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COP26: Why this climate summit matters and what it can achieve

RMI CEO Jules Kortenhorst shares the inside scoop on what to watch for at the world’s biggest and most important climate change gathering.
By Maria Virginia Olano

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(Stephen O'Donnell via Unsplash)

The world’s largest climate gathering kicks off this weekend after a year of delay due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The goal: to prevent climate change from getting dramatically worse.

Six years after the Paris Agreement was reached, leaders of nations from around the globe will meet in Glasgow, Scotland for what’s known as COP26, the 26th annual meeting of countries that have signed on to the globe’s main climate treaty, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. And this year it’s all happening amidst a continuing pandemic, worsening climate impacts and rising fossil fuel energy costs.

In the leadup to the gathering, countries have made updated action pledges — known as nationally determined contributions, or NDCs — but taken together, the national pledges are still not enough to keep global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, let alone 1.5 degrees, which scientists say would be needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. That means there is still a long way to go — and mounting pressure on governments to step up their ambition and finally do what this moment requires.

To discuss the stakes at COP26 and what we can hope to see achieved, we spoke with Jules Kortenhorst, CEO of climate and clean energy think tank RMI. (Canary Media is an independent subsidiary of RMI.)

RMI CEO Jules Kortenhorst

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. You can also listen to the full conversation in the audio player below. 

Maria Virginia Olano: Why is this COP meeting particularly important?

Jules Kortenhorst: This COP is a very important milestone. When we concluded the Paris Agreement almost six years ago, it was decided that, at that time, we could not yet reach the ambition, from individual countries and collectively from humanity, that will put us on a path toward well below 2 degrees and even 1.5 degrees.

But there was also a recognition of the fact that over time, ambition could increase when technologies’ costs would come down, political processes would take their course, climate finance would start to flow, making it more feasible for countries in the Global South to be part of the transition.

That led the participants in the international climate negotiations to agree to a so-called ratchet mechanism. The idea being that every five years, humanity comes together at the five-year COP and increases its ambitions in the nationally determined contributions.

So that’s why this COP in Glasgow is that important.

Olano: Are there any countries you’re going to be keeping your eye on?

Kortenhorst: There are certain countries that have made huge strides. One specific region to call out is the European Union, which has upped its commitment to 55 percent emissions reduction by 2030, in addition to setting the clear goal of net zero by 2050.

A lot of countries have confirmed that they will aim to be net zero by the middle of the century. But they haven’t necessarily ratcheted their early commitment for 2025 or 2030, and we need to reduce emissions significantly over this next decisive decade, not just by the middle of the century. Both parts of the commitment are important.

Some countries have indicated that they want to be part of those commitments, but may not be all the way there yet. The United States is an important example. Will President Biden show up in Glasgow with sufficient progress in the Congress so that he can live up to a 50 percent emissions reduction by 2030?

Then there are other countries that have not yet delivered or that are actually falling significantly short. Brazil and Australia are falling short.

The Australian government hides behind decisions made six years ago to say that they cannot increase their ambition. But what they are really saying is that this conservative government, in a country that is still so significantly dependent on the export of fossil fuels, particularly coal and natural gas, does not have the confidence or the courage to do what is necessary.

And with regards to Brazil and President Bolsonaro…you know, I’ll just leave it at that. 

Other places are starting to move in the right direction. It will be very interesting to see what announcements [Indian] Prime Minister Modi brings to Glasgow next week.

And China is a very big question mark. China has made some important announcements about the role of fossil fuels in their economy by the middle of the century and about stopping to finance new coal-fired power capacity outside of China. But the two very specific goals — namely, peaking their emissions before 2030 and being a net-zero economy at the latest by 2060 — have not yet changed. The world is looking anxiously, particularly on that earlier goal of 2030, because China at 27 percent of global emissions is now so much a part of humanity’s carbon emissions. We need China to step up its level of ambition, even in the shorter term.

Olano: What are some possible outcomes, or in your opinion, what would be the best possible outcome of this COP26?

Kortenhorst: On the one hand, I am not overly optimistic that the NDCs, which are, in the end, voluntary commitments, will tally up to anything that would put us well below 2 degrees or even 1.5 degrees of warming. Realistically, if China doesn’t step up, if some of the other emerging markets do not significantly improve their commitments, it is unlikely that the COP will deliver the full promise of that ratcheting mechanism to 1.5 degrees.

But on the other hand, there will be another COP going on in the same building, and that’s the COP of the private sector and the financial institutions of the world who are on the move in making this happen.

The big shift that I’m seeing is that Glasgow is going to be a gathering of deeply committed corporations, businesses, financial institutions, civil society, organizations, city mayors, university presidents, Indigenous tribes, who are all saying, We’re going to get on with this; we’re going to roll up our sleeves and do this; we’re actually planning for implementation.” The number of companies that are promising net zero by the middle of the century or before is going through the roof. The number of CEOs and business delegations that are planning to travel to Glasgow is more than it was at any previous COP.

The realization that we are now on this journey and that we have to start implementing is taking hold, particularly in the private sector. I’m very confident that will be an incredibly significant part of the successful outcome of COP26.

Olano: You have talked about a shifting mindset at corporations, from seeing climate action as something to be suffered through to now seeing it as a potential gain. Why do you think this has happened? 

Kortenhorst: This is a very important realization. Yes, of course, CEOs, corporate boards and financial institutions are committing to zero trajectories, because they realize that society is demanding that from them, they are concerned about the risks associated with climate change.

But first and foremost, companies are starting to realize that the future of the global economy is a low-carbon one, and that sustainability is not only becoming a critically important demand from customers, but it’s also becoming commercially the most attractive pathway, particularly in the energy system.

Five years ago, I could not have imagined that I would say this, but today, pretty much around the world, new power generation is cheaper through wind and solar, or solar-plus-batteries, than it is through coal-fired power generation, and in many places, also gas generation, and that trend is continuing.

Because year after year, we see the cost of solar, wind, battery storage, demand response, smart grids and electrolyzers coming down with consistent learning rates. That means that these technologies, if they are not yet more commercially viable today, they will be tomorrow.

In electric vehicles over the last couple of months, one automotive company after another has committed to shift their production from internal-combustion-engine vehicles to electric vehicles, realizing that is the trend of the future. And just this week, Hertz announced that it was going to replace 20 percent of its car fleet with Teslas, a clear indication that it is now game over for the internal-combustion engines, for passenger vehicles at least.

It is only a matter of time before light delivery vehicles will be on the same trajectory toward electrification. We believe that before the end of this decade, long-haul delivery trucks will also be electrified. There’s a massive shift there.

Even in sectors where we have traditionally not had the ready answers for decarbonization, like steel and cement, petrochemicals or shipping or aviation, we are now seeing the technologies emerge that are commercially viable over time, but that technically are feasible today to decarbonize those sectors. And that is a very important and encouraging step.

Olano: The markets seem to be there; the economics make sense; public pressure and civil society are certainly demanding climate action. So where are the biggest gaps in terms of policy or international cooperation? 

Kortenhorst: Let’s be frank: One major stumbling block is the opposition from fossil fuel industries around the world that are still struggling to get their heads around the new reality. But the end of the fossil fuel era is in sight, and only those companies that come to grips with this will survive. But it’s not easy. If you’ve been around for 100 years, and you’ve made your money from oil or gas or coal, the vested economic and financial interests are really quite significant, and are often the cause of misunderstandings and even misinformation.

The second stumbling block is that a significant part of the workforce in those industries need help in transitioning to the energy technologies of the future. Ensuring a just transition, such that people who work in wind or solar can make a good living with a good benefits package, is important. Because otherwise we can’t help the people who come from coal mining or fossil fuel extraction to make that transition in a just way.

The third stumbling block is that because of those first two barriers, politicians don’t always have enough courage to make the decisions that need to be made. Just this week, here in the United States, we see the extensive debate in Congress about the degree to which the Build Back Better package can accelerate this transition. Our argument would be that the United States better get its act together if it does not want to fall behind in the competitiveness of the global energy economy.

If the U.S. continues to bet on fossil fuel power generation, on leaky natural gas and on internal-combustion-engine cars, then it will be bypassed, not just by Europe but by China, the rest of Asia and the rest of the world, in investing in the energy technologies of the future. But once again, these vested interests are not necessarily ready to let go of the political power that they are wielding to hold back on these changes.

Olano: The past few years have seen an explosion in climate activism and organizing, particularly among young people. How do you think the youth climate movement has been influential in changing policymaking and changing the way that we approach this problem? And how are you seeing their role going into this COP26?

Kortenhorst: The world owes a huge debt of gratitude to courageous young people, like Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg and the school strike movement, and the Sunrise Movement here in the United States. It is the bold and loud and clear messages that those organizations have been delivering to politicians, to business leaders, to financial institutions that tell us that time is running out and we need to move much more boldly, much more quickly. And I’m struck over and over again by the clarity of the arguments that Greta and her fellow school strikers bring to bear when it comes to the speed of action, so I think it has been incredibly powerful.

And yes, it’s caused some disruption, some traffic lanes got blocked, some people couldn’t get into an office. You know, that’s OK. Because I think it speaks to the urgency, the concern, in some cases even the despair that is felt by the younger generation around this issue.

Having said all of that, it is important that we now also open the doors to work with businesses, financial institutions and political leaders of goodwill, whose intent has shifted to align with the Paris Agreement, and who are now trying to make the transition happen. And keeping the dialogue going across that spectrum, across sometimes even that divide, is, I think, critically important.

Olano: One of the big themes around this year’s COP is financing, in particular the financing promises that were made back in Paris to countries from the Global South. They are now demanding that richer nations step up and actually fulfill those commitments. What is happening there? 

Kortenhorst: Climate finance is crucially important. There are two separate parts to it that we have to distinguish. Both are important, and in both cases, we have a ways to go.

On the one hand, there was a clear commitment made by the developed world that it would put together financial support for the developing countries by 2020, to the tune of $100 billion a year. And just this week, we learned that the Global North has fallen short; we did not hit that number. The other thing to recognize is that it’s not just about the amount of money, but it’s also the cumbersome nature of that climate finance, the bureaucratic processes around it that basically have made a lot of people disillusioned in the mechanisms of international climate finance. So that’s one problem, and it needs to get fixed. And the developed world needs to step up and double down on its commitments for the Global South, and I don’t think keeping up with just $100 billion for the next five years is good enough.

The other part of the climate finance question, though, is a much bigger one, which is that we are going to need massive investments in the energy infrastructure of the future. Here’s the good news: We were already going to make massive investments in energy infrastructure, but for the longest time, people thought it was going to be fossil fuel investments. Now it’s going to be low-carbon investments, and those low-carbon investments are going to be more profitable, more reliable and less subject to commodity price fluctuations. And these investments are now also feasible in developing countries and emerging markets, making the investments in the low-carbon energy solutions of the future not just an opportunity for the Global North, but also for the Global South.

Olano: No matter what the outcomes of COP are, there’s still a lot of work to be done. What are you most excited about after COP — a sector, technology, policy initiative or opportunity that you’re watching? 

Kortenhorst: I’m convinced that by the end of the third week of November, we’ll be plotting how COP inspired more action in each of the program areas that we at RMI are involved in. And it will be the same in boardrooms and civil society organization management team rooms and policymaker offices all around the world.

For us an exciting development I would expect to come out of COP with significant momentum is funding to deploy renewable energy across the Global South. There are very significant announcements coming from philanthropy, as well as from multilateral financial institutions for very significant amounts of money. The good news is that there is a realization now that we can just get on with putting in place wind and solar and other distributed energy resources that are now more profitable than power generation from coal or gas. We’ll see big momentum around that.

I also think we will start to see really interesting conversations about retiring coal plants, not at the end of their technical life, but way earlier, simply because it becomes profitable to replace existing coal plants with new wind, solar and battery storage.

Third, I expect we’ll hear a lot at COP and thereafter from those sectors that have historically not been part of the answers yet, whether it is shipping or aviation or the steel sector or the cement sector, with CEOs and industry leaders saying, Yeah, we need to be part of this answer as well, and we’re going to get our act together. We see the technologies on the horizon, and we’re going to work to march them down the learning curve. We’re going to mobilize sustainable green demands, and we’re going to find ways to resolve the emission challenges in our industry.” Our Mission Possible Partnership will be an important part of that decarbonization in heavy industry.

And finally, I do expect that we’ll see commitments from the finance world, both government-to-government and the private sector, not yet at the scale that we would like to see, but certainly with more momentum, because people are starting to realize not only that the future needs to be decarbonized, but that the decarbonized future will also be the more profitable one.

Maria Virginia Olano is editorial producer at Canary Media.