Countries must “call time” on coal-fired power, deforestation and new petrol cars if hopes of meeting the world’s toughest climate target are to be kept alive, the UK has warned.
In little less than six months, the world is due to convene in Glasgow for a major summit that is considered crucial for tackling the climate crisis and its escalating impacts on people and wildlife.
Alok Sharma, the UK minister appointed president-designate of the talks, on Friday set out his plans for how to make the conference a success. In a 20-minute address, he called on the world to “consign coal power to history”, to “call time” on the destruction of forests, and to commit to all new cars being “zero emissions” by 2040 or earlier.
These steps will be necessary if the world is to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels – the aspirational target set by countries under the Paris Agreement in 2015, he said.
Scientists have previously warned that achieving this goal will be vital for stemming increases in extreme heat, glacier loss, coastal flooding, Arctic ice melt, and the fast disappearance of the world’s coral reef, among other impacts.
Today, global temperatures are already around 1.2C higher than in pre-industrial times and current policies from countries would put the world on course for around 3C of warming by the end of the century.
Speaking in front of an onshore wind farm in Glasgow, he said: “Last year was the hottest on record. The last decade was the hottest ever recorded. In the past thirty years the world has lost up to half its coral reefs. Half.
“And if we do not act now, the science tells us these effects will become more frequent and more brutal. That we will witness a scale of global catastrophe, the likes of which the world has not seen. And quite rightly, future generations will hold us responsible.”
His call comes amid rising concerns about how a conference typically involving 30,000 people will be able to go ahead safely in just six months’ time. In his address, he reiterated that the government still plans to hold the event in person, and hinted that vaccines and testing could be used to ensure that all countries will be able to attend.
The UK is also facing increasing pressure over its bid to be a climate leader in the run-up to the conference. Boris Johnson recently announced a world-leading plan to slash the country’s emissions by 78 per cent on 1990 levels by 2035. But academics and campaigners warn that the UK isn’t yet on track to meet its older, less ambitious targets.
In addition, ministers have faced criticism for making a number of moves that appear to be out of step with its climate efforts, including refusing to rule out more fossil fuel exploration in the North Sea, cutting back on measures to boost electric car uptake and energy efficiency in homes, and displaying inertia over plans for a new coal mine in Cumbria.
In his plan for Cop26, Mr Sharma also said that all countries should set targets for reaching net-zero emissions by 2050, and come forward with more ambitious plans for slashing their pollution by the end of the decade.
Another major piece of the puzzle in the climate fight will be to ensure that poorer countries receive enough cash to help them transition to using clean energy, and to help them cope with worsening extreme weather and rising temperatures, he said.
Back in 2009, richer countries promised to provide developing countries with $100bn in climate finance a year by 2020 – a pledge that is still some way from being met.
“Without adequate finance, the task ahead is near impossible,” he said.
“And I ask ministers from developed nations to imagine what it is like for communities on the front line of climate change, struggling to deal with a crisis they did next to nothing to create ... It is a matter of trust.”
The UK recently pledged to double the amount it gives in international climate finance. However, the government is also facing ongoing criticism for its decision to temporarily slash its foreign aid budget from 0.7 to 0.5 per cent of the national income.
The decision will not directly affect its spending on climate finance, but a range of politicians, NGOs and activists have warned that the move could put the UK on the back foot as it attempts to rally action from other countries.
Commenting on Mr Sharma’s speech, Tracy Carty, a climate policy adviser at Oxfam, said: “While the UK government’s climate commitments are world leading, it must now avoid looking like the emperor with no clothes.
“Appearing to support a new coal mine in Cumbria while talking about consigning coal to history sends completely the wrong signal. Supporting further oil and gas exploration in the North Sea also risks embarrassing the government in this crucial year.”
The Independent’s Stop Fuelling the Climate Crisis campaign is reporting on the UK’s continued support for North Sea oil and gas and other types of fossil fuel extraction ahead of Cop26.