COP26: Shifting the focus from net to zero

To kick off Net-Zero November, edie's content editor Matt Mace reflects on the road to net-zero to date, and how the current climate negotiations at COP26 can leverage progress that delivers rapid decarbonisation over an overt reliance on offsets and balancing mechanisms.

COP26: Shifting the focus from net to zero

COP26 is upon us. The crucial climate summit has been a mountain at the sustainability community’s gate for over a year now. Always looming in the background, but seemingly still so far away.

The UK, as hosts of COP26, ceremoniously heralded its arrival last week, as a plethora of policy announcements were splashed across the front pages. First came the Heat and Buildings Strategy, but before the green economy had time to even access the actual documents, the Net-Zero Strategy arrived. Then the Treasury’s Net-Zero Review. In total, more than 20 documents spanning thousands of pages were released by the Government, all focused on the net-zero movement in some way.

As with most climate-related strategies, the reaction was mixed. The Net-Zero Strategy, for example, was welcomed with open arms by green groups, but was also criticized by the same voices for a lack of actual data on how the UK plans to decarbonise to reach net-zero.

During last week’s Budget announcement it seemed as if the climate crisis had been solved; why else would the Government announce an exemption on Air Passenger Duty for domestic flights to incentivise more Brits to increase their carbon footprints?

That is the overarching issue with approaches to net-zero (both political and corporate). There is a distinct lack of joined-up thinking.

The climate crisis is being compartmentalised. Policymakers and businesses are approaching decarbonisation with a view that action somewhere is good enough, and that acting on the truly uncomfortable questions can be avoided.

“Sure, we’ll switch our facilities to renewables, but that value chain, that’s a step too far,” the business person says.

“Sure, we’ll introduce a plan to phase-out polluting road vehicles, but I don’t see the need to account for international shipping and aviation,” the policymaker says.

Governments are seemingly willing to act on the climate crisis, but as witnessed by the Budget, the economy is the priority. The majority of businesses we write about are embracing the net-zero transition with urgency, but some believe they can turn to offsets to badge themselves as carbon-neutral or net-zero without actually relying on decarbonisation.

Enter COP26. The global negotiations look set to shape the future trajectory of markets moving forward. This weekend’s G20 Summit in Rome seemingly focused more on taxes and the economy than the green recovery. COP26 must follow up by shaping the financial systems that prioritise climate action.

COP26 President Alok Sharma has stated the need for COP26 to deliver on the Paris Agreement. Doing so will require new agreements on carbon markets and the role of carbon credits in shaping national decarbonisation efforts.

It must push developed countries to mobilise $100bn in funding for climate action to support vulnerable communities. It must set the tone for a global shift to urgently and rapidly switch to clean energy sources, forms of transport and behavioral shifts that put the planet on course for “keeping 1.5C alive”, as Mr Sharma is known to say.

The danger of COP26 is that it promotes the current business as usual – commit to net-zero, but lean heavily into the net aspect. What we need from COP26 is the shaping of markets that promotes “business unusual” – where corporates are incentivised to explore new solutions, where financial institutions back groundbreaking innovations and decarbonisation is delivered at a greater pace.

Offsetting – the net in net-zero – has its place. It creates invaluable benefits for communities and helps to restore nature and battle ecological ruin. But the carbon credits market is still a bit of a “wild west” where land is becoming a hot commodity. We can’t afford to reach a destination where land is stretched too far to provide sustainable food sources while also enabling businesses to pretend they’ve tackled the climate crisis by moving the problem elsewhere.

So, my big wish is that COP26, and edie’s own discussions during Net-Zero November, a message emerges that pushes the world towards a net-zero carbon future that emphasises the zero.

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