Mind the gap! Immediate action needed to deliver just transitions

Frankly Speaking

Climate, Energy & Sustainability

Picture of Camilla Toulmin
Camilla Toulmin

Senior Fellow for Sustainable Energy at the Africa-Europe Foundation

Standing on Glasgow’s Queen Street Railway Station, red and orange feathers stick up out of the crowd as a group of Amazonian people join young Africans, a large Asian delegation, and a group of Scottish school children as they navigate their way through the crowd. Many of our global visitors have had to overcome multiple barriers and conquer a mountain of paperwork to attend in person. This throng chattering a hundred languages on familiar station platforms is not a common sight for Scotland which has relatively few visibly ethnic minorities. It has certainly enlivened the urban-scape and got everyone talking about what the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) might achieve.

While the United Kingdom is the host nation, the Scottish Government misses no tricks in getting its ambitions for independence from London to the fore. Posters around Glasgow describe Scotland as “a nation in waiting”, referring to the plan for a further referendum on independence in 2023. The Scottish government was also the first of the rich nations to demonstrate leadership by announcing a pledge to support loss and damage with a grant of £1mn – not a large sum but symbolic of a more progressive position than that held by Boris Johnson’s government down south.

Loss and damage negotiations are being championed by the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a group of 55 governments chaired by Bangladesh, which are seeking compensation for the damage caused to them from historic and current emissions of developed nations. But there is strong resistance to acknowledging the scale of the problem and the liability issues associated with it. Beyond this, there is also the urgent need for ramping-up climate finance and reaching the $100bn pledge, as announced in 2015, and to think also about the post-2025 new collective finance goal.

We’re housed in a complex network of exhibition halls, looking very similar to a World Expo, with a mosaic of pavilions in the main space, each one sponsored by individual countries and organisations, and running a rolling cycle of dialogues – presenters, panels, and power-points beam out at passers-by. We’ve made camp at the very hospitable Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL) Pavilion, which for the first time at the COPs has its own space and champions the delivery of Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG7) – universal access to energy by 2030. It offers a welcoming space with places to perch, and a bar with delicious coffee beans from Rwanda. If you stand at the side of the main concourse, a steady flow of delegations surges to and fro, broken by the occasional media cavalcade progressing up the hall, a celebrity or key negotiator invisible beneath a thicket of whirring cameras.

We must speed up domestic action today, instead of focusing just on 2050

What’s the mood as the second week of the negotiations gets underway? It depends on who you talk to. Greta Thunberg has poured scorn on the “blah blah blah” of world leaders yet again making big pledges for 2050, 2060 and now 2070, while lacking in-depth action in the here and now. She’s got a point! Obama has wowed the delegates with a powerful speech urging everyone to do much more. The roll-out of pledges last week received warm applause – whether for forests, methane, coal or green finance. India’s pledge to be net-zero by 2070 got a big welcome, as being the first time the country has made any such announcement. Similarly, Nigeria’s bid for net-zero by 2060 generated surprise and acclaim, as one of Africa’s largest emitters, as did the pledge to stop gas flaring by 2030. But it left some people asking, why has it taken so long to stop this shameful waste of a valuable resource which could be fuelling clean cooking solutions for households across the country?

A quick analysis by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and others shows that if all the new pledges are fully put into effect, global warming could be limited to between 1.8°C and 1.9°C. This is a better place to be. However, there are some very big buts in there. Implementing pledges is hard work, it often takes longer and is not pursued with the same vigour as media coverage for the announcements. Civil society organisations (CSOs) are right that we need regular feedback year on year, accounting for what’s been achieved versus what was pledged. We must speed up domestic action today, instead of focusing just on 2050. And this is where domestic political pressure matters so much, with citizens holding their governments to account. The UK government is considering a proposal that countries come back with improved nationally determined contributions (NDCs) by 2023 rather than 2025, building on the stocktake year and giving the process a great sense of immediacy.

How has the UK government done? It was a good idea to start with the Leaders’ Summit to set the tone and raise expectations, following a lacklustre G20 meeting in Rome. For the non-VIPs, the week began with monumental queues outside the venue, as paperwork, security and COVID-19 all set new barriers for entry, but many of these problems have gradually eased.

Good things which have happened include giving the Energy Transition Council (ETC) another five years to work on practical solutions for developing countries to achieve SDG7 targets. Set up by the UK government in 2020, it is co-chaired by UK COP President Alok Sharma and Damilola Ogunbiyi, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All and Co-Chair of UN-Energy. It brings together a number of emerging nations to partner with rich countries and financial institutions wanting to develop credible energy transition pathways for countries like Nigeria, Egypt and Kenya.

The slow and inadequate delivery of climate finance has also shown the gap between bold pledges and follow-through

One very tangible example of what can be achieved through this kind of focused partnership is the support South Africa will receive, in the form of $8.5bn over the next three to five years to help transform its energy systems, so that it no longer relies on coal for over 80% of its energy needs. In South Africa and elsewhere, a big part of this energy transformation will depend on updating and making credible the policy and regulatory framework, to encourage investment in power generation, transmission and distribution. Concerns about policy shifts and currency volatility need to be assuaged if both foreign and domestic sources of capital are to be drawn into generating and distributing energy.

For the Africa-Europe Foundation (AEF), there are major issues to explore further. First, given the COVID-19 crisis, many African countries feel short-changed by the experience of “global solidarity”, where the rhetoric of “no one is safe until everyone is safe” has not translated into delivery of the vaccines promised for COVAX. The slow and inadequate delivery of climate finance has also shown the gap between bold pledges and follow-through. The $100bn by 2020 pledged first at Copenhagen in 2009 is unlikely to be put in place before 2023, and is in stark contrast to the enormous amounts of money spent by richer nations on pandemic measures (equivalent to $12tn).

One firm lesson from the pandemic for African countries has been the benefits from collective action, with the African Union (AU) leading the joint procurement of health and medical equipment. Joint action on a range of other ambitious projects could bring big benefits for the African continent, such as the emerging plans to develop sustainable value chains in Africa, starting with the manufacture of vaccines in Rwanda, South Africa and Senegal, and investment in processing the many critical minerals dug out of Africa’s rich soils now needed for the global energy and digital transitions – cobalt, lithium, copper, platinum, manganese and many more.

Second, clean cooking received good coverage in many of the discussions on energy, and was highlighted by Mary Robinson, Co-Honorary President of the AEF, at the WHO Conference on climate and health held this last weekend. As noted by Tariye Gbadegesin, Member of the AEF Strategy Group on Energy, to get a pipeline of bankable projects for clean cooking means bringing lots of different things together – the policy and regulatory framework, technical and business skills, coordination of actions through delivery units in each and every government, fiscal measures to make clean cooking solutions more cost effective and so on. A big push on investment in clean cooking now could enable the setting up of delivery units at national and city levels and would make a big difference for the health of women and children, given the smoky air in many kitchens, it would reduce drudgery and time pressures on women and girls, and it would lessen heavy pressures on forest and woodland resources.

It’s always easy to be cynical about climate change COPs

Third, in preparing for COP27 in Egypt, a marked difference in view about the development of Africa’s gas resources is coming into focus. Many European and North American governments, banks and institutions say they will no longer invest in any fossil fuel activities. But as powerfully articulated by Kandeh Yumkella, Co-Chair of the AEF Strategy Group on Energy, African countries need to grow their economies to address high levels of poverty, rising urbanisation, and diversify their economies away from reliance on raw commodities. This structural transformation and growth are particularly urgent given the likely doubling of Africa’s population by 2050. Proponents of investment in Africa’s gas point to the tiny amounts of energy used per head – the average African today uses less than it takes to power a single fridge in US and EU homes. Making use of gas for the next 25 to 30 years, by providing base-load power, would enable a more rapid deployment of renewable energy across the continent, it would cut reliance on heavily polluting diesel generators, and it could accelerate investment in productive capacity and jobs. Watch this space over the next few months, as the EU Green Deal advocates face off against those pushing for Africa’s economic development above all else.

It’s always easy to be cynical about climate change COPs. There are moments of great hope mixed up with disappointments from backsliding. Big headlines from last week include 40 countries signed up to leave coal behind – but not USA or China, and there are loopholes which allow signatories to delay implementation. Poland is arguing it should be treated like a developing country and carry on with coal until 2040. The USA and EU have led a phase-out of methane – with agreed cuts of 30% by 2030. More than 100 countries have signed up, but UNEP says it really needs to be 45% and big emitters like Russia and China have not signed up. Over 100 countries have signed up to end deforestation by 2030, and funds have been pledged to help protect large areas of forest land, but major forest nations like Indonesia appear to be back-pedalling.

As rain showers and grey skies set in for the second week of negotiations, there is much to work on. It is not clear how far the many net-zero pledges by 2050 rely on large-scale carbon sinks, where this land might be, and what happens to the people who currently occupy and use it. The huge headline of $130tn associated with Mark Carney’s Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero needs further unpacking. And there’s a lot more progress needed on adaptation, and pursuit of pledges for loss and damage.

On these and other critical issues, the UK government needs to be ready to step in, with Prime Minister Johnson getting into the nuts and bolts of the negotiations to push for more ambitious and tighter goals. As with all leaders, domestic politics keeps intruding. Johnson has a number of unresolved questions he has yet to answer, such as whether the go-ahead will be given for further North Sea oil extraction, the licensing of a new coal mine in north-west England, and the recent cuts in air passenger tax which look wildly inconsistent with a net-zero pathway.

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