COP26: I’ll believe it when I see it’: Boris Johnson at COP26

 by Manon Francis

(image by Alex Motoc)
Countries must be ready to "make the bold compromises and ambitious commitments needed" and that Ministers and negotiators at COP26 should "pull together and drive for the line" to secure ambitious action on climate change. But how willing are world leaders to take their own advice?

The UK government has committed to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. This goal was enshrined into law in June 2019 in one of Theresa May's last acts as Prime Minister, and since then dozens of other countries and blocs have followed suit, including the EU, China and Japan.

Committee Report March, 2021

A committee of MPs found the PM had not set out a plan to achieve this and ministers are failing to instruct their departments to take the net zero goal into account when setting policy. There has also been little coordination between central and local governments on achieving emissions reductions, and the public has not been engaged. The public accounts committee said in a report:

‘The UK’s emissions are currently projected to exceed government’s targets for the years 2023 to 2027 and 2028 to 2032, though the government plans to announce policies aimed at closing these gaps.’ 

‘It is now nine years since government first set an ambition for this to be the first generation to improve the natural environment in England, and there is still a long way to go before government can be confident that it has the right framework to deliver on its aspirations and ensure value for money from the funding it has committed to environmental projects.’

Last year Johnson set out a 10-point plan that he said would deliver net zero emissions, including commitments to a massive increase in offshore wind power generation, the possibility of new nuclear power plants, help to develop new technologies such as hydrogen and carbon capture and storage, and pledges to plant more trees. However, critics have said the plan is short on detail and has not been followed up with the policy changes needed to bring about a “green recovery” from the coronavirus crisis.

Failure to pass the Environment Bill October 2021

The bill introduced a wide suite of new environmental policies including powers to tackle air pollution, biodiversity net-gain, waste management and deposit return schemes, as well as increasing sustainable water management first and was first published in 2019. It is currently going back and forth between the two Houses of Parliament and this process - known as "ping-pong" - will continue until both can agree on the final measures to be included, after which it can finally enter law.

The Commons votes come just a few days ahead of the COP26 global climate summit beginning in Glasgow on 31 October. Peers had amended the legislation to set a limit on particle pollution which would be at least as strict as World Health Organisation guidance. The Commons rejected this, in line with the government's wishes, and MPs also rejected an amendment added by the Lords which would place a duty on water companies to reduce raw sewage discharges into rivers.

Personal Footprint of Leaders at COP26

According to Forbes, in total world leaders took 118 private jets to the COP26 climate summit, burning over 1,000 tons of CO2, along with cargo aircraft arriving carrying helicopters and vehicles for motorcades. Flights produce greenhouse gases - mainly carbon dioxide (CO2) from burning fuel which contributes to global warming. Emissions per kilometre travelled are known to be significantly worse for flying than any other form of transport, and private jects generally produce significantly more emissions per passenger than commercial flights.

The journey from Rome to Glasgow on a private jet

Many of the G20 leaders will have made this journey to get to COP26, including PM Boris Johnson and US President Joe Biden. It would take around two hours and 45 minutes, requiring 2,356 litres of jet fuel. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) says 2.52 kg of carbon dioxide is emitted for every litre of aviation turbine fuel burned. Therefore, this flight would produce 5.9 tonnes of CO2. However, BEIS recommends that to "capture the maximum climate impact" of flights, CO2 emissions figures should be multiplied by 1.9 to reflect the effect of non-CO2 emissions released by planes at high altitude, which, scientists say, increase the warming effect. Therefore, the total emissions for this flight would be 11.3 tonnes of CO2 equivalent, and with a capacity of nine, each passenger would be responsible for 1.2 tonnes on their journey. By contrast, if world leaders had decided to take a commercial flight from Rome to Glasgow, their emissions would have been a quarter of a tonne each. Even though a commercial flight uses more fuel per hour, it is able to fly far more passengers than a private jet and therefore produce fewer emissions per person. Among those to fly commercially rather than by private jet was actor Leonardo DiCaprio. 

There are parliaments, national assemblies and senates which won't back what their prime minister or president might want. There are electorate who might just punish the politician who pushes for measures that might threaten their jobs, or increase fuel prices. This goes to show that the scepticism and "I'll believe it when I see it" mentality of various scientists and activists surrounding COP26 and its policies are entirely reasonable, given the "green credentials" of various leaders, and their past inability to keep to certain promises, as short-run and long-run benefits are weighed up.