the opportunity to show the climate leadership it had previously promised—and in doing so, realise an unparalleled opportunity for better public health. However, with only weeks to go before the negotiations start and the prime minister already back-peddling on climate pledges, it is unlikely that the needed leadership will emerge in time. 

Alistair Wardrope, Academic Neurology Unit, University of Sheffield; Department of Clinical Neurology, Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

Competing interests: Alistair is a Medact member and receives funding from NIHR.