This weekend world leaders will gather in Glasgow for the most significant round of international climate negotiations since 2015. With current efforts to reduce emissions falling well short of what is needed to prevent catastrophic global heating, the people of the world need their leaders to dig deep to close the gap.
In its role as host, the UK has been doing its utmost to make that happen, including by setting the example of adopting – and enshrining in law – the world’s most ambitious national emissions reduction target.
Nevertheless some of you may be thinking: haven’t we been here before? Governments have after all met 25 times previously to discuss climate action (the Glasgow meeting is the 26th “Cop”, or Conference of Parties). And yet global emissions are still rising. The world continues to get hotter. So why expect more from this meeting?
Professionally and personally, I’m no stranger to the cycles of hope and disappointment which have often accompanied these big meetings. But let me offer you six reasons for believing things are different this time.
First: the science is now definitive. There is no residual doubt among experts that burning fossil fuels is heating the planet, causing more extreme weather and changing landscapes and ecosystems. Governments can no longer credibly say: let’s wait for the science to settle.
Secondly, this settled body of science is telling us we’re fast running out of time – only urgent action this decade, to halve global emissions, can keep global warming to within the range (1.5oC) needed to avoid catastrophic climate breakdown. Governments can no longer say: it’s okay, we have time on our side.
Third: climate change is already part of the lived experiences of millions of people on every continent. Here in Tanzania, as elsewhere, communities are already suffering from forest fires, sea level rises, increased flooding, droughts and crop failures. Governments can no longer say, we need our people to become more aware of the problem if we’re to have their consent to act. People are aware.
Fourth: more and more big businesses and investors are turning their backs on fossil fuels, and committing to reduce business emissions to net zero. These businesses don’t want to be on the wrong side of history. Nor do they want to miss out on the opportunities of green growth. Governments can no longer say that climate action is bad for business and jobs.
A fifth reason why things are different this time is that the costs of renewable energy alternatives are falling fast. Across much of the world it is now cheaper to make electricity from the sun and the wind than from fossil fuels. So governments can no longer say: sorry, we have to stick with coal because the alternatives are too expensive.
The sixth factor is youth. To political and business leaders, to parents and the older generations, young people are rightly saying: This is our future and our planet you’re ruining. Enough is Enough.
And what young people understand, perhaps better than older generations, is that climate action requires top-down political and economic leadership. As individuals we can, it is true, choose to fly or drive less, eat less meat, recycle our waste, etc. These are positive personal choices. However, climate action requires entire economies to be decarbonised and huge investments in adaptation. As individuals we cannot deliver this. We need governments and big businesses to act.
That’s where the Cop26 meeting comes in. The main goals are to secure enough emissions cuts to keep the 1.5oC goal within reach; to mobilise a $100 billion a year in accessible climate financing for developing countries; and to ramp up international cooperation including on things such as technology, deforestation and carbon markets.
Achieving this will not be easy, and there are understandably concerns about whether the planet’s big emitters will bring enough to the table. However it is also the case that scores of countries have already committed to increase their emissions reduction targets and/or climate financing offers. More big businesses have made net zero commitments. And China has said it will no longer finance overseas coal-fired power plants.
Tanzania deserves particular praise. Under the leadership of President Samia Suluhu Hassan, the government has substantially increased its climate ambition, thereby strengthening its hand in relation to demanding more action from rich countries and attracting international climate financing.
So the trajectory on global action is upwards. But we are not yet where we need to be. Major emitters in particular will need to dig deeper to find more emissions reductions this decade. With climate action a top priority for our Prime Minister, the UK will continue to do all it can to raise ambition further.
In the words of that remarkable young voice on climate, Greta Thunberg: “Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people, to give them hope… But I don’t want your hope. I want you to act. I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.”
I hope every world leader going to Glasgow does so with those words ringing in their ears.