As Boris Johnson unveils COP26 'launchpad' event, is the world on track for a green recovery?

In a speech to world leaders today, Boris Johnson confirmed that the UK will co-host a climate event with the UN in December and will spend the coming months urging other nations to update their emissions targets. But is the UK keeping its own promises for a green recovery? And are world leaders walking the talk on their own commitments?

Image: Foreign and Commonwealth Office / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)”

Image: Foreign and Commonwealth Office / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)”

Delivered at the UN’s Climate Action Roundtable, an event held as part of preparations for each COP, Johnson’s speech urged world leaders to enact policy frameworks that ensure economies are “built back better” after the shockwaves of Covid-19.

Specifically, Johnson emphasised calls for nations to update their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement by the UN’s deadline of 31 December and to consider announcing “genuinely transformational net-zero targets and bold climate finance projects” at COP26 in November 2021.

The UK will host a COP26 “launchpad” event on 12 December to mark the five-year anniversary of the Paris Agreement, Johnson confirmed. Nations which have submitted their NDCs ahead of time will be given a platform there to announce them on a global stage.

Johnson said the event will see the UK “leading by example” in inspiring and enabling a “global green industrial revolution”.

"As the world continues to deal with coronavirus, we must look ahead to how we will rebuild and how we can seize the opportunity to build back better," Johnson said.

"We cannot let climate action become another victim of coronavirus. Let us be the leaders who secure the very health of the planet for our children, grandchildren and generations to come."

Follow the money

Johnson’s comments come in the same week that the UN’s former climate secretary and Paris Agreement architect Christiana Figueres told Business Secretary Alok Sharma that he has “won the lottery” by securing the COP26 presidency for the first stock-take of NDCs.

Speaking at Climate Week NYC on Wednesday (23 September), Figueres praised Sharma’s work to date but reiterated concerns around how difficult it must be to plan a COP in the middle of a pandemic and a financial crash.

Responding to her comments, Sharma said he believes that the world is at a “tipping point where business, civil society, individuals [and] also governments are realising we do need to build back better”.

“I feel confident that we are at the point where we’re going to go forward collectively and achieve what I think some months ago wouldn’t have been thought of as possible, and that is this momentum for a green recovery,” Sharma said. However, he acknowledged that some nations and businesses are either still developing plans or are on the fence about the movement, adding: “If ever there was a time to come forward with green recovery packages, this is it.”

Sharma’s confidence stands in contrast to analyses published this week on the extent to which global efforts to create an economic recovery from Covid-19 are “green”.

According to Vivid Economics’ Greenness of Stimulus index, governments have “largely failed to harness the opportunity” to help high-emitting sectors reduce their climate impact and create green jobs through the way in which they have allocated short-term financial support. Packages confirmed to date by the G20 nations will result in a net-negative environmental impact in 16 of these nations, the index states.

The US, which has reportedly provided more than $72bn of unconditional bail-out funding to fossil fuel companies since March, fared the worst in the index. The Trump Administration has earmarked just $39bn of its recovery efforts, estimated to be around $2.98trn, for low-carbon activities and nature conservation and restoration. Brazil, South Africa, Russia, Japan, Australia and Italy are also named in the index as laggards.

A separate analysis from Climate Action Tracker this week reached a similar conclusion – that nations including the US, Mexico, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Australia and South Africa are “using the pandemic recovery to roll back climate legislation and bail out the fossil fuel industry”.

China is also cited by Climate Action Tracker as a cause for potential concern. Despite confirming a 2060 carbon neutrality target this week, bolstered by a pledge to reach peak emissions by 2030 at the latest, none of its $644 first rescue package had environmental conditions attached. The environmental footprint of its new infrastructure plan, which will allocate up to $2.5trn, also remains to be seen.

Redefining leadership

The good news is that both analyses conclude that the world is not devoid of leadership on the green recovery agenda; they cite the UK and EU as geographies where policy measures are likely to have a net-positive impact.

Of the EU’s €750bn recovery package, more than one-third (37%) has been directly earmarked for initiatives to boost energy efficiency, bring renewable energy online and preserve and restore nature. The Climate Action Tracker is confident that at least 30% of the funding will be spent in this way, regardless of how specifics are determined. All funding allocated under the package is subjected to a “do no harm” requirement.

The UK is not eligible to receive any of this funding or contribute to discussions on how it is allocated, due to Brexit. But the Vivid Economic analysis concludes that the UK’s own package will have a net-positive environmental impact and that the nation’s historical performance has outpaced most of the G20.

Acknowledged in the report are the £3bn package for energy efficiency in buildings, the £2bn bailout offered to Transport for London and the £2bn package for walking and cycling infrastructure. Smaller packages for R&D in the industrial sectors and in transport are also praised for their potential to help scale up sectors like green hydrogen, carbon capture and offshore wind.

Nonetheless, “total specific green spending remains much smaller than the large spending commitments made by Germany and the EU,” the analysis states. Environmental standards have been rolled back in the agriculture and waste management sectors and many corporates in the transport sector have received multi-million-pound bailouts without environmental conditions through the Bank of England’s Corporate Financing Facility (CFF). Among them are Easyjet, Ryanair, British Airways, Wizz Air, Airbus, Honda and Nissan.

Speaking to MPs this morning (24 September), the Bank’s executive director for UK deposit-takers supervision, Sarah Breeden, said that a “big and broad” approach was needed to prevent economic collapse in an “unprecedented situation” – meaning that requiring measures such as TCFD-aligned disclosure would be “disingenuous”. Breeden also cautioned against sweeping divestment from fossil fuels.

This argument was not well-received by the MPs, given that thousands of jobs have been lost in sectors like energy, transport and hospitality despite bailouts – and that many more redundancies are expected in the coming months.

Aside from bailouts, green groups have opposed Highways England’s decision to undertake projects accounting for £14bn of the government’s £27.4bn Road Investment Strategy 2 as part of the UK’s Covid-19 stimulus plan.

All in all, the UK does seem poised to deliver a recovery with at least some net benefits to the environment. But whether it will be ambitious enough for the nation to be taken seriously as COP26 host remains to be seen – particularly as pre-Covid legislation is not considered joined-up enough to keep the UK on track for its original Climate Change Act targets, let alone net-zero by 2050.

It had been hoped that the autumn would provide some clarity, with the publication of policy packages including the Energy White Paper, Heat Strategy, Building Strategy and the National Infrastructure Strategy (NIS). Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s decision not to present a Budget this autumn could mean further delays for some of these milestones – particularly the NIS, which was due at the Budget in March. In edie’s recent survey of 244 sustainability and energy professionals, 75% said more ambitious policy support would be needed for them to class the UK Government’s Covid-19 response as “green”.

Sarah George



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