When weary delegates tumbled out of the emptying halls of the Scottish Event Campus into the chill of a Glasgow night last November, the mood was buoyant, if exhausted. Workers in hi-vis began dismantling stages and pulling down scaffolding, as the departing representatives of nearly 200 countries exchanged weak high-fives and wry grins. After two weeks of gruelling climate talks, there was a broadly successful outcome: the world had agreed, at last, to make concrete plans to limit global heating to 1.5C.
True, the deal reached in Glasgow was fragile. Most countries came to the Cop26 climate summit without carbon-cutting plans of the level of stringency scientists said was needed. They left the talks with targets that would imply heating of about 1.9C – a “historic” achievement compared to the 6C of heating we were heading towards a decade ago, but still far off 1.5C, the figure scientists say is the threshold of safety. That left plenty to do in the months to come.
Alok Sharma, the UK cabinet minister who presided over Cop26, summed up the agreement soon after as one that was “on life support”. He wrote in the Guardian: “The 1.5C limit lives. We brought it back from the brink. But its pulse remains weak.”
But the pace and brutality of the geopolitical changes since mid-November have been to a climate deal on life support like a cluster bomb dropped on a hospital. In just six months, a world slowly recovering from a pandemic has been wracked by war which, in turn, has created chaos in energy markets, sent food prices surging and threatened shortages, raised inflation and the spectre of recession and unrest, and has upended geopolitical relations.
Fossil fuel companies are enjoying a bonanza when they were supposed to be dying out. World leaders, who six months ago were pledging net zero carbon emissions, are now licensing new oil and gas drilling. Coal demand has surged and investors are sitting on scores of “carbon bombs” – high-stakes oil, gas and coal projects that, if followed through, would eliminate any hope of a 1.5C world.
It would be easy to think of the Glasgow climate deal and the chance of a 1.5C limit as another casualty of Vladimir Putin’s invasion and brutal war. Russia is the world’s biggest exporter of oil and gas, and one of the largest sources of minerals and coal. Putin has shown he is prepared to weaponise that dominance for his own ends, whatever the consequences.
But it is not quite that simple, and perhaps not quite that bad. “Things haven’t fallen apart,” says John Kerry, the US special presidential envoy on climate. “This is not easy, but it hasn’t fallen apart. It has met with an unexpected barrier, the war, and it has met with an unfortunate and dangerous resurgence of business as usual by some parties, that threatens the acceleration necessary to get the job done. It’s going to be up to us to push back and continue with the process.”
Six months from now, the world will meet again for the next round of climate talks in Egypt, which is yet to set out a clear programme. Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University and a UN climate adviser, says that Cop27 must focus on “implementation, implementation, implementation”. That means ensuring that the promises made in Glasgow are not forgotten about or fought over, but put into practice as swiftly as possible.
“Putting off tomorrow that which needs to be done today has come back to bite us,” she says. “Decades of under-investment in infrastructure, of too slow progress on protecting nature, faltering responses to rising inequality, undervaluing energy efficiency. Now we find ourselves scrambling to swing away from fossil fuels, ramp up renewables, respond to famine and food price shocks and with inflation on the rise and growth stalling, and very little of the policy frameworks we need to make the transitions move smoothly at speed. 2021 was about ambition – 2022 is about following through.”
But the invasion of Ukraine by Russia has upended expectations for 2022, and nothing is quite as expected. Russia is likely to attend Cop27, whatever the state of the invasion by autumn. Egypt has long been friendly to Russia which, along with Ukraine, supplies most of the country’s grain. Thirty years of climate negotiations have seen and weathered plenty of previous conflicts, and insiders say countries are practised at keeping discussions under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the parent treaty to the Paris agreement, separate from other geopolitical upheavals. Outright hostility at the summit is unlikely. A worse danger is the “indifference” and “love of the status quo” Kerry fears countries are reverting to, under cover of the war.
For the countries that want progress, the key will be to keep international focus on the effects of the Ukraine crisis on national security in the developed world, and of the climate crisis in the developing world, such as the record heatwaves in India and Pakistan.
Soaring energy prices as a result of the invasion have prompted a rapid reappraisal of energy policies across the world, particularly in Europe. Before the invasion, Germany depended on Russia for about two-thirds of its gas supplies, and the EU for about 40%. The bloc’s attempts to wean itself off these sources are likely to be painful in the short term, but have accelerated a move that needed to be made in the long term to reach the target of net zero emissions by 2050.
There are three clear answers to this energy crisis, according to Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, and one of the world’s foremost energy economists: countries must seek to replace Russian fossil fuels in the short term by squeezing more out of their current supplies. Urgent measures, such as turning down thermostats, imposing speed limits on cars and installing home insulation, must be taken to cut down on demand. And renewable energy must be ramped up fast by removing barriers such as planning problems and grid connections. “I believe we have the chance to make this a historic turning point, towards a cleaner and more secure energy system,” said Birol. “This is the first time I have seen such momentum behind change in the energy sector.”
This optimistic view depends on countries seizing the opportunities of renewables and ignoring the pleas of big oil, however. Fossil fuel companies have pledged to plough a proportion of their cash into clean energy, but many are just as likely to pour it into fresh extraction. The Guardian has uncovered nearly 200 examples of new fossil fuel projects now under development that, if brought to fruition, would result in a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, or about 18 years of emissions at current levels. That would put paid to any hope of staying within 1.5C.
Support for renewable energy, however, may come from a new and unexpected quarter. Soaring energy prices, and the accompanying high food prices, threaten social stability. Energy has become a political and economic weapon wielded by Russia against Europe, and dependence on fossil fuels has been revealed as a vital strategic vulnerability. Vladimir Putin has succeeded where decades of argument from green campaigners failed: he has made generals and national defence chiefs around the world see that the climate crisis is a national security priority.
Birol notes: “National security is now a very important driver, and this makes a very powerful combination, with the economic factors, in leading towards clean energy.”
Tina Stege, climate envoy for the Republic of the Marshall Islands, who played a key role at Cop26 in bringing together the High Ambition Coalition, agrees, and says developing countries must press home this argument. “I hope that it is now clear that investing in renewable energy is an investment not just in energy but also in resilience and political independence,” she told the Guardian. “The evidence that climate is a national security issue is mounting higher and higher.”
Countries must also understand that their vulnerability to energy shocks is inevitable as long as they rely on fossil fuels, even if the current crisis is resolved, says Christiana Figueres, the former UN climate chief who presided over the Paris agreement who is now a founding partner of the thinktank Global Optimism . “Fossil fuel prices will always be affected by geopolitical swings,” she says. “Some would have us think these events are black swans – improbable, hard-to-predict events. But this is not so. The volatility of fossil fuel prices is constant and pernicious.”
While Europe appears to be moving towards cleaner energy, the US is facing a continued logjam in Congress. Legislation proposed by Joe Biden, crucial to fulfilling the promises he made in Glasgow on reducing emissions, is stuck because of the refusal of one Democratic Senator, Joe Manchin, to agree.
“It’s depressing,” says Emmanuel Guérin, executive director for the international group at the European Climate Foundation. “It is not a rosy picture. I don’t want to pretend [the Ukraine war] is a crisis that can be easily turned into an opportunity.”
Nevertheless, the Biden administration is determined to push forward, according to Kerry. “I’m hopeful that in the next weeks maybe Congress can be able to pass some kind of climate legislation, which will be helpful,” he says. “President Biden is committed to moving forward and obviously he has administrative powers and can issue certain executive orders and do certain things.”
Meanwhile, this year has already seen record heatwaves in India and Pakistan that have caused widespread misery, disruption, damage to crops and fears for people’s health. These devastating events are happening at 1.2C of global heating and, according to new research from the Met Office and the World Meteorological Organisation, we are likely to see global temperatures top 1.5C above pre-industrial levels within the next five years.
That does not spell the end of the 1.5C goal – temperatures could overshoot the limit in some years without settling above it for the long term – but the conclusions are inescapable. The kind of disasters we are seeing in South Asia, the flooding in Australia and South Africa, and the droughts and wildfires in North America will rapidly become the norm, with consequences for humanity that will far outstrip the effects of any war yet experienced.
In the final moments of Cop26, Frans Timmermans, vice-president of the EU Commission, brandished a picture of his one-year-old grandson, Kees, warning that by 2050 the boy would be “fighting with other human beings for water and food” if the talks failed. That image, like the heart-rending images of children living through the war in Ukraine, holds the key to comprehending, and acting on, the problem.
“In Sharm El-Sheikh, we need to see progress on the commitments made in Glasgow,” Timmermans told the Guardian. “This is about humanity’s very survival, and the future of our children and grandchildren. My grandson Kees is now walking around. We have all the tools we need to make this happen. So let’s use them.”