By Anna-Katharina von Krauland
Beyond the coverage around pledges to cut methane emissions and Greta Thunberg’s march through the streets of Glasgow, what isn’t easily gleaned from reading news about COP26, the UN’s annual climate summit, is the degree to which insubstantial and unactionable discourse makes up the event. There were few speakers whose tone and ambition matched the immense gravity of the topics being discussed. Although earnest and clearly concerned, the leaders I heard from didn’t venture to express the kind of bold and innovative plans for action that we urgently need from every sector if we are to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, the target set by the Paris Agreement. I expected to leave feeling inspired; instead I left frustrated.
Some news sources have described the conference as being self-congratulatory. However, the atmosphere was far from festive when the messages were so sobering. Countries publicized their new coalitions, partnerships, targets and goals, but they also acknowledged the long road ahead. Al Gore proclaimed, “The era of procrastination, of half measures … is coming to its close. In its place, we are entering a period of consequences. We are now experiencing the consequences of the climate crisis in every part of our world.” This truth became acutely evident when I heard Aminath Shauna, Minister of Environment, Climate Change and Technology for the Maldives, state that “COP is our lifeline. The difference between 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees, for us, really is a death sentence.”
There were no illusions about the severity and urgency of the climate crisis, but far too many on how to handle it. With energy generation responsible for three-fourths of greenhouse gas emissions, according to Mafalda Duarte, the CEO of Climate Investment Funds, there is an enormous opportunity to scale renewable energy from the currently installed 1,400 GW to the necessary 17,000 GW.
U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, whose impassioned speech contrasted those of the preceding panelists, asserted that “clean energy is an engine that will get us to our net zero future.” However, despite the many well-intentioned speeches, it became exceedingly apparent that the details and ambition in the announced plans were lacking. The conversation mainly focused on phasing out and retiring coal plants, or cancelling plans to build new ones. Although this is an essential component, there was a missed opportunity to move the conversation forward on other critically important technologies that will shape our future grid instead of centering the dialogue on a fuel source of the past. We no longer have the luxury to allow ourselves or our leaders to echo well-established truths rather than forge ahead into the uncertain, yet necessary, realities that lie before us.
It was troubling to observe the disconnect between the ideas presented by governments and the innovative solutions offered by existing research to address sustainability targets. My wind energy mapping research, for instance, demonstrates that it is possible to supply all power demand in the U.S. with onshore wind energy alone and can help developers and policymakers expedite site selection. The Solutions Project, a research organization founded by professor Mark Jacobson, has created roadmaps for cities, states and countries to reach 100% renewable energy using only wind, water and solar resources. These plans quantify potential cost reductions, health benefits and economic gains, in addition to the emissions reductions of transitioning to renewable energy. There are a myriad of other organizations that are doing truly good work to push us forward, ranging from decarbonized cement to green hydrogen to electrified fertilizer production to materials recycling and inventive ways to use abandoned oil wells as battery storage. These technologies, even if not yet available at scale, are advancing rapidly and forging ahead to become profitable within the next few years. Inventions and insights like these need to be amplified, executed, supported and shared at forums such as COP.
To provide more substantial and progressive ideas, a greater number of scientists should be engaged. This might serve to sharpen ambitions and advance cross-disciplinary understanding on the incredible potential of pivotal technologies. Further, it is crucial that published work reaches the right channels for easier adoption and implementation, which might take the form of increased sharing and collaboration between parties, or more frequent exchanges between scientists and policymakers. Reporting on high-level politics must not take priority over discourse that integrates technical depth. It is not an exaggeration that I came across more media and film crews than scientists and engineers at the conference. True, COP26 is regarded as a world stage, but must the actors’ scripts be so hollow?
In 1961, President Kennedy declared, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” This goal, for which almost none of the technology had yet been invented, was in fact successfully achieved in 1969. Now, in 2021, I believe that this nation, and indeed this world, should commit itself to achieving carbon neutrality. Not in 2050, not in another generation, or by the time island nations and coral reefs and hopes for a livable planet will be long gone, but by 2030. Unlike Kennedy’s grand challenge, 95% of the technologies needed to implement the proposed climate plans are already commercial. We have no excuse; we must act.
Long-range targets, as necessary as they are, will not be attained unless intermediate actions are also undertaken. Kennedy’s ambition mobilized and united a whole country to perform a previously unimaginable feat. This is the kind of leadership we need around the world today. The fact that we have the solutions is cause for great optimism. Rather than having a narrative that frames it as a doom and gloom “crisis,” we should see the current climate situation as an opportunity — one for economic growth, the rise of novel industries such as offshore wind and alternative meat, improved quality of life and health through the avoidance of seven million annual air pollution deaths worldwide, as well as the creation of 28.6 million new long-term, full-time jobs over the business-as-usual scenario. Instead of wielding shame and peer pressure, which are effective only until dismay sets in, it is far more empowering to focus on the tangible, immediate action that we have the ability to implement right now.
Climate action is no longer a question of direction, only speed. Certainly, some of the new commitments will help to accelerate the transition. $130 trillion in funding was committed toward climate action, but an estimated $100 trillion is still required. The question of how to achieve a just transition, with allocation of capital toward developing countries and island nations, was a recurring topic. The need to de-risk investment opportunities in developing countries and to lift living standards will be addressed by the new Climate Finance Leadership Initiative, focused on India and Indonesia. Similarly, a historic $8.5 billion package was granted to South Africa through the Just Energy Transition Partnership, a new coalition with the US, the EU, France, Germany and the UK. The unprecedented level of funding clearly demonstrates what a priority climate has become. In fact, 90% of overall global GDP is now committed to net zero.
Not only will this save lives, but it will also spur economic development. Janet Yellen, the US Secretary of the Treasury, described this as the “greatest economic opportunity of our time.” In fact, the economy of the world will be 25% bigger if we take the 1.5 degree track rather than the track we are on today.
Many of the solutions that we need to reach net zero and to keep 1.5 degrees alive, two central themes at COP26, are already in existence, but we lack the communication channels and the political will to get them implemented. Though these are large barriers to overcome, we have reason for optimism if we can act quickly enough. Al Gore ended his speech by saying that we need to recognize that political will is itself a renewable resource. What he omitted was that time, unfortunately, is not. With 800 million people on the planet without access to energy, and countless others whose lives and livelihoods are endangered, we don’t have the time for insubstantial rhetoric and delay. “We know that we have made progress, but we are far from the goal that we need to reach,” Gore concluded. The ambitions have been set, but now is the decade of action.