Guest Essays, Opinion

Guest essay: COP26 or ‘cop-out’: A cry for local action

by Alan D. Bristow

The 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland, was supposed to be the time when countries offered real solutions to honor the Paris Agreement, with firm proposals to halve emissions by 2030 and reach net-zero targets by mid-century.

From recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, it is clear time is running out to prevent man-made climate change and to not permanently breach the safe operating space for our species. We need global mean temperature rise limited to +1.5 Celsius from pre-industrialization value and we’re already at +1.2 Celsius. With such high stakes, COP26 had little chance of meeting expectations nor requirements.

Despite COP26 President Alok Sharm’s teary closing speech and climate-activist Greta Thunburg’s lambasting of “so-called” world leaders with their “Blah, blah, blah” words, some progress was made. India announced its first commitment to a net-zero target. A pledge to fund deforestation prevention was renewed. A methane-reduction pledge was signed by 105 countries. The U.S. and China made overtures for better cooperation on the climate crisis, and the 12-country coalition Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance was announced.

Beyond rhetoric, the COP26 Glasgow Climate Pact contained significant outcomes, including an agreement by developed nations to double the financial assistance for climate adaption and mitigation in developing nations, to recognize loss and damage due to climate and weather extremes and to strengthen nationally determined contributions by the end of 2022. Perhaps the most significant part “[c]alls upon Parties to accelerate the phasing-down of unabated coal and inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels.” This was first direct declaration to reduce the use of fossil fuels to survive the drafting process in the COP’s 26-year history.

Nevertheless, there were missed opportunities. Many of the major players in fossil fuel use refused to sign various pledges; the worst aspects of logging and monoculture plantations were barely discussed; and large-scale animal farming for food was not on the agenda. It was also made clear financing   fossil fuels was favored over renewables by a ratio of more than 1,000 to one, and money earmarked for climate projects was being syphoned off by the world’s largest climate polluters. Analysis by the Climate Action Tracker group showed that if all the policies, pledges and targets are implemented, optimistically, the world may only see a +1.8 Celsius rise by the end of the century, but the far more realistic value is +2.7 Celsius.

Changing the world away from its growth-at-all-costs mentality is hard, and politicians worldwide are continually lobbied to prevent necessary action. For example, the largest delegation at COP26 was the fossil fuel industry.

Government and corporate leaders need our help. Since this is a global problem, a series of local solutions needs to occur worldwide. The world is waking up to this, albeit slowly, and in that market of ideas and opportunities, it is better to be a leader, before top-down actions are imposed or outside interests come to exploit.

COP26 was an urgent call to arms for local engagement. Working as a community, we can improve our town, politics and  workplaces. Changing our workplaces for the better will have a larger impact than changing our household behavior. Since WVU is the largest employer in Morgantown, improving the university will improve the town. Therefore, the city and university need to work together.

WVU already researches geothermal, photovoltaics, rewilding, smart-grid development (with the National Energy Technology Laboratory), carbon sequestration, water protection and climate justice. But there is so much more to do on campus. New mitigation and adaption technology and policy must go well beyond the minimal regulatory requirements.

The university and city need your help. We all need to have these conversations at restaurants and churches, in town meetings, at social events and around the water cooler. We need to encourage city and workplace engagement. To paraphrase President John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what your [climate] can do for you, ask what you can do for your [climate].”

Dr. Alan D. Bristow is a professor of physics (researching renewable energy) and part of the Eberly College climate group.