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Beyond COP27, severe turbulence lies ahead

02 December 2022

While progress was made at the summit, the UK Government now has difficult policy decisions to make, says Richard Harries

AT THE opening of COP27, António Guterres called climate change the defining issue of our time (News, 11 November). COP27 was one of the defining moments in meeting that challenge.

The first question is: how successful was it at really facing up to what is predicted will happen, and what were its successes and failures? The second question is: what are the implications of the agreements made for the policy of our own Government, in particular for our own nationally determined contribution?

First, the decision to establish a loss and damage fund and to put it into operation in the coming period is much to be welcomed (News, 25 November). Whether or not this is viewed as a just restitution for the damage caused by the industrialised nations over the last 200 years in relation to less developed ones, the fact is that there is now — and will be in the future — severe loss and damage and dire human need.

We now have an agreement that there will be a fund to enable the world to respond to it. No agreement has been reached, however, on who should pay the money, how, or how much. Recommendations will be made on operationalising the new funding arrangements next year. The process of reaching agreement on payment will need to be kept under close scrutiny in the year ahead, before COP28 in December 2023.

The immediate question for our Government is this. Where is our contribution going to come from? It is not good enough to divert money from the foreign aid budget, which is already reduced to 0.5 per cent from the Conservative manifesto pledged 0.7 per cent. That would simply mean that other vulnerable people formerly helped by aid projects will suffer.

The key issue is the need to reduce the rate at which the globe is warming. COP27 reaffirmed the Paris Agreement temperature goal of holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and agreed to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees.

This is very soft language. The reality, as a number of people have noted, is that the 1.5 degrees goal is either dead or on life support. It is not totally impossible to achieve the 1.5 degrees target, but to do so will require all nations to do much more than they are now. While COP26 requested countries return to COP27 with improved nationally determined contributions, only 34 countries did so, and some, including the UK’s, were largely unchanged.

IN HIS Statement in the House of Commons, on 9 November, the Prime Minister said that “we will fulfil our ambitious commitment to reduce emissions by at least 68 per cent by the end of the decade”, and, in order to achieve this, mentioned accelerating transition to renewables, investing in nuclear power stations, and giving financial support to the green industrial revolution.

I understand that the aim is for 25 per cent of the UK’s energy to be supplied by nuclear power. However, with five generators closed or being phased out, is the Government confident that we will have enough capacity to achieve that target?

More than that, is the target high enough? France has 70 per cent of its energy needs supplied by 56 reactors. China has only 4.9 per cent of its energy supplied from its 53 nuclear reactors, but, over the next 15 years, it is planning to build 150 new reactors, which is more than the whole of the rest of the world has built in the last 35 years. Should we not be raising the amount of energy from nuclear generation from 25 per cent to at least 50 per cent?

The purpose of this transition to nuclear power — and other measures, of course — is to stop having to use fossil fuels, but nothing was agreed at COP27 about ending their use. The final text did not advance on the previous policy of a phase-down of unabated coal power and a phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.

We all recognise the current difficulties caused by the war in Ukraine and the consequent sanctions against Russia; but that war will have to come to an end sooner or later, and we already need to look beyond it to be rid of this key cause of global warming. Will the Government say something about their policy in relation to new oil drilling? Are they still committed to ending the use of coal power by October 2024?

WHATEVER we do to reduce carbon emissions, our country and the whole globe will face increasingly turbulent weather conditions. As John Gray recently pointed out, countries such as Saudi Arabia and Russia could not move suddenly out of oil and gas without imploding and anarchy following. He also pointed out that the switch to renewables is not cost-free: there is both the political scramble for the rare metals needed — lithium, nickel and cobalt — and the environmental cost of mining them.

So we have to be realistic and realise that the progress to net zero will be slow and fraught with political difficulties, and all the time we must prepare for the very severe turbulence that lies ahead, and, not least, help the least developed countries both to do this and to repair and rebuild when they have suffered — hence the importance of the loss and damage fund, which we can, indeed, celebrate.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford.

This is an edited extract of a speech that he made in the House of Lords on 24 November.

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