Global warming marked its 33rd anniversary in June 2021. James Hansen, a NASA scientist on 23 June 1988 testified to United States congress that global warming, a consequence of the greenhouse effect, has been detected and is changing our climate. Actually the greenhouse effect had already been discovered by scientists in the 1800s; long before James’ testimony. Joseph Fourier in 1824 discovered the atmosphere’s ability to retain heat. Eunice Foote, a woman and American scientist, also the first scientist that studied the effect of sunlight on different atmospheric gases, discovered in the 1850s that gases, namely carbon dioxide and water vapour, trap heat and warm air. The series of experiments that John Tyndall performed about the absorption of infra-red radiation of gases in 1861 also found water vapour, carbon dioxide and ozone as strong absorbers of heat radiation. The important thing that James’ testimony achieved is that it raised the consciousness of political leaders to the severity of global warming..
From 1988 till now, research and scientific study on climate change continue to receive global support. Part of that support led to the endorsement of the 1988 United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) by both the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP). The ‘Rio Convention’ of 1992 gave also birth to the United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCCC). After two years of its creation, the UNFCC became operational. The parties to the UNFCCC have grown to include all the United Nations Member States, United Nations General Observer State of Palestine, the European Union, the Cook Islands and Niue. The only observer state to the UNFCCC is the Holy See.
States that are parties to the UNFCCC gather on a yearly basis. That gathering is called “Conference of the Parties” (COP). The first COP was held in 1995 in Bonn, Germany. Although Europe is the continent that has hosted the COP the most (COP-26 will be the 14th COP to be hosted by Europe), other continents including Africa and Asia have also hosted the COP. Some of the remarkable achievements of past COP include the Kyoto Protocol, Bali Roadmap, Cancun Agreement and of recent, the Paris Agreement. Although the COP is the decision-making body saddled with the responsibility of reviewing and monitoring the implementation of the UNFCCC, agreements reached during the conference are not legally binding on parties.
The COP doesn’t hold the right to enforce the fulfillment of pledges made by certain parties a la reducing emissions and financially supporting vulnerable economies to climate change. During the 18th COP that held in Doha, the decision to extend the Kyoto Protocol (adopted at the 3rd COP) until 2020 was not supported by the United States, Russia, China and Canada. China, during the COP-15, made it impossible for nations to make specific emissions cut because its growth and growing global dominance are supported on emission of greenhouse gases. Despite the tenacity shown by President Obama to make a great deal, the best the conference could produce was an agreement to keep temperature rise to less than 2C without any workable roadmap.
The most remarkable climate change conference is COP-21. This is so because it produced the “Paris Agreement”, agreed upon by the 197 parties to the UNFCCC. It also devised mechanisms such as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) that countries are to submit so as to fulfill the goal of limiting temperature rise well below 2C and preferably to 1.5C in comparison to pre-industrial level. Through the NDC, the progress of each party as regards reducing GHG emissions and transitioning to renewable energy sources are measured and periodically reviewed. Subsequent COP continues to work on the implementation of the Paris Agreement to avoid irreversible tipping points. Some clean energy enthusiasts fell for the illusion that the significant drop in carbon dioxide emissions in the year 2020 (principally caused by the Covid-19 pandemic) has made 2019 the year that global emissions peaked. But the post-pandemic recovery, together with the surge in global energy demand has shown that the peak of emissions has not yet been attained.
Now that the COP-26 has kicked off in Glasgow, some of the expected highlights of the conference will include the Working Group 1 Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC (AR6) released in August. AR6 is unequivocal in the contribution of humans to global warming. Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General, called the report a code red for humanity. His reason isn’t far-fetched. Based on the report, our current trajectory if unchecked will inevitably lead to temperature rise of 1.5C and 3C by mid-2030 and end of the century respectively. This will definitely be an important talking point for parties. Now that the United States is back into the Paris Agreement and President Biden has also denounced climate change as an existential threat of our time, the European Union can rest assured of the US commitment to fighting climate change by meeting their financing commitments made under the UNFCCC and reaffirmed at the COP-21.
Committing the BRICS members to promise drastic reduction of greenhouse gases emissions will be herculean. President Xi Jinping of China will not be attending the COP-26, but his vice-environmental minister is likely to attend. Because of the urgency of now, China will have to do better than the tongue-in-cheek pronouncement made to the 2020 UNGA to peak greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and go carbon neutral by 2060. The body language of China and India suggests their continued proclivity for the business-as-usual path. China, based on a report released by Global Energy Monitor and CREA, continues to lead the world in building more than three times as much new coal power capacity as other countries in the world combined in 2020. India in its own case, is reducing coal’s contribution to electricity generation, but due to the cheap nature of coal is still considering new coal-fired capacity with better technology that will reduce pollution. China’s response has always been that economic growth supersedes clean and sustainable environment. That is why its commitment to emissions reduction is always weak. South Africa’s President will not be attending because of elections, but the country’s newly revised NDC is in line with the Paris Agreement goals.
Within the last decade, investment in fossil fuels has continued to drop. Loss of investment estimated at $123 billion within 2012 to 2020, culminating in 20% of value is a colossal loss that has hit the industry. While green environmentalists have canvassed for the blanket ban on fossil fuels investment, some insist that natural gas, which happens to be the cleanest of all fossil fuels, should be excluded from fossil fuel ban because of its importance in becoming the bridge fuel for energy transition. Quicker decarbonization path that Europe has pursued which necessitated the banning of fracking for natural gas in France, Bulgaria, The Netherlands, Germany, The United Kingdom, Ireland and Spain, contributed to the ongoing energy crisis of Europe. Before the technological breakthrough in renewable energy that will guarantee energy stability becomes operational and commercialized, natural gas can complement the intermittent nature of wind and sun. Besides, containing Russia’s energy dominance over Europe must be strongly considered in order to avoid threat to global security. But The United States Climate Envoy John Kerry does not see natural gas as part of the solution to help address climate change because of the propensity of gas to leak and the carbon dioxide it produces. Therefore arriving at any sort of compromise among the parties in this regard may be somewhat difficult.