The Mint:                     Hello, Michael. Good day. Thank you very much for joining us to talk to The Mint.

Michael Jacobs:             My pleasure.

COP26 and Ratcheting up Climate Change Ambition

The Mint:                     Brilliant. Well, I’d like to start with how things are looking obviously, with COP26 coming up? And in particularly at the ambition level and how the ratcheting up process is going in terms of, is it really happening? That was the idea that this would happen, how’s it looking?

Michael Jacobs:             Well, if we’re honest, it’s not looking that great. Paris has this kind of fundamental problem with it, which is that brilliant agreement though it was, the first completely comprehensive global international climate change agreement, it has this flaw that there is a gap, an inevitable gap between the collective global goal for temperature control, which Paris sets, and the way in which it tries to achieve this.

                                    So the global goal, there are two, in fact, Paris reconfirmed the older goal of trying to limit global heating to two degrees above pre-industrial times, and set an aspiration, which in many ways has become the new goal of limiting heating to one and a half degrees.

                                    But the way it wanted to achieve that is by asking effectively, every country to decide for itself how much emissions reduction it would actually commit to. And unsurprisingly, if every country is left to itself, their collective ambition, when you add all the countries’ commitments together, don’t add up to a trajectory which is likely to limit heating to two degrees, or let alone one-and-a-half degrees.

                                    And so, we have this thing that is now known as the emissions gap, which is the gap between the trajectory of declining global emissions, which the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said is necessary to have a probability, not a certainty, a probability of holding heating to two degrees or one-and-a-half degrees. And the trajectory which, when you add up all the country commitments, it actually looks like we’re on.

                                    And that emissions gap was there in Paris, and it is, as I say, the kind of fundamental flaw of the Paris Agreement, I have to say in defence of Paris, that was the only way to get an agreement. The idea that you could tell countries what they were going to do had been proved wrong. You couldn’t, and that was why Kyoto, the previous agreement had failed.

                                    But that is the flaw, and what we know is that the commitments, not just the countries made in Paris, but that they are making now, because even before we get to COP, most countries have already announced what they’re committing to, are not enough to close that emissions gap between the current trajectory and the trajectory we need to be on, to limit heating.

The Mint:                     But rather than a flaw, wasn’t this essential to design, in that the idea would be that all the countries would start looking at each other and go, “Well, we’ve got to do better.” and they say, “Oh, we’ve got to catch up with… keep up with them,” and so on?

                                    So the idea was, wasn’t it, that even if it started lower, no one would want to be at the bottom, and there’ll be a sort of, if you like, a race to the top or a ratcheting up?

Michael Jacobs:             That’s completely right, and I do defend Paris. Although this is a flaw, this was the best that Paris could have achieved in the global circumstances that we live in today. And it had these two mechanisms to ensure that pressure was put on countries to do more rather than less.

                                    One of those was that there would be a kind of peer pressure, everybody’s emissions commitments would be visible to everybody, and you wouldn’t want to look like the country that wasn’t doing enough. And secondly, every five years, the Paris Agreement says, “Countries must come together.” First, there must be a stock take, as they put it, of where we are with climate change and with emissions commitments conducted by the IPCC, and every five years, countries would have to come together again and increase, improve, strengthen their commitments.

                                    And that’s why COP26 is the important COP because it is the first time after Paris that countries have to come back and say, “We’re strengthening our commitments.” And it’s a legal obligation to strengthen them. They can’t weaken them, although it has to be said that some countries have not really strengthened them.

The Mint:                     And so, do you think people are waiting and looking at each other? Is it going to be a sort of last-minute thing like ever, like always? Are there any leaders who would… Who do you think is leading to try and push the ratcheting effect forward?

Michael Jacobs:             Well, the strange thing about the COP26 is although this is the big issue, and there are a couple of others which we’ll probably come on to, the big issue in COP26 is, are the emissions reductions enough?

                                    In fact, they don’t occur at the conference. Most of the largest countries, including the EU, the US, the UK, Brazil have already announced their climate commitments for the next 10 years, well before COP26, and most countries, the smaller ones have also done so.

                                    These so-called Nationally Determined Contributions, the clue is in the name, nationally determined, not determined by negotiation with anyone else, most of them have already been announced. And so we know that this emissions gap is not going to be sufficiently closed. The only country that has not really said what it’s going to do, it’s made some commitments, but has not submitted its NDC, Nationally Determined Contribution yet, is China.

                                    And obviously, because China is the largest carbon and greenhouse gas polluter, that is a crucial missing piece of the jigsaw so far. But even if China does a lot relative to expectations, that won’t be closed.

                                    So the EU, the UK in particular, and relative to its previous history, the US, have all laid very [inaudible] emissions reductions, well towards the kind of upper end of what you might expect them to do. And in many ways, current politicians are paying the price of what previous generations of politicians failed to do.

                                    We’ve known about climate change since 1992, that was the original UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and we just haven’t done enough for the last 30 years. And so, the requirements now are incredibly stringent. We have to cut emissions at an incredibly rapid rate, and it’s relative to that requirement set out by the science that politicians are failing. Many of them would say, “Look, we are really doing a lot relative to where we are now,” and they are.

The Mint:                     So are you saying that there’s no possibility for the COP26 process to lead to people saying, “Oh well, we now see we have to up our national commitments?” That’s just not on the agenda.

Michael Jacobs:             Well, so this is a really interesting question. The UK government’s… The UK is obviously the host and the presidency of the COP. UK government’s aim is to what it calls Keep 1.5 degrees Alive. Now, that as you can hear, isn’t achieved 1.5 degrees, but then nothing we can do now will achieve one-and-a-half degrees for two reasons.

                                    One is we don’t actually know exactly what is required to hold heating to one-and-a-half degrees. There is still huge uncertainty around that. And the IPCC only ever deals in probabilities, and many of its probabilities are kind of 50% chance or 66% chance.

                                    As it has been said, if you’re crossing the road a 50% chance, or even a two-thirds chance, is not very good odds.

The Mint:                     No.

Michael Jacobs:             So all of these things are probabilities. But secondly, the commitments that countries are making now, which are mainly up to 2030, in some cases up to 2035, in themselves is not a long enough period to guarantee the temperature outcome.

                                    So in that sense, the government is doing the right thing. It’s saying, “Keep 1.5 degrees Alive by producing commitments for that period, 2030, 2035, which are at least in some way, consistent with a longer period of emissions further reduced, which is consistent then with the 1.5 outcomes.”

                                    So it’s pretty minimal kind of commitment, and a goal, keeping it alive, but they do hope that the total aggregate emissions reductions will, in some sense, not rule out one-and-a-half degrees. I’m afraid if you talk to many scientists, they think one-and-a-half degrees is almost ruled out already.

The Mint:                     And what about the people at the bottom end of the performance? Do you think there’s any potential for the big players who are, as you say, leading the way to put some pressure on them to up their game?

Michael Jacobs:             Yes and no. The international process, the UN process, the fact that there’s the big conference every five years, it does apply some pressure. And of course, that pressure gets transmitted from other diplomatic players, other countries, into the domestic politics of different countries.

                                    But it’s only up to a point because the laggard countries, the countries that you might say are not doing enough, almost entirely have very little public pressure to do more, and that’s one of the reasons they aren’t doing enough. So in Russia, for example, which is the biggest, most developed economy, but always underperforms in this kind of comparison, there is almost no pressure domestically for stronger action on climate.

                                    That’s not just because Russia isn’t a democracy. It’s because actually, there are pressure groups and other civil society actors and businesses who want more action. In Brazil, which is another laggard under its current President, it wasn’t under President Lula, but under Bolsonaro it’s a country which has reneged on a whole load of commitments, particularly in relation to deforestation.

                                    There is a strong environmental lobby. Brazil has a very big green movement. It has some businesses that want more action, but as the election of Bolsonaro proved, it’s not been strong enough to force the government to do something it didn’t want to do. So yes, there are pressures that can be brought to bear, but in the end, these are domestic policy decisions.

                                    You don’t go to an international forum to the UN to say, “We’re going to make these emissions cuts.” You tell your own parliament and public because that’s where the policy has to be enacted. And in Brazil at the moment, there isn’t enough pressure to get Bolsonaro to reverse his course, and he hasn’t done so.

Financial transfers and climate change

The Mint:                     What about the issue of financial transfers? Could that play in at all to the debate?

Michael Jacobs:             Well, that will be the second big question of the COP. And again, you’ve got this kind of paradox that although COP26 will focus a lot on finance, the actual decisions are not made at COP26, they’re not negotiated. The finance that flows from developed countries to low-income countries are decisions made by national governments and parliaments.

                                    And as we’ve seen, even the UK which is hosting the COP, has cut its aid budgets. Many of us regarded that as extraordinary that the country that was hosting this big international conference, where the hosts and Chair’s role is to try and persuade everybody else to do more, is doing less. Now, the government in the UK would say that, “We’re maintaining our climate finance commitments, even though we’re cutting the total aid budget.”

                                    But optically, as we say, that really doesn’t look good to the rest of the world. And most of the rest of the world will simply see that we’ve cut our aid budget from 0.7 of GDP, of GMP, to 0.5, and have not said when we will restore it. So these are all individual governmental country decisions that are made on finance.

                                    And again, we have exactly the same phenomenon, namely, there is a goal, an international goal, which was in fact, set at the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009, reiterated in Paris that the rich developed countries of the world should mobilise, which means both provide and enable the private sector to provide a $100,000,000,000 a year of financial support to developing countries, a commitment that is now 12 years old and has not yet been met. So that $100,000,000,000 a year is not flowing from the richest countries and the private sector to the developing world.

                                    The last time the OECD, which is charged with kind of accounting for this, did so a couple of years ago. The figure was just under $80,000,000,000. There are general estimates now going round that it may be closer to $90,000,000,000, but it isn’t a $100,000,000.

                                    And given that Paris said that was to be achieved by 2020, which as you may notice is now in the past, this is a major failure and the developing countries will come to Glasgow for COP26, and they will be very, very angry about this because that was a pledge. And if Western, Northern industrialised country governments have not met that pledge, which they haven’t, how much value should be put on all their other pledges, including their pledges on emissions reduction?

                                    So this is really a matter of trust as indeed the UK Presidency has said. That number has to be clearly at a $100,000,000,000 by the COP, or else we have a real problem there. And of course, the COP is then meant to strengthen it in the future.

The Ambition Gap and Wider Perceptions

The Mint:                     So there seems to be a mismatch maybe between the wider expectations of, if you like, people in the street or people who are interested in climate change in the street, and what is actually possible.

Michael Jacobs:             I think that’s probably true. I’m not sure that most people in the street, or perhaps the people in the street, the demonstrators have this, but most of the public haven’t yet really got an expectation for COP26. They’re just kind of coming to terms with the fact that we’ve got this big conference occurring in the UK.

                                    But the media, as they are now beginning to do, paying more attention to it, are beginning to notice this kind of huge gap between the expectations around a big COP, a big climate conference. The one five years, practise six because of COVID after Paris, and what is likely to be actually agreed. And that gap, I think will be the big media story in the run-up to, and then at the COP, and I think the UK government is very worried about that.

                                    And we’ve been lucky in a sense that we’ve had Greta Thunberg to give us the story in a very clear way. Of course, it comes from the scientists, so it’s really the scientists saying this. The emissions gap is a scientific phenomenon. It is the trajectory that is likely to hold heating to one-and-a-half degrees or two degrees against the current emissions, and that comes from the scientist.

                                    But what Greta Thunberg has done in her kind of inimitable way, very controversial for some people, but for many young people, just not controversial at all, is she told the truth. And she said for all these promises that governments are making, some of which, as I say, are really quite ambitious by their own standards, they’re not enough.

                                    And that kind of speaking truth to power has been a very useful metric if you like, by which to judge the COP. And I think the media will inevitably judge it by Greta Thunberg’s criteria. Are we on a path to holding global heating to one-and-a-half degrees? No, and I think it will be very difficult for the countries who come to Glasgow and for the UK as the Presidency, to escape that judgement .

COP26 and Positive Potential

The Mint:                     So what could happen at COP26? What positives could come out of it? What other issues might have…?

Michael Jacobs:             Well, I think in a way, the apparent gaps… Not apparent, the gaps that exist now enable the UK Presidency to pull a small rabbit out of the hat, which is to get higher emissions reductions by the COP, higher financial commitments than we’re expecting now.

                                    And if they can do that, if they can show that some additional pressure appears to have worked, then that will enable them to say, and for the conference to say, “We are pushing really hard and we’re going to do more.” And I think that’s one way in which the kind of story can be turned from failure to some success.

                                    The second one is that the UK government is trying very hard and rightly in my view, to get not just these kind of aggregate commitments, these pledges, what really, are no more than promises and targets from governments, but some specific targets and goals and commitments around what it calls the real economy, by which it means the specific sectors of the economy where emissions are largest.

                                    So for example, the UK government is trying to corral a whole range of countries to say, “They will not build, and they will not finance new coal-fired power stations.” Coal is the most polluting carbon fuel. We need to wean ourselves as a global society of coal.

                                    And if a whole bunch of countries can say, “We’re not going to build any more coal-fired power stations,” and a whole bunch of financial institutions, both public ones like the IMF and the World Bank, and private ones, private banks and investors, and countries who give overseas aid say, “We’re not going to finance anymore,” that would be quite a big commitment in the real world, in the real economy.

                                    Similarly, they’re trying to get commitments to slow down deforestation, not just from countries like Brazil, which have forests, but also companies which take products from forests, they’re trying to speed up the phasing out of the internal combustion engine, cars and… that will run on petrol and diesel, not just from governments, but from companies as well.

                                    And so, they hope that a series of, as I say, as they put it, real world or real economy announcements about specific polluting sectors will help build momentum. And they may even be able to say, “Not all of these commitments are actually recognised in the NDCs and the country commitments. So these actually, might get us closer towards the trajectory of emissions reductions than we thought.”

                                    And then thirdly, what I think is likely to happen is, as it becomes clear that this emissions gap and indeed the finance gap have not been fully closed, the date for the next round of commitments will be brought forward. At the moment, it is 2025, that is on the five-year cycle. The next time countries would have to improve their commitments would be 2025.

                                    I suspect that particularly, the most vulnerable and the developing countries will say, “That isn’t good enough. We are not on the right path now. We need to bring forward the date at which we do more.” For example, to 2023, and I think that is quite a likely outcome. And that would be another way in which the UK government and then the whole conference could say, “We are keeping one-and-a-half degrees alive.”

The Mint:                     And are there signs that these real world economic sort of commitments are going to happent?

Michael Jacobs:             Some of them, yes. I think the vehicle industry is well on the way to phasing out petrol and diesel vehicles. Of course, that’s only for new vehicles. You’ve then got all the vehicles that are already on the road, which also need to come out of the market over time, and that will obviously take a longer time.

                                    But in the UK we’ve said, “No more petrol or diesel cars after 2030.” Other countries have said something similar or the same, and I think that’s a real shift. I think the shift to renewables in power is now completely unstoppable. Solar power, wind power are cheaper than fossil fuels in places around the world.

                                    Renewable heating is much, much slower. Hydrogen is still not well-established as an alternative fuel and there are controversies around it. In agriculture and forestry, commitments are very, very much slower and so on.

                                    So it’s patchy, is the truth. There’s a lot of innovation going into some of these fields, but some of them are very difficult. There are millions of farmers. It’s an incredibly dispersed set of decision-makers, so getting them all to farming regenerative ways that are lower carbon is very hard. There are only a small number of car manufacturers, so to be perfectly honest, that’s much easier and you can regulate them in a way that it’s much harder to regulate other sectors.

                                    So the situation is obviously very different in all the different kinds of polluting sectors. There is progress. We’ve now got the first shipments this summer of green steel, steel made without fossil fuels from a Swedish company. That could transform the steel industry globally over time. The problem is that, as I said earlier, we’ve started too late.

                                    If we’d started this 20 years ago, we would be well on the way to these new technologies really transforming sectors, but we’re starting kind of now, or really, in the last 10 years, and very slowly. So these are important innovations and developments in many of these sectors, but they are not happening quickly enough.

                                    And I have to say one other thing about this, which is that many companies are now committing to net zero, as it’s put, to strong environmental targets, but there is a real worry about whether these are real or some kind of focal greenwashing. And there’s a specific reason for that, which is that net zero allows the possibility of some emissions continuing, but then some carbon being removed from the atmosphere, either through geological storage or through trees, and so on. That’s the idea of net zero.

                                    It isn’t absolute zero emissions, and the reason for that is that there are some sectors where it would be incredibly difficult not to have any emissions at all, agriculture being one of them. And so, some degree of sequestration is kind of allowed in the net zero idea. But what many companies are saying is, “We will actually only cut our emissions by a bit, and then we will buy a lot of sequestration to make us net zero.”

                                    And if you look at company plans, they seem to assume not so much change from business as usual in terms of their own emissions, but buying up a lot of sequestration from around the world. And it simply isn’t possible for all companies to do that. That’s a kind of fallacy of composition.

                                    One company might be able to do a bit of sequestration, but they can’t all do. There isn’t enough forest around the world or forest potential, or geological storage potential to do that. And so, there is a big anxiety about how much of the commitments being made by companies at the moment and financial companies is real, and how much is a bit of green PR?

                                    And that’s going to be one of the issues at the COP because the rules for the so-called carbon markets, that’s where you buy emissions reductions are one of the things that will be a controversial part of the negotiations.

Action on land use, food and climate change

The Mint:                     And just, yes, there seems to be this sort of space of food land use, and so on, which you said, there’s a sort of new kid on the block, isn’t it, in climate change? And that meat consumption issues, the whole impact of this area has shot up in sort of awareness of its importance.

                                    But of course, it’s also the point where control or monitoring, or enforcement, or whatever, are deeply problematic. And so, from what you’re saying, it seems that a lot of the offsets could be dumped into this land use pot, which is a sort of just an unknown black box.

Michael Jacobs:             Yes, is the answer to that. It is very hard. The techniques are much less developed than in other areas, and many farmers simply don’t know about them. And for all that there is a move towards vegetarianism in the global north, the global picture is the reverse. Many, many more people, as they become middle-class, as they get higher incomes in China and elsewhere, are eating more meat and global demand for meat is not falling, its rising.

                                    And of course, meat is a very inefficient way of producing protein and other nutrition because you’re basically using the land to feed the animals. And then, the animals feed us, rather than using the land to feed us. That’s much more efficient, but that is the trend globally is going in the wrong direction. And because those are very fundamental trends about income consumption patterns and markets for food, those are going to be really difficult things to change.

                                    And as I say, because the decision-makers in farming are so dispersed, it’s a very difficult sector to influence quickly. There are changes, moving ahead. In the UK, the National Farmers Union has committed to achieving net zero in the agricultural sector by 2040 or 2050.

                                    And that’s remarkable, that is a real commitment on that part of the farming community in the UK, to use more regenerative approaches, approaches not to dig up [inaudible], and so on and so forth. But it’s slow, and in the rest of the world, that commitment is not being made yet in that sector.

The Mint:                     So is it likely that anything’s going to come out in that space to try and do better or put frameworks, or new agreements?

Michael Jacobs:             At COP26, I think that’s very unlikely. I just don’t think the collaborative commitments are yet being made on that scale, but there are specific things happening in many countries. There are countries which are trying, which have tropical rainforest, which are trying very hard to manage them in a more sustainable way.

                                    There are companies that are refusing to… for example, companies, which are at least saying, “We still need to see whether this will be monitored and enforced,” but saying that they won’t take palm oil, for example, areas that have been deforested or from new forest plantations, and so on. So there are lots of things happening in the field.

                                    There are many countries in the world where there’s a desperate need to reclaim land that has been degraded, but a quarter of all agricultural land is now degraded and that, of course, is a win-win. You get more planting, so more sequestration of carbon, and you get livelihoods and food.

                                    And so, there are countries, particularly, in Latin America and China, parts of China, where that is occurring, where land degradation is a big issue and they’re trying to restore land, and so on. So there are lots of things happening, but I think they are still really at their smaller level, and not at the level of an international collaborative agreement, which could be brought into COP26.

                                    I would expect that to be happening more by the following one, by COP31.

The Mint:                     Brilliant. Well, thank you very much, Michael. It’s been a really useful sort of overview introduction, and if you like, help people think, well, what are they going to look for? What can they expect, and so forth? So it’ll be very interesting now, and maybe we can talk to you later after the event to see how it really turned out. [crosstalk]

Michael Jacobs:             And of course, what we don’t know about COP26 is how the public is going to interact with it because we’re still in COVID conditions. What you would normally get at a big COP like this is huge demonstrations on the streets. We’re not really sure how that will interact with the conference?

                                    And that, in the past has made a big difference. The fact that you are in Glasgow, in a country that does care about climate change, with a lot of climate protesters wanting to act, in normal circumstances would have made this a really fascinating political COP, and we just don’t know what it’s going to be. We don’t really know how many people from the south of the world are going to be able to come because of COVID restrictions, vaccinations not being sufficient, and so on.

                                    So there’s a huge amount of unknown, not just about the kind of negotiations, but also about what kind of event it is going to be and how much it’s going to impinge on the political consciousness of the public, and of the governments that need to act.

The Mint:                     Absolutely. Okay. Thanks very much, Michael.

Michael Jacobs:             Thank you.


Michael Jacobs

Michael is an economist, policy adviser, author and expert on climate change focussing on the development of a post-neoliberal political economy. He is currently a Professorial Fellow in the Sheffield …

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