COP26: UN climate summit

Welcome to Canary Media’s hub for news on the COP26 climate negotiations in Glasgow, Scotland, happening from October 31 to November 122021.

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

Maria Virginia Olano  . 

(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

Green hydrogen gets a major boost from a cross-industry coalition at COP26

Jeff St. John  . 

Part of a hydrogen electrolyzer at a German plant (Hauke-Christian Dittrich/Picture Alliance via Getty Images)

In December 2020, six companies joined the United Nations’ Green Hydrogen Catapult coalition with a pledge to build 25 gigawatts of green-hydrogen production capacity by 2026. It was by far the largest target for a technology seen as a vital component of decarbonizing heavy industry and transport. 

On Thursday, the coalition’s six original members and three new ones nearly doubled that target to 45 GW of electrolyzers being financed by 2026 and commissioned by 2027

Thursday’s announcement at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow represents a vote of confidence in a near-term path to cost-effective production of hydrogen using clean electricity. 

Green-hydrogen production costs today are about $5 to $6 per kilogram, compared to $1 to $2 for gray hydrogen” produced with natural gas. Industry analysts say that if its price drops to about $2 per kilogram, green hydrogen can replace dirtier fuels in a range of hard-to-decarbonize industries such as steel and cement manufacturing, production of chemicals, shipping and aviation. Green-hydrogen advocates and analysts had previously set a 2030 target for hitting that tipping-point price of $2 per kilogram. 

But with this latest initiative, the deadline is being set sooner. The Green Hydrogen Catapult’s new target is challenging some of the roadmaps that the industry has laid out,” said Thomas Koch Blank, senior principal with the Breakthrough Technologies team at RMI, the nonprofit research organization hosting the coalition. (Canary Media is an independent affiliate of RMI.)

For example, the target exceeds the European Union’s goal, set last year, of developing 6 GW of green hydrogen electrolyzer capacity by 2024 and 40 GW by 2030. We can lean in and reach that much sooner,” Koch Blank said. 

Scaling up the cost-effective production of electrolyzers, the devices that use electricity to convert water to hydrogen and oxygen, is the key first step in green hydrogen’s cost-reduction pathway. We need a minimum amount of capacity installed to bring the price down, and even the less aggressive [forecasts] say the scale we need is about 50 gigawatts,” Koch Blank said. 

The coalition’s new 45 GW target will add to the roughly 25 GW of electrolyzer capacity already in development around the globe, according to recent industry estimates. As demand grows, that should allow electrolyzer manufacturers to invest more heavily in production and achieve economies of scale that will help drive down costs more quickly, to about $200 per kilowatt from about $700 per kilowatt today, according to a new RMI report.

Beyond the significant cost of electrolyzers, the next biggest cost for green hydrogen is the renewable energy needed to power the process, Koch Blank said — and fortunately solar and wind power costs have fallen dramatically in the past decade. Countries pushing to slash carbon emissions from their power grids are expected to dramatically expand their reliance on renewables, and that’s expected to continue to drive down prices, as well as lead to significant oversupply that could be cost-effectively put to use making green hydrogen. 

The new Green Hydrogen Catapult target is just the beginning. Koch Blank emphasized that 45 gigawatts is far from what we need.” About 850 GW of electrolyzer capacity will be necessary by 2030 to follow the International Energy Agency’s aggressive pathway to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050

Still, the newly announced goal represents an enormous expansion from the roughly 300 megawatts of existing global electrolyzer capacity the IEA tallied in spring 2021 and the forecast of 1.8 GW by 2022 that BloombergNEF released in August. 

Why companies are putting their money behind green hydrogen 

Members of the Catapult coalition have commitments on both the supply and demand sides of the green hydrogen equation. 

Three renewable energy developers were among the coalition’s founding members: Saudi Arabia’s ACWA Power, which is working on a $5 billion green-hydrogen-based ammonia production site in Saudi Arabia; Australia’s CWP Renewables, which is part of a consortium planning a similar $52 billion project in Western Australia; and Spanish power company Iberdrola, which has positioned itself as a key player in Spain’s green hydrogen goals, with multiple projects including a plan worth 1.8 billion euros ($2.1 billion) in conjunction with fertilizer and industrial chemicals company Fertiberia.

Two wind turbine manufacturers are also among Catapult’s founders: China’s Envision and Denmark’s Ørsted, both of which are involved in large-scale clean energy projects to produce power to operate electrolyzers. The remaining two founding members, Italian gas network Snam and Norwegian chemical company Yara International, want to use zero-carbon hydrogen to augment existing fossil-fuel feedstocks. 

The coalition’s three new members represent industries with enormous demand for green hydrogen. Australia’s Fortescue Future Industries, which has multibillion-dollar green hydrogen and electrolyzer plans around the world, is a subsidiary of iron ore producer Fortescue Metals, which is seeking to decarbonize its metals production. The Sweden-based H2 Green Steel consortium is planning a zero-carbon steel plant backed by 500 MW of electrolyzers. And the Mærsk Mc-Kinney Møller Center for Zero Carbon Shipping, named after the late CEO of Danish shipping giant Maersk, is investing in large-scale green hydrogen production to make zero-carbon fuel for cargo vessels. 

Steel production is responsible for 7 to 8 percent of global carbon emissions, while shipping is responsible for 2 to 3 percent. Both are among the most challenging industries to decarbonize, and green hydrogen at scale could make a huge difference. 

Projections from the Mission Possible Partnership industry consortium indicate that global steel producers will need investments of about $6 billion per year to reach net-zero carbon by 2050, and shipping will require a $2 trillion investment to meet a target of supplying 5 percent of its fuel needs with zero-carbon sources by 2030

That’s why the consortium is asking government and business leaders at COP26 to boost incentives for green hydrogen production, as well as to invest in the underlying pipeline infrastructure to move the hydrogen from production sites to the locations where it’s needed. 

Matching production and consumption at gigawatt scale

One key challenge in scaling up green hydrogen will be aligning the investments in production to match the investments needed to put the hydrogen to use in its target industries. But Koch Blank said the Catapult coalition members are, at least for now, not primarily concerned” with who will buy the green hydrogen — a fact he attributed to the dramatic increase in demand from governments and companies looking to it as a decarbonization tool. 

In the longer term, however, green-hydrogen production will need to take certain key factors into account, he said. One is the tradeoff between taking advantage of wind and solar power being generated in excess of grid demand — the lowest-cost energy available — and the inefficiencies involved in running electrolyzers less frequently on a schedule designed to take advantage of the cheapest power. 

Storage and transport are also important factors. Cost-effectively storing hydrogen in large volumes requires access to massive underground caverns or aquifers — and moving it long distances adds significantly to the expense. 

The big drivers of demand here, in terms of scale, are very likely to be heavy industry,” Koch Blank said. That’s why so many of today’s green hydrogen projects are being developed in geographic clusters with a lot of the infrastructure and a lot of the industries [being] co-located.”

Europe is leading in green-hydrogen development, with multiple sites targeted for hubs of production close to heavy industry and ports that could use the fuel. China is quickly expanding plans for hydrogen produced with excess wind and solar power and used in steelmaking and chemicals production, and Japan and South Korea have national hydrogen strategies for power generation, transportation and industrial processes. 

The United States, which lacks a national strategy on green hydrogen, hasn’t seen the same scale of commitments from industry, although a handful of major production hubs are being planned. But the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hydrogen Shot initiative is targeting technology and manufacturing improvements to slash green hydrogen production costs to $1 per kilogram by 2030

We will already produce hydrogen below $2/​kg within the next five years,” Paddy Padmanathan, CEO of ACWA Power, said in a statement. Now we need to educate the heavy industry sectors and policymakers on the economic benefits of this new low-cost fuel, including benefits of reduced air pollution and other health and safety considerations.” 

Currently, about 75 million tons of hydrogen are made each year, primarily through the gray” steam reforming of natural gas, a process that emits carbon dioxide. That hydrogen is used for fossil-fuel refining, chemicals and fertilizer production, and other industrial purposes. Advocates of green hydrogen want to cost-effectively scale its production to displace the dirty hydrogen used today, as well as to meet a new range of decarbonization needs that are foreseen by IEA and other analysts, from steel to shipping and beyond. 

A number of projects around the world are targeting blue hydrogen,” or hydrogen made from natural gas combined with carbon capture and storage (CCS). Critics of blue hydrogen say it continues reliance on fossil fuel and is dependent on CCS technologies that have yet to be proven. Proponents say it will be needed to meet the rising demand for hydrogen to replace fossil fuels across sectors that now represent roughly one-quarter of global carbon emissions. 

Eventually, the cost difference between green and blue hydrogen will boil down to the cost difference between clean energy and natural gas, Koch Blank said. 

At the moment, neither green nor blue are fully commercialized or cost-competitive,” he said. But the need for clean hydrogen will rise in decades to come, after easier-to-decarbonize sectors such as power generation, road transport and building heating are tackled — and hitting future targets in tough-to-clean-up sectors will demand aggressive investment starting now.

COP26 players pledge funding to shut down coal plants

Jeff St. John  . 

(Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

The COP26 climate summit in Glasgow is surrounded by a swirl of talk about money. In the opening days of the two-week conference, multiple initiatives have pledged billions of dollars to help poor countries decarbonize their economies over the coming decade — and a huge part of the task will be helping these countries wean themselves off coal. 

On Tuesday, the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet promised $10.5 billion in philanthropic and development aid to help energy-poor countries transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. The funding includes $1.5 billion in grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, Ikea Foundation and Bezos Earth Fund and $9 billion in low-interest finance from international development institutions including the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation. 

This spending is meant to spur about $100 billion in follow-on investment to replace fossil-fueled energy sources with renewable energy, with a key goal being to prevent the building of the estimated 243 gigawatts of new coal plants that are currently planned in developing countries. 

Eighty-one nations considered to be energy-poor are now responsible for 25 percent of global carbon emissions, but that share could increase to 75 percent if they’re not brought along on the clean energy transition, according to a new report from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet. But these countries receive only 13 percent of global clean energy financing today, despite being home to about half the world’s people, the group said. 

Green energy transitions with renewable electrification are the only way to restart economic progress for all while at the same time stopping the climate crisis,” Rockefeller Foundation President Rajiv J. Shah said in a statement. The new commitment includes a $1 billion pledge the Rockefeller and Ikea foundations made this summer to bring off-grid clean energy solutions to as many as 1 billion people in developing countries.

Construction of new coal power plants must be halted to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius, as is needed to prevent the most catastrophic harms of climate change, according to research from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the International Energy Agency and many other groups. Progress on that front was announced at COP26 on Thursday: 20 wealthy countries including the United States, Canada, the U.K., Italy, Switzerland and New Zealand committed to ending public financing for overseas fossil fuel projects by the end of 2023

But preventing new plants from being built is only part of the challenge. Finding ways to finance the early retirement of existing coal plants is equally important. 

To that end, South Africa announced Tuesday that it had secured an $8.5 billion commitment from the U.S. and European countries over the next five years to help it reduce its reliance on the coal-fired power plants that now supply 87 percent of its electricity. Eskom, South Africa’s state-owned utility, is burdened by $27 billion in debt and is having trouble providing reliable service, so it needs additional financing to shift to lower-cost renewable energy. 

Separately, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) on Wednesday announced a plan to initiate public-private partnerships to buy out coal plants in Indonesia and the Philippines, which rely on coal for 67 percent and 57 percent of their electricity, respectively. 

The pilot project would see ADB join with financial partners including Prudential, Citi and BlackRock to supply between $2.5 billion and $3.5 billion to purchase coal plants and retire them within 15 years as those loans are paid down. The partners hope this Energy Transition Mechanism can be scaled up to encompass the $30 billion to $60 billion required to close half of those countries’ coal power plants within the next 15 years. 

Digging into the all-important details of coal-buyout plans

Whether these kinds of coal buyouts will end up advancing or impeding countries’ climate goals and economic fortunes is a subject of much debate, however. The ADB’s plan was attacked this week in an open letter from 60 nongovernmental organizations including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, which cites a worrying lack of granular information” on whether the program will shorten rather than prolong the lifespan of coal facilities” or lead to their replacement with clean energy. 

The complexities of coal-buyout plans are highlighted in a new report from nonprofit research organization RMI that surveys the various models being explored around the world. These include ratepayer-backed bond securitization in the U.S., securing climate finance for emissions reductions from coal closures in Chile, the competitive auction process held to finance the retirement of coal plants in Germany, and the aforementioned mechanisms under development in South Africa and Asia. (Canary Media is an independent affiliate of RMI.) 

Rachit Kansal, a manager with RMI’s carbon-free electricity team and co-author of the report, highlighted these complexities in a Wednesday Twitter thread.

Major firms pledge to start buying low-carbon materials and technologies

Ingrid Lobet  . 

U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry at COP26 in Glasgow (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

At the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, two efforts have been launched to boost the markets for newly developed construction materials and industrial and transportation technologies that don’t destroy the atmosphere. One is a coalition of companies from around the globe, and the second is a partnership between state and city governments located along the West Coast of the U.S. and Canada. 

The idea behind both is to scale up demand for low- and zero-carbon building materials and industrial products to make sure there is sufficient supply for countries and companies to meet their climate targets from 2030 to 2050

Cement, steel and other materials used in buildings are responsible for an estimated 11 percent of all energy- and process-related carbon dioxide emissions globally, and that doesn’t count what’s used in the construction of highways. Cement and steel plus other hard-to-clean-up sectors of aluminum, aviation, chemicals, shipping and trucking are together responsible for about one-third of global carbon emissions, according to the World Economic Forum. 

First-mover advantage

To spur decarbonization of these industries, on November 4 U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry announced the First Movers Coalition, organized by the U.S. State Department and the World Economic Forum. The 34 companies in the coalition are pledging to buy various quantities of low- or no-emission products by 2030, signaling to their suppliers that they must offer cleaner goods.

If you want to sell to these companies, you have to reduce your carbon footprint,” Børge Brende, president of the World Economic Forum, told the Associated Press.

Many major companies have joined the coalition, including Airbus, Amazon, Apple, Boeing, Cemex and Holcim. (The full membership roster is available at the bottom of this page.)

The First Movers Coalition will design corporate purchase agreements in collaboration with companies that produce clean energy technologies, with the aim to pull emerging technologies into the marketplace.” Member companies may agree, for example, to purchase clean steel, concrete or fuels.

Still, members of the coalition have unveiled few specifics so far, and the participating companies already have climate commitments and are not for the most part announcing new ones.

West Coast collaboration

The second initiative is the Low Carbon Construction Task Force, which links California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and six of their major cities in an effort to speed the development of clean building materials. 

Organizers said the first action of the task force will be to convene a regionwide event with leaders from the states and province and from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver to expand on what each is already doing to lower carbon emissions embedded in building materials. The goal is to aggregate, accelerate and amplify” one another’s actions, said Amanda Hansen, deputy secretary for climate change at the California Natural Resources Agency. 

At a Nov. 6 event launching the task force, Washington Governor Jay Inslee (D) pointed to the potential impact it could have: The average carbon emissions of Puget Sound’s major concrete suppliers have declined by 18 percent in less than two years,” he said. He attributed this success to a single tool: a free calculator called EC3 that allows users to choose between varieties of cement, rebar or roofing material based on how much carbon is released in each type’s production. EC3 was developed by the Carbon Leadership Forum based at the University of Washington.

These city, state and provincial governments are already connected through the Pacific Coast Collaborative, which works on other climate-related issues and has convened task force gatherings on ocean acidification and food waste. 

The new task force made no specific commitments. Despite that, Andrew Minson of the Global Cement and Concrete Association called the effort really exciting.” He said a signal like this is essential to persuade investors to lend capital to manufacturers for new, cleaner processes: Bring the finance sector in and we can do this.” 

Supply-chain reaction

Both initiatives address ongoing shifts in industry. Until now, many companies have not discussed climate change with other companies, partners and customers along their supply chains. That is changing rapidly, and these two new partnerships aim to accelerate that trend. 

There are entire industries that will not be able to achieve their own low-carbon goals unless their suppliers undertake dramatic changes. For example, a full accounting of steelmakers’ carbon footprints would have to count the exhaust that comes from the diesel equipment that mines their iron ore. 

A giant cement company such as Holcim clearly has to deal with the emissions from its own kilns, which are significant, but it will also have to wrestle with the carbon emitted as its cement is moved to construction sites.

We are a company that might have more than 100,000 trucks on the road every single day to deliver materials. Most of those trucks don’t belong to us,” said Jan Jenisch, CEO of Holcim, in a post by the World Economic Forum.

The First Movers Coalition acknowledged these interdependencies in its launch statement, citing the need for collaboration between different industries to support one another’s investments in still-costly low-carbon efforts. The group intends to work with industries involved in the Mission Possible Partnership, a collection of global industrial companies, to connect suppliers capable of demonstrating and scaling the technologies needed for coalition members to meet their purchase commitments, as well as investors that bring the capability to invest in demonstration projects and new facilities.” 

The urgency of the climate crisis has already convinced some automakers to pay a premium for green steel now being produced in Europe. As more companies follow suit, the higher upfront costs will come down.

Ultimately, the additional cost to fully decarbonize value chains is in the range of 1% to 4% to end consumers,” estimated Svein Tore Holsether, president and CEO of chemical company Yara International, a member of the First Movers Coalition. He called the extra cost very low compared to the cost of not decarbonizing. 

The two initiatives announced at COP26 are relatively small efforts, not at scale with a world where greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continue to rise and threaten the habitability of the planet. At the same time, it’s difficult to envision how the inertia of day-to-day industrial production will change significantly without such initiatives. 

Turn on, tune in, COP out

Julian Spector  . 

A man walks through the empty Action Zone in the OVO Hydro building at COP26. (Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

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It can be hard to live up to expectations when you’re supposed to save the world.

That’s the metric that much of the media has been applying to the COP26 climate conference, which just wrapped up in Glasgow. And this gathering of diplomats, activists and business leaders most certainly did not make climate change go poof.”

But the actual halting of carbon emissions can’t happen within a windowless conference room. It needs to unfold across the many activities that people, companies and governments take part in worldwide. The diplomats toiled largely out of sight until they finally reached an agreement Saturday. That meant the news breaking throughout the event was dominated more by folks outside of government saying what they’re going to do differently to slow climate change.

As I tried to understand who the real protagonists at COP26 were, I called up our Political Climate podcasting colleague Julia Pyper, who recently returned from Glasgow.

She pointed out that, at the end of the day, the Paris Agreement is voluntary. 

Under that 2015 treaty, national governments set their own goals. And within many countries — like the U.S. — much of the climate action is voluntary as well. Governments are putting forth targets, but often not mandating action to meet them. Increasingly, companies are stepping up to at least make pledges to reach net-zero emissions and take other steps to clamp down on carbon emissions. 

When you have industry and corporate commitments, in some ways that’s the actual doers saying that they’re going to get something done,” Pyper said. Then the question is, Is it a genuine commitment, or is it greenwashing?”

If the corporate commitments end up upstaging the diplomatic work at this COP, that may not be a terrible thing. But those commitments are only as good as their implementation, and that will take more time to assess.

For more of Julia’s observations and reflections from Glasgow, listen to the latest episode of Political Climate. It tallies the global financial commitments from the event and analyzes how those could turn into real-world changes where they’re most needed. And stay tuned this week for more analysis of the late-breaking Glasgow agreement.

Clean energy strikes back

Speaking of podcasts, our inaugural episodes of The Carbon Copy and Catalyst with Shayle Kann are piping-hot and ready for your delectation.

The first Catalyst episode encapsulates the modern history of climatetech investing in under an hour. Host Shayle Kann and fellow cleantech investor Ramez Naam sift through the wreckage of Cleantech 1.0 to discern what went wrong and what, if anything, is different this time around. 

If you’ve joined the clean energy world in the last few years, the early era of clean energy investing must feel ancient and inaccessible. Some heroes emerged from that late 2000s/​early 2010s epoch, but a lot of money went down the drain. 

Venture capitalists bet millions on things you don’t hear much about these days, like thin-film solar panels and battery swapping. But mainstream solar PV whomped competitors like thin-film, and battery-swap startup Better Place collapsed after burning through a pile of cash. Hardware investments ended up looking like a terrible idea.

For years, the conventional wisdom was that venture investors had better forget about energy and focus on changing the world through enterprise software subscriptions. 

Now investor sentiment is changing, and more money is flowing to long-shot climate hardware ventures. At stake is humanity’s ability to get breakthrough low-carbon technology up and running in time to stop runaway climate change.

Oil strikes back

VC enthusiasm for longshot energy hardware startups isn’t the only indicator making it feel like 2007 all over again. So is a surge in the price of oil.

If you buy into that whole concept of supply and demand, high prices should put a damper on fossil fuel combustion. That’s theoretically good for reducing carbon emissions. But when people have no real choice but to consume fossil fuels in order to survive and the price spikes, that creates financial pain, which complicates the ambitious undertaking to remake the global energy system.

If you care about the transition to clean energy, it’s crucial to understand how shifts in the oil and gas sector affect people’s appetite for change. That’s where Stephen Lacey delves for the first episode of narrative news podcast The Carbon Copy.

He’s joined by Deborah Gordon, a senior principal in the Climate Intelligence Program at RMI and author of No Standard Oil: Managing Abundant Petroleum in a Warming World. (Canary Media is an independent affiliate of RMI.)

Louisiana’s pathway from oil and gas to clean industry 

Oil, gas and chemicals are big business in Louisiana. But as climate impacts become ever more devastating for the Gulf Coast state, Governor John Bel Edwards (D) is moving to divorce the state’s economy from carbon emissions. 

The way forward could include cleaning up the electric grid and building out hubs of carbon-free hydrogen production, according to an essay from analyst Olivia Ashmoore from think tank Energy Innovation. 

Industrial activities are Louisiana’s biggest source of greenhouse gases by far. If the state switches fossil energy sources to electricity and hydrogen, it could drastically reduce emissions while adding jobs. 

This sort of scenario upends the assumption that slashing emissions means gutting economic opportunity. By strategically clustering clean electricity production with green hydrogen production, Louisiana could instead model a new type of heavy industry.

Nobody’s pulled off this type of industrial shift yet, but other countries are already investing in it. Louisiana has a shot to lead the first wave of adoption.

Don’t buy into the gloomy COP26 rhetoric

David Roberts  . 

Climate activists march in Trafalgar Square in London. (Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty Images)

I was on Pod Save America last week. One of the things I talked about is the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, which wrapped up last week with a final agreement that…say it with me…represented real progress but fell short of what’s needed. Just like all the other COP agreements.

I had a pretty deflating take on the whole thing on the pod. Given the melodramatic rhetoric around COP26 — the same rhetoric that attends every international climate summit — I thought I’d briefly explain why I don’t think COP26 is worth getting down about. 

By way of background, remember that there were effectively two climate events at the COP, as there always are. One was the COP itself, the business of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The other was a kind of climate-festival-cum-trade-show, featuring governments, nonprofits and private-sector actors announcing all kinds of new campaigns and initiatives alongside the UNFCCC process — and protestors marching outside.

First event first. 

The Paris Agreement continues to play out

The actual business of COP26 mostly involved negotiators from various countries in cramped conference rooms hashing out technical details of elements of the Paris Agreement — about monitoring and verification, about who is contributing how much to the climate fund for poorer countries, about how often countries will report new targets, and so forth. 

None of that stuff was particularly dramatic; it was all the usual incremental, too-slow movement forward. There was some drama at the last minute when India — which had started COP26 with a bang, promising to hit net-zero emissions by 2070demanded that a provision on a global coal phaseout” be rewritten to say phasedown.” (This was disappointing, but keep in mind this is the first time fossil fuels have ever been specifically mentioned in a COP agreement.)

Much was made of this and other shortcomings of the final agreement, but there’s a weird kind of disconnect around this commentary. What people seem to forget is that the UNFCCC has no real power to enforce anything, and there isn’t the level of unity needed among participating countries to create a binding target with real consequences. 

This was the origin of the Paris Agreement: the realization that the best the UNFCCC could do is structure and publicize voluntary national goals and commitments. The idea was to do with transparency and peer pressure what decades of adversarial negotiations couldn’t: steadily increase ambition.

A shorter way of saying this is that a COP agreement can’t make a country do anything. Whether and how fast India phases out coal has nothing at all to do with what its diplomat says in Glasgow and everything to do with domestic Indian politics, which have their own logic and are only faintly affected by international politics. 

The utility of the Paris process is that every few years it provides the equivalent of a giant camera flash, revealing where everyone stands. That is useful. International transparency and peer pressure can sometimes move national governments. But it is a mistake to invest any particular hopes for change in the UNFCCC process — it can’t really do anything. It can only illuminate what is being done.

What is being done

The good news is that we’re making progress. A decade ago, we were on track for 4 degrees to 6 degrees Celsius average warming by the end of the century, which would have been species-threatening.

As this report from Climate Action Tracker (CAT) shows, thanks to actions taken by national governments since then, we have bent the curve” on climate change, as it were, and brought the average expected warming down to 2.7°C.

That would still be devastating. But we’re not going to stop there. Progress is only accelerating. If every country that has submitted a 2030 carbon target in the Paris process — an NDC, or nationally determined contribution — hits that target, average warming will be 2.4°C.

If all short- and long-term targets submitted thus far are achieved, it’s down to 2.1°C. In CAT’s optimistic scenario” — in which all targets announced by anyone anywhere are met — the average is 1.8°C.

As the CAT report emphasizes, that’s still short of the Paris goal. There’s still a credibility gap between what countries say they want to achieve and what they are willing to offer. There’s certainly no reason for complacency. 

(CAT)

Reason to have hope on climate: We are bending the curve’

David Roberts  . 

At left, Canary Media Editor-at-Large David Roberts; at right, Pod Save America hosts Jon Lovett and Tommy Vietor (Crooked Media)

Editor’s note: David Roberts joined the Pod Save America podcast with hosts Jon Lovett and Tommy Vietor to talk about the COP26 climate summit, climate provisions in the Built Back Better bill and climate change in general. For more on the summit, read Roberts’ wrap-up post: Don’t Buy Into the Gloomy COP26 Rhetoric.”

The top 10 climate commitments from COP26

Julia Pyper  . 

Chilean Environment Minister Carolina Schmidt (center) walks with delegates from Indigenous communities during COP26. (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

Editor’s note: Julia Pyper, host of the Political Climate podcast, attended the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. On the latest episode of the show, she discusses highlights and takeaways from the gathering. This piece is adapted from the podcast.

The COP26 climate summit was busy, inspiring, discouraging and tiring all at once. But despite the mix of emotions, I have to say I left Glasgow fulfilled.

The climate crisis looms large; I think we all know that. Still, I was heartened to be reminded that there are so many brilliant people around the world who have dedicated their lives to addressing this challenge. They bring expertise in so many different fields, from transportation to health, gender, food systems, energy, conservation and so much more. It is inspiring to see this collective come together.

As I walked through a massive climate demonstration led by Greta Thunberg and others, there was a sense of outrage and frustration, but also energy and engagement. Not everyone in the climate community is on the same page, but there was a sense coming out of COP that attendees are at least working from the same book, if you will. And that’s a good thing.

News coverage throughout the U.N. climate summit framed the meeting as win or lose, with headlines like: Can COP26 Save the Planet?” The reality is that COP26 was a meeting, and it did its job in convening government leaders, civil society and the private sector and pressuring participants to raise their ambitions. It can be true that we’re both still losing the climate fight post-Glasgow and better off than we’ve ever been before.

The gatherings work. Unequivocally,” said Rachel Kyte, dean of The Fletcher School at Tufts University and former CEO of Sustainable Energy for All, speaking at a COP26 side event. You put an ice axe above you, and that’s COP. Then everyone pulls themselves up.”

It must be noted that wealthy countries did not meet their target of providing $100 billion a year in climate finance to developing nations in dire need of assistance. Fulfilling that pledge is already long overdue, while negotiators from Africa and two dozen other developing nations have called for at least $1.3 trillion a year for climate mitigation and adaptation by 2030.

So again, there’s cause for outrage and frustration, but also optimism and inspiration. On the positive side, here are some of the notable commitments that came out of COP26 and its many side events:

  • Over 100 national governments, cities, states and major businesses signed a commitment to end the sale of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2035 in leading markets and by 2040 worldwide.
  • More than 100 world leaders — including from Brazil, where the Amazon rainforest is under threat — pledged to end and reverse deforestation by 2030.
  • While there are very real barriers for Indigenous communities hoping to influence the COP negotiations, we did see several governments and philanthropies announce $1.7 billion in forest protection and support for Indigenous peoples, specifically in protecting forests and lands under their stewardship, which is where 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity is located. 
  • Belize became the first country to do a debt conversion for ocean preservation.
  • The Ikea Foundation, Bezos Earth Fund and Rockefeller Foundation and partners pledged $10 billion to support the clean energy transition.
  • More than 40 countries including Poland, Vietnam and Chile pledged to phase out coal, although China, India and the U.S. are missing from that agreement. 
  • India committed to net-zero emissions by 2070, which was critiqued for being decades beyond the timeframe when nations need to decarbonize, but also commended for its honesty given what it will really take for India to meet that target. Plus, India’s new commitment to deploy 500 gigawatts of renewables by 2030 is nothing to sneer at.
  • While the rest of the world remains dubious, the Biden administration did make a compelling case that the U.S. is back on the scene. The U.S. and EU announced a global pledge to slash methane emissions, and the U.S. doubled its climate finance commitment to $11 billion per year.
  • America also joined 20 other countries committing to stop the financing of fossil fuels abroad.
  • U.N. Special Envoy on Climate Action and Finance Mark Carney announced that the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero — a consortium of the largest global financial institutions with $130 trillion in assets under management — are now aligned with net-zero emissions goals (although there’s more to this announcement and other climate finance targets, as we discuss on Political Climate).

A new analysis from the International Energy Agency suggests that commitments made at COP26 — if realized — could limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius. While other assessments put the number higher, recent pledges show meaningful progress. In some ways, though, pledges are no longer the mark of success. While bolder commitments are needed, the focus must now shift to implementation.

Ice axes have been placed; now it’s time to pull ourselves up.

***

Listen to the full episode, which includes interviews about climate finance with Justin Guay, director for global climate strategy at the Sunrise Project, and Benjamin Bartle, project director with RMI’s Climate Finance Access Network.

Political Climate is a biweekly podcast about the most pressing energy and climate issues of our time, hosted by Julia Pyper, Brandon Hurlbut and Shane Skelton. You can listen and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you get podcasts. Follow the show on Twitter at @Poli_Climate. Political Climate is presented by the USC Schwarzenegger Institute and Canary Media. 

COP26 finance pledges are not as great as they seem

Justin Guay  . 

(Ibrahim Boran/Unsplash)

Justin Guay is director for global climate strategy at the Sunrise Project. This guest essay represents the views of the author, not those of Canary Media.

As we emerge from yet another round of international climate negotiations that did not live up to the crisis we face, many are hoping the private sector, especially the financial system, is stepping up to fill the void. 

That was the message from Finance Day during the first week of COP26 in Glasgow, where U.N. Special Envoy on Climate Action and Finance Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of England, unveiled a new pledge from the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero. Essentially an alliance of net-zero alliances (a painful phrase to write if ever there was one), GFANZ claims to represent $130 trillion in assets under management that are now focused on achieving a net-zero-carbon transition by 2050. The announcement was meant to inspire and awe the world with the commitment the financial system has made to act on climate change. 

Instead, it landed with a dull thud. As observers looked into the details of the latest in a long line of net-zero pledges, it simply didn’t stand up to the harsh light of day. 

For instance, the Net Zero Asset Managers initiative, part of GFANZ, stepped onto the world stage and announced its members were all in — at least 35% in, that is. The NZAM initiative’s announcement actually committed just 35% of assets to be managed in a way that aligns with the transition to net zero, which means the other 65% can continue to finance coal, oil and gas and generally burn the house down.

But it was the Net-Zero Banking Alliance, the centerpiece of GFANZ, that garnered the harshest criticism. As it turns out, the details of its commitment allow banks to opt out in a really big way. Underwriting, the act of facilitating companies issuing bonds or shares and selling them to investors, is not covered by the commitment — despite the fact that it is the largest role banks play in enabling fossil fuel finance.

Those kinds of loopholes are the result of concerted bank lobbying, including a documented effort to delay and water down the GFANZ pledges by avoiding science-based targets. Many of the banks in the alliance have expanded fossil fuel financing even since joining up in April.

Public finance is showing up in the private sector 

But while the expectation that private financial institutions would voluntarily lead the way in the transition to clean energy was dashed, old-fashioned public finance actually stepped up. In fact, the most interesting, powerful and potentially game-changing announcements at COP26 all came from sleepy public institutions like the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank.

A series of coal retirement funds were announced with the intention of buying out and permanently retiring old coal assets. A coalition of donors made $8.5 billion available for a just transition beyond coal in South Africa, the most heavily coal-reliant country on the continent. The Asian Development Bank unveiled a plan to retire half of the coal fleet in Indonesia and the Philippines over the next 15 years. Initiatives like these will require careful scrutiny from watchdog groups to ensure they benefit the public, not the big banks, but there’s no doubt they augur a new era in international climate finance. 

To top it all off, the Bank of England became the first central bank in the world to exclude coal from its bond-buying programs.

But the biggest finance announcement by far was the news that a coalition of more than 20 countries including the United States would halt overseas finance for oil and gas. Shortly after this was announced, several more European countries signed on, giving even more momentum and validation to the pledge. Considering the incredibly powerful role that public money plays in de-risking and unlocking private finance for energy infrastructure in emerging markets, this will have a powerful effect. 

While so many other announcements at Glasgow were about moving beyond coal, this announcement — coupled with the launch of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance — could be the start of normalizing the effort to move beyond oil and gas.

Voluntary moves don’t cut it — regulation is needed

Ultimately, COP26 made it clear that voluntary action from the titans of private finance can’t be relied on to end the flow of money to fossil fuels and thus address the climate crisis. 

Financial regulators in the world’s largest finance centers — the United States, the European Union and the U.K., among others — need to step in and wield the tools at their disposal to mandate change. We did see some potentially interesting moves on that front, including the fact that the U.K. is aiming to become the world’s first net-zero financial center by requiring companies to submit transition plans outlining how they will achieve decarbonization by 2050, to be measured against a science-based standard. But that’s just one small step. The reality is that financial regulators are not taking the action needed to address the climate crisis. 

We’ll feel the impact of that lax regulation of our financial system long before the climate crisis spirals out of control. As financial institutions continue to fan the flames with speculative investments in fossil fuels — today’s subprime assets — the likelihood of another financial crisis only grows. 

And if there’s one lesson we learned from the global financial crisis of 2008, it’s that no amount of voluntary commitments or self-regulation can avoid a financial meltdown. On that front, we’ve got a long way to go.

Small island nations suffer under broken and cruel’ climate finance system

Jeff St. John  . 

Asesela Sadola Fong (blue shirt) and his family visit the location where their house stood before Category 5 Tropical Cyclone Winston made landfall on Fiji on February 20, 2016. (Feroz Khalil/Mai Life Magazine/Getty Images)

Satyendra Prasad, Fiji’s ambassador to the United Nations, has a word for how the international climate finance system treats countries like his on the forefront of climate-change-driven destruction: cruelty.”

There’s a certain cruelty, he says, to a system that forces island nations such as Fiji to borrow at punishing interest rates” to repair the massive destruction caused by storms like Cyclone Winston, which hit the country in 2016 and caused $1.4 billion in damages — roughly one-third of Fiji’s gross domestic product. 

That cruelty is compounded by repeated and intensifying storms that cause flooding and erosion that tears down these repairs over and over, forcing countries like Fiji into cycles of indebtedness that rob them of the ability to make more productive public investments. 

In Fiji, we long ago moved to a tipping point where we spend more on repairing schools than on building new schools,” he said in an interview. To recover is to stand still. It is to go nowhere.”

Nations like his, which have played almost no role in causing the climate change now threatening them, are also forced to jump through bureaucratic hoops and wait years to fund critical infrastructure projects, he said. 

Now, with world leaders gathering in Scotland for the United Nations COP26 climate talks, Prasad and other island nation representatives are demanding relief from the cycle of damages, debt and delay they say has characterized the past decade of climate finance policy. 

Smaller states need to be supported to overcome the punishing cruelty that climate finance is today,” Prasad said.

What is climate finance? 

There will be a lot of talk about climate finance during the COP26 meeting, but there is no simple, clear definition of what it is. 

Broadly speaking, it’s money to help developing countries deal with climate change. This can involve funding for things like climate mitigation (phasing out dirty power, ramping up renewables, planting or protecting vegetation that sequesters carbon), climate adaptation (preparing for ongoing changes and future disasters), and recovery from climate disasters that have already hit. The money can come from many different sources and in many different forms. 

Climate finance can include funding from wealthy individual countries as well as the United Nations and multilateral development institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Private-sector finance is also a part of it, as are joint public-private initiatives. 

It can be offered in the form of grants or loans, but more often than not, it’s the latter. Three-quarters of the funding provided to developing countries in 2019 consisted of loans, while only one-quarter were grants, according to Laetitia De Marez, director of the Climate Finance Access Network.

For developing island nations such as Fiji, where climate change is already a harsh everyday reality, climate finance has a particularly broad meaning. Every penny that we spend has now become climate finance,” said Prasad.

How much money are we talking about?

Rich nations made a pledge a decade ago to provide $100 billion per year in climate finance to developing countries, but they have never delivered. The latest expectations are that the target won’t be met until 2023.

Even this target is far below what’s actually needed. Studies indicate that much greater financing must be forthcoming, particularly to meet the needs of the least developed countries. The Center for Global Development, for instance, estimates that the world’s wealthiest countries have caused $15.2 trillion worth of climate damage since 1979, which means they should be providing $190 billion per year in climate finance through 2021 — and its researchers say their figures are conservative.

Funding for the 46 least developed countries has grown over the past four years, but amounted to just $15.4 billion in 2019, according to the most recently available data from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

For the small island developing states that face existential threats from rising sea levels and intensifying storms, the picture is even worse. Total financing for these 52 countries actually fell between 2018 and 2019, from $2.1 billion to $1.5 billion, according to OECD data, as shown in the chart below. While 2020 figures aren’t yet available, the Covid-19 pandemic has likely driven them even lower.

Wealthy nations and development banks fall far short of their climate-finance promises to small island developing states and least developed countries. (CFAN)

Stop, drop and COP: What you need to know about the big climate summit

Julian Spector  . 

sidewalk sign: "Welcome COP26 to Glasgow"
(Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)

Welcome to Canary Media’s free newsletter, which explores trends in the clean energy transition and highlights the best of our news coverage. Sign up today.

The moment has come: The Super Bowl of climate change, the Olympics of decarbonization, the Met Gala of nonbinding emission-reduction promises.

It’s time for COP26, the U.N. climate summit that just kicked off in Glasgow, Scotland. And I may as well cop to it: I’ve been putting off the task of getting smart on this sprawling diplomatic assembly, planning to catch up with a handy cheat sheet at the last minute. 

Now it’s my job to deliver your cheat sheet. Or if you already know the gist, maybe this can help you explain to your friends and loved ones why your attention is fixed on a post-industrial Scottish city. 

To make things easy for you, we spun up a dedicated hub for all our COP-y copy, which you can bookmark and access here.

So, what’s this COP all about?

The ultimate goal is to wrangle the many nations of this planet into changing their behavior so that climate change doesn’t wreck the world as we know it. 

At the last major climate summit, COP21 in Paris in 2015, nations committed to keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius, with an aspiration to stay below 1.5 degrees. Under the resulting Paris Agreement, they made voluntary, nonbinding action pledges in the form of nationally determined contributions,” or NDCs.

The Paris Agreement anticipated that countries would meet again and ratchet up their ambitions. So the big test for Glasgow is whether they now actually do it. 

This needs to happen, because the current tally of national pledges falls well short of ensuring a livable future. See for yourself in our latest Chart of the Week.

Youth climate movement wants to kick polluters out of COP26

Maria Virginia Olano  . 

Ayisha Siddiqa and other activists march at the 2019 NYC youth climate strike. (Diane Greene Lent via Flickr)

Ayisha Siddiqa is the co-founder of Polluters Out, a global youth movement that is calling for the fossil fuel industry to be banned from events and negotiations related to the United Nations climate treaty, formally known as the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Siddiqa will be joining some of her fellow youth activists at the next negotiating session, COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, where the goal is to get global leaders to commit to dramatic climate action that will keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

We spoke with Siddiqa about the youth climate movement, her group’s goals, and what she wants to see come out of COP26. This excerpt from our conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Ayisha Siddiqa

Leaders in shipping, aviation and heavy industry chart a path to net zero ahead of COP26

Jeff St. John  . 

(Zhang Jingang/VCG via Getty Images)

The upcoming United Nations COP26 talks will bring world leaders to Glasgow, Scotland in search of consensus on how to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Industries facing the most challenging decarbonization pathways say they’ll need unprecedented government support — and trillions of dollars in investment — to even stand a chance of hitting that critical climate target.

That’s the message from the Mission Possible Partnership, a group of more than 400 companies launched in January with support from the climate funds of billionaires Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates. The industries represented — shipping, aviation, trucking, chemicals, steel, aluminum and cement — account for about 30 percent of global carbon emissions. 

In reports released last week, the group laid out what it terms transition strategies” to start steel and aviation on those decarbonization pathways. It also previewed a similar strategy for shipping set to be released next week and announced an agreement between global chemical manufacturers to coordinate similar efforts. 

The plans envision cooperation among competing companies and will require massive levels of investment. This approach earned founding members of the partnership the label of radical environmentalists” and crazy hippies” when the idea was first floated three years ago, Faustine Delasalle, the partnership’s co-executive director, said in a webinar last week. 

But now things have changed. With some of the biggest industry players in the space, this makes us less crazy hippies and much more [ready to start] making things happen at the right scale,” she said. Still, it will take new technologies, it will take new business models [and] it will take a multitrillion[-dollar] investment plan” to complete even the first steps outlined in the transition strategies, she said. 

The level of investment needed for these industries to reach net-zero emissions is laid out in a new report from the World Economic Forum, one of the partnership’s four founding partner organizations. It finds that the global community will need to invest $4.3 trillion per year from now through 2050 to get these sectors to net-zero — roughly three times the spending that transpired in 2020

Much of that investment over the next decade will be directed toward technologies that are cost-effective today, including wind and solar power, or those rapidly approaching that point, such as batteries and electric vehicles. 

But post-2030 progress for these hard-to-clean-up sectors will rely on breakthrough decarbonization technologies” including hydrogen, bio-based fuels, and carbon capture and storage, the report finds. Getting those industries to the scale needed by 2050 will require substantial investments starting this decade. A mere $16 billion was invested in these technologies in 2020, but that investment must reach an average of $300 billion to $500 billion a year over the next decade, as the chart below indicates.

(World Economic Forum)

Chart: Current climate pledges fall far short of Paris goals — and a livable future

Maria Virginia Olano  . 

We need more ambitious climate commitments from the world’s nations if we’re to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, which is what scientists say is necessary to prevent serious climate chaos. Current pledges from countries wouldn’t even keep us below 2° C, the baseline aim of the Paris Agreement. The goal of the COP26 climate summit, taking place from October 31 to November 12, is securing stronger commitments from nations.

Leaders must set course for net-zero energy at COP26. What tech do we need to get there?

Jason Deign  . 

World leaders face high expectations as they gather in Glasgow, Scotland for this year’s United Nations COP26 climate talks. After even Covid-19 failed to curb the accumulation of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere last year, policymakers are under pressure to put forward massive, rapid decarbonization plans. Research shows that nations’ current commitments are still nowhere close to closing the gap on climate change.

Some countries will be tempted to make bold pledges predicated on the promise of miracle cures for carbon pollution. Exhibit A: Australia, which this week announced a goal to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 largely based on unspecified low-emissions technologies.” Overreliance on untested technologies could thwart attempts to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees or 2 Celsius.

Part of the challenge is that the world’s top energy experts do not agree on the best way to get to a zero-carbon future. 

While there is broad consensus on how to decarbonize up to about 90 percent of electricity generation, considerable debate surrounds how to deal with the remainder. For energy used in sectors outside electricity, the uncertainty is even greater.

It’s pretty clear a concerted national rollout of wind, solar and lithium-ion [battery storage], plus some incremental efficiency and demand response, could get us to 80 percent to 90 percent [clean] electricity in the 2035 timeframe,” said RMI Senior Principal Mark Dyson in an email. 

But the last 10 percent to 20 percent of the grid, not to mention the last 20-plus percent for the overall economy, are much less clear,” he said. There are multiple ways to do it.” (Canary Media is an independent affiliate of RMI.)

Cleaning up electricity

After years of discussing carbon reduction even as CO2 levels have continued to rise, we now need to build clean power infrastructure at huge scale and breakneck speed. But what technologies should we rely on?

Stanford professor Mark Jacobson argues that solar, wind and other renewable-energy technologies can get us just about all the way to a net-zero electricity system. We need technologies that are available today and eliminate 80 percent of emissions by 2030,” he said in an interview. That limits us to renewable energy.” 

He dismisses tech solutions that haven’t yet been proven at scale, like small modular nuclear reactors, which are advocated by the nuclear industry. 

Jacobson’s team has developed model pathways to show how 143 countries, accounting for 99.7 percent of global emissions, could eliminate fossil fuels from the energy mix and run instead on renewables. It’s not rocket science,” he said. 

But other experts question Jacobson’s approach. 

There’s a lot of reasons why people are skeptical about getting all the way to 100 percent” clean electricity with current renewable technologies, said Zeke Hausfather, director of climate and energy at The Breakthrough Institute. 

One of the big ones is that to get to 100 percent you need to very significantly overbuild your system. You need roughly twice as much wind and solar for 100 percent renewables as you would for 80 percent renewables. And that also significantly increases the land use.”

Schalk Cloete, research scientist at Norway’s Foundation for Industrial and Technical Research, also pointed to concerns over land use. Wind and solar currently generate just a few percent of global primary energy production, but public resistance and complexity are already serious problems in several regions,” he said. 

Emerging tech: Credible solution or excuse for inaction?

Some industry groups are wading into the debate by pushing technology solutions that are unproven and uneconomical. 

The oil and gas sector, for example, is advocating for tech approaches that will allow it to keep pumping out fossil fuels. It’s a big proponent of carbon capture and storage (CCS), which could theoretically capture emissions from fossil-fuel-powered facilities. But a huge Chevron carbon-capture project in Australia recently fell far short of its promises, raising big questions about the viability of CCS. The oil and gas industry is also promoting low-carbon hydrogen, which, unlike green hydrogen, would be made with natural gas plus CCS

The industry continues to argue that there’s a role for natural gas as a bridge fuel” to help get us from oil to renewables, despite ample evidence that gas is a dirty distraction, not a real solution. Even the traditionally industry-friendly International Energy Agency is now calling to end fossil fuel funding.

Yet Shell’s net-zero strategy unveiled in February includes near-term investments of $8 billion a year in upstream oil and gas operations, compared to up to $3 billion in renewables.

Critical sectors such as shipping, aviation and heavy industry are the trickiest to decarbonize. Plans to get them to zero emissions rely on technologies that have yet to be made cost-effective, including CCS and hydrogen — and their transition to net zero could cost trillions of dollars.

Not much time left for debate

This lack of clarity would not be an issue if there were infinite time to ponder the problem. But there isn’t.

We have no time for trial and error anymore,” said Thomas Boermans, head of foresight at the German energy giant E.ON. We only have one shot.”

And differences of opinion — which might be seen as a sign of healthy debate in another context — could be a problem for policymakers tasked with selling a course of action to the public, said Dyson at RMI

For most audiences, the message We know how to get to 100 percent’ is way catchier than We know how to get to 80 percent and we’re working hard to figure out the last 20 percent,’” he said. 

From a storytelling perspective, the focus on breakthrough tech is a comforting fallback,” he said. If it exists, it makes the problem solvable in the heads of engineers and executives.”

The challenge for world leaders at COP26 will be to make sure such narratives do not overshadow the need to take urgent action with the technologies at hand — because there are no guarantees that breakthrough technologies will become viable in time to avert a climate catastrophe. 

US and EU lead global pledge to cut methane pollution at COP26

Jeff St. John  . 

President Joe Biden speaks at the COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. (Steve Reigate/AFP/Getty Images)

The COP26 climate conference in Glasgow has yielded a new key step toward cutting greenhouse gas emissions — not carbon dioxide, but methane. 

On Tuesday, the European Union and the United States officially unveiled the Global Methane Pledge, which calls on signatories to slash methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030 compared to 2020 levels. 

So far nearly 90 countries have signed on, accounting for roughly half the world’s methane emissions. Signatories include 15 of the world’s 30 top methane emitters including the U.S., the EU, Indonesia, Pakistan, Argentina, Mexico, Nigeria, Iraq, Canada and Brazil — although major emitters including China, Russia and India have not signed on. 

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, with about 80 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide in its first two decades in the earth’s atmosphere. But it remains in the atmosphere for only about a decade compared to more than a century for carbon dioxide. 

That makes methane the lowest-hanging fruit” for emissions cuts that could keep the world within 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature rise over the coming century, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at a Tuesday event in Glasgow.