3 reasons why we will see conflict at COP26

Guest writer: Visiting professor at King’s College London

Next week some 25,000 delegates, observers, campaigners and members of the media will gather in Glasgow for the latest in the series of UN climate conferences which began in Kyoto in 1997.  What can we expect to happen?

The answer is conflict.  This is why!

  1. No consensus on degree of urgency
  2. Limited funds and commitments for investments
  3. High-level no-shows
No consensus on urgency

First, there is no consensus on the degree of urgency with which the energy transition away from hydrocarbons should be made. Campaigners see the impact of climate change beginning already with extreme weather events causing floods, wildfires and heatwaves. They want an immediate transition and will be active in Glasgow using various forms of direct action to express their frustration.  Meanwhile the energy industry foresees a gradual transition spread over decades driven by the fact that the world is tied into a system of energy production, distribution and consumption dominated by hydrocarbons.  Worldwide 80 per cent of final daily energy demand is met by coal, oil and natural gas.  That percentage will still be 70 per cent in 2050 based on current policies according to The International Energy Agency in its latest World Energy Outlook. Extensive pledges by governments around the world could make an impact but  hydrocarbons will likely make up over 60 per cent of our energy needs in thirty year’s time.

Limited funds and commitment for investing
Second, the financial commitments are not being made. Putting a price on carbon would induce energy users to switch or use less and could also stimulate investment in research into new low carbon technologies.   But progress is slow and the incentives for investment are in most countries not in place. There is no effective carbon price.  In the emerging economies of the world – particularly in Africa and Asia – the priority is development and the escape from subsistence poverty.  The funds necessary to invest in reducing emissions are limited and another area of conflict in Glasgow will be the absence of a substantial commitment from the world’s richer developed nations to provide the hundreds of billions of dollars required.   But finance is not a problem for developing countries alone. In the US President Biden is struggling to put together a package of measures to reduce emissions which can get through Congress and has been forced in the last few weeks to reduce the climate related spending in the legislation he is proposing.   In the UK the Government’s plans are held up by an inability to define who will pay for the very substantial upfront capital costs of the transition. 
High-level no-shows

The third strand of conflict arises from the underlying political disagreements across the world.  Climate change may be a unique issue posing an existential challenge but it cannot transcend the very different national interests of the key countries which account for most of the world’s emissions. The tensions between the US, China and Russia remain. The result is that neither President Xi nor Mr Putin will be in Glasgow. Nor it seems will Mohammed Bin Salman, the all powerful Saudi Crown Prince whose Kingdom continues to depend on exports of oil.  

Imperfect and impartial

These conflicts will undermine the attempt to reach a new global deal and will therefore diminish the achievements which have actually been made.  The glass is half full which is not enough but better than nothing.  A vast number of countries have made commitments to reduce emissions to net zero by 2050 and many are striving to take the detailed steps to deliver on those commitments.  That is positive news. Innumerable companies from Microsoft to Equinor are making their own commitments which will also have a positive impact.

The result of COP26 therefore then will be imperfect and partial. The issue has been driven up the agenda of public policy and the transition to a lower carbon economy is beginning. But the risks have not been removed.

The immediate reaction to this limited progress is likely to be a new surge of protest from campaigners, perhaps in particular from those who expected too much from Glasgow. The energy industry and in particular companies who are continuing to invest in oil, gas and coal are likely to be the prime targets for direct action.

Working towards 2030, not talking about 2050

A more constructive outcome would be a more examination of why the process has not been more successful. One answer must be that the focus on 2050 was a mistake because it opens the door to lavish but unsubstantiated rhetorical promises.  A greater emphasis on what can be done at a minimal cost with real target reductions set for 2030 would have been more valuable.  So would a process which did not focus on a mass public gathering.  Much more could be done through quiet step by diplomacy to resolve differences and to find areas of mutual advantage.  The UNFCCC process in which COP26 is the latest event has been running for almost 25 years.  It has served its purpose and deserves to be overhauled.  The next step is to focus on identifying the steps which can be agreed and delivered on a short term basis.

Norway has immense experience in diplomacy and in all aspects of the energy business.  The country is trusted and free of the ambitions associated with being a great power.  It is hard to think of a country better able to lead the next phase of the dialogue on the global energy transition.