Climate change is a matter of “life and death”, according to Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and we’ve begun to see this around the world. Since mid 2019, wildfires have ravaged cities and suburbs across Australia, killing 33 people and at least a billion animals.
This November the UK will host the 2020 United Nations Climate Change Conference – also known as the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) – in Glasgow. As the UK looks forward to its Presidency of COP26 in partnership with Italy, and launches 2020 as the ‘Year of Climate Action’, it calls on all countries to come together to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
“The task at Glasgow is to show that we can stretch ambition within the Paris framework,” says John Murton, Envoy of COP26. This includes encouraging more countries to come up with ambitious nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and long-term emissions (LTE) targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
GovInsider spoke with Murton to learn the UK’s vision for the summit and what underpins the UK’s climate leadership and COP Presidency.
The Ambitions of COP26
“We broadly want four things to come out of the COP26,” says Murton. “First, we want the negotiations around the remaining elements of the Paris rulebook to be concluded in a satisfactory way, including on issues like Article Six.” Article Six discusses how countries can cooperate to help one another achieve their emissions targets.
“Secondly, we want as many countries as possible to come forward with ambitious new NDCs of their own, so that we can demonstrate that the world is making progress on bending the emissions curve,” Murton says.
Third, the UK hopes for as many countries as possible to come forward with long term targets of their own. “Hopefully net zero targets, which will give an indication to businesses and the private sector about the seriousness with which governments take climate change and our determination to deal with it.”
Fourth, “we want to really showcase activity in four sectors to encourage ambition amongst governments, non-state actors, businesses, cities provinces and so on”, he notes.
The UK is a leader in ambitious climate action – both domestically and internationally. It was the first major industrialised nation to announce a Net Zero emissions target by 2050. It was the first Parliament to declare a climate emergency in 2019. And across the UK, regions and communities are rising to the challenge.
In 2017, Scotland announced plans to phase out the need for new fossil-fuel powered vehicles by 2032. They have also included shipping and aviation in their Net Zero emissions target scope. In 2019, the Welsh Government launched a five-year blueprint to tackle climate change in the country following a climate emergency declaration.
Following COP25, there are now 121 countries following the UK’s lead and pledging to develop a Net Zero plan under the Climate Ambition Alliance, which consists of countries determined to follow the recommendations of science to tackle climate change. The UK is keen to encourage others to follow suit.
COP26’s four focuses
The UK will showcase its progress in four areas at COP26. First is helping countries adapt and build resilience to climate change. The UK is working with international programmes like the International Climate Finance to help 57 million people around the world cope with the effects of climate change.
“Whilst we pursue our mitigation efforts, we can’t forget that there are people and countries that are already suffering from the effects of climate change,” says Murton. “We want to do all we can to help those countries adapt to the changes they experience and be more resilient in the face of them.” The UK will be doubling its contribution to the International Climate Finance: £11.6bn (US$15.0bn) for the years 2021 to 2025.
The second theme for the climate conference is nature-based solutions, which use elements of nature to guard against the effects of climate change – for example, by conserving coral reefs to counter rising sea levels.
“Sometimes people think that nature conservancy is at odds with tech and climate change and we want to demonstrate that’s not the case,” says Murton. “Good forestry, good people and management can be really helpful in the fight against climate change,” he adds.
The third focus at COP26 is clean growth. Murton highlights the many economic opportunities created by transitions to a clean and green economy. “We want to showcase areas where businesses are delivering clean growth, and how that’s helping to generate jobs and employment and prosperity,” says Murton. “We’re finding that in the UK, the low carbon elements of our economy are growing much faster than the old economy.”
Some examples include introducing zero emission vehicles to replace the internal combustion engine, and countries “powering past coal and moving beyond the use of coal in the energy mix”, he says.
Finally, green finance will be key to fostering sustainable economies and cultures. “We want to highlight and encourage work in the area of greening the financial system. Where the money goes today, the economy follows tomorrow,” Murton says.
“We want to encourage businesses to take into full account the cost of climate change in their investment decisions and invest in areas that are low emitting rather than high emitting.”
Whole of society change
The UK has taken a whole-of-society approach to tackle climate change. “We’re preparing for COP26 from our Cabinet Office, which is the office that coordinates all of the ministries of government. We are doing this because we believe the fight against climate change demands a whole-of-government response.”
“We believe the fight against climate change demands a whole-of-government response”
The UK has passed legislation in support of achieving the Net Zero Target across sectors, industries, departments and policies. “To give you a concrete example, our Prime Minister recently announced that we were bringing forward the date by which we would phase out the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles from 2040 to 2035,” says Murton.
The climate positive policies extend beyond transport. For instance, all new homes in the UK will have zero emissions from 2025, he says.
In the energy sector, the government is driving heavy investments in renewable energy such as wind and solar. “Last year, the UK produced more energy from nuclear, other renewables and zero carbon forms of energy than we did from oil, coal, gas and fossil fuels,” says Murton. “That’s a huge change,” he says.
As recently as 2015, coal was 40 per cent of the UK’s electricity mix; last year, it was only 2.5 per cent and the country ran for 140 days without any coal. “We will phase out coal entirely from our electricity mix by 2024,” he adds.
The UK has also invested in renewable energy sources internationally. It currently has the largest number of offshore wind installations in the world, generating a third of the global capacity – 9.8 gigawatts – with plans to increase to 14 gigawatts by 2040.
Building on London’s position as a global financial center, the UK has taken strong measures to include the banking industries in the drive towards a green economy. 70 per cent of banks in the UK now consider climate change as a tangible financial risk.
A climate change report estimated that the potential global market size for low-carbon financial services could reach £280bn (US$361bn) per year in 2030. The trend is particularly pronounced in London with 119 green bonds currently listed with the London Stock Exchange, raising over £26bn (US$33.5bn) in revenue across seven currencies.
“As an example of how seriously we’re taking this, the governor of our central bank – the Bank of England, is going to take on a new role as the UK Prime Minister’s Finance Advisor for COP26 to support work to green the financial system,” says Murton. “Once business and investors start investing according to the things we need to do to fight climate change, then things will really start to change,” he adds.
What Southeast Asia can do
Southeast Asia’s rapidly-growing economy is well-placed to take advantage of the many opportunities offered by climate-friendly growth. With rising temperatures and sea levels, to changing weather patterns that gravely impact food supplies, the region is already feeling the impacts of climate change. “Southeast Asia is a really important region in the fight against climate change because the emissions trajectories of the countries concerned are still increasing quite rapidly,” says Murton.
So what can countries in Southeast Asia do? First, they can set more ambitious targets for lowering carbon emissions. “The falling cost of clean energy means switching over to low carbon alternatives has become more feasible.” Murton notes, “countries can afford to be more ambitious today than they could just five years ago.”
Governments can also encourage investments for renewable energy by creating a regulatory environment that encourages competition. “For instance, in the UK, it’s very easy for new producers to come into the market and obtain licensing and produce power in a very transparent way,” shares Murton.
“Introducing competition in the energy market could also decrease costs, ultimately encouraging policymakers to be more ambitious in reducing carbon emissions”, he adds. “A number of countries in Southeast Asia, including Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, have already taken steps to introduce greater competition in their electricity retail markets.”
Countries in Southeast Asia don’t have to choose between economic growth and environmental sustainability. “15 to 20 years ago, you had to choose between promoting economic growth and investing in low carbon technology, particularly in Southeast Asia. But today, the technology has grown so much that now this tradeoff doesn’t exist. You can encourage your economic growth by investing in the green economy,” says Murton.
Growing demand has pushed down prices and created jobs through the green economy, he adds. “The market for low-carbon, renewable sources of energy is growing much faster than for traditional sources,” he says.
“Developing economies, in particular, stand to gain from falling prices for clean energy. A study by Indonesia’s Ministry of National Development Planning has shown that organisations that prioritise low carbon emissions are more likely to have higher economic growth than those who don’t.”
And so, Indonesia has announced that it will phase out the use of its oldest coal power stations. “That’s in Indonesia’s economic interests because it really needs the cheapest energy it can obtain if it’s to compete with regional competitors like Malaysia and India,” he notes.
The cost-benefit argument for taking climate action is clear in Murton’s mind. “If you reduce the amount of coal in the air (brought on by coal-burning), then you can improve health by increasing air quality in cities like Delhi. Switching to renewable energy sources has a cascading effect on the people who breathe that air,” he says. Clean energy means better air quality, improved health standards, and lower demand and costs for pollution-related healthcare.
“No one can say that climate action is not something that involves them”, says Murton. “We have adopted a Net Zero target for 2050, because that’s what our scientists advise – it’s what the science demands.” And the UK is ready to rally the world together in the battle against climate change at COP26 in November.