GLASGOW, Scotland — You have to be physically present at the United Nations COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, to feel the sheer energy and power that radiates from 40,000 people gathered in one place to save the world.
At any given moment, during the period that this reporter has been here, waves of delegates — government advisers and officials, economists, scientists, bankers, businesspeople, nonprofit representatives and young climate activists among them — were surging through the main, mile-long concourse en route to a seemingly unending lineup of meetings, lectures and panel discussion events.
In two hangar-like spaces where keynote speeches were given, alphabetical order was sacrificed for political quiet to keep the Islamic Republic delegate’s desk a sufficient distance away from the Israeli one.
At the large Hydro arena, events were taking place beneath a giant suspended globe, while elsewhere in the complex, a labyrinth of pavilions from countries and organizations showcased an overwhelming display of programming. (Israel has no pavilion this year, having decided not to spend money in case the pandemic forced the cancellation of the conference.)
Laptop-bearing delegates, their computers and phones plugged into thousands of sockets for recharging, filled endless banks of IKEA desks and chairs, with more people sitting on the floor, leaning against the walls, writing or occupied with their cellphones and just waiting to jump in when a desk chair became available.
During the event’s first two days, it was hard to snake one’s way through all the journalists and technical crews there to film their national leaders.
When those leaders left, it was up to the army of bureaucrats, technical officials, advisers and others to get down to the nitty gritty of battling the effects of climate change, via multilateral negotiations, bilateral meetings and lectures that might deepen knowledge in their field.
Each day of the conference, which ends November 12, is now devoted to a different climate issue, and over the past few days, scores of nations have signed a slew of pledges — to shift away from coal, cut methane emissions, halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation, and more.
— Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg) November 5, 2021
But with skepticism and frustration running high outside the conference complex, as voiced by the estimated 100,000 demonstrators who marched through Glasgow on Saturday, and with the world lagging behind on the targets that will enable it to keep global temperature from rising more than 1.5ºC over pre-industrial times, there’s a big question mark over how much success can be generated at COP26.
Israel has been well represented in Glasgow. In addition to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, the delegation included the energy and environmental protection ministers along with senior staff. One representative of the Finance Ministry’s budget division flew in and out during the week, as did a research economist from the Bank of Israel. State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman initiated a meeting of state auditors, a first for a COP, while the Education Ministry was conspicuous for having sent nobody.
As of Friday, Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli was also not planning to attend, although officials from her ministry will be flying to Glasgow for a day focusing on transportation.
Reports about the impressive size of the 120-strong Israeli delegation have to be taken with a pinch of salt, however, because it included a large security retinue, along with a number of nonprofits. (In other countries, nonprofits register independently; in Israel, they were allowed to join the delegation because they had not registered for the conference in time.)
Sharon Hatzor, deputy director general of the Energy Ministry’s Policy Planning and Strategy Division, has been dealing with the climate crisis for more than two years, ever since joining the ministry, and has a team working on strategy for 2050. “From our point of view, the conference represents the climax of our work,” she said.
“There’s a power you feel when you come to a conference like this and understand where the world is [going],” she noted. “There’s the number of people and the messages – it’s very important for the policy people.”
Hatzor said that the summit conveyed a very clear message that climate change “is not the problem of government or civil society or industry; rather it’s something that can be solved only if we all work together.”
“It means that the government has to give up a bit of control, that the nonprofits have to be understanding,” she went on. “The challenge doesn’t resemble anything we’ve met before. This comes out of every meeting.”
One of the challenges raised in Glasgow that Israeli officials are already dealing with is cutting emissions from methane, a greenhouse gas that, compared to carbon dioxide, spends far less time in the atmosphere once emitted, but is more than 80 times more powerful at warming the earth during its first 20 years.
Earlier in the week, Israel formally joined an American-European initiative to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030.
Worldwide, at least 25% of methane emissions come from human activity, according to the not-for-profit Environmental Defense Fund, most of them from livestock agriculture and the oil and gas industry.
According to the EDF, which presented at a large COP26 Methane Moment pavilion, cutting these short-lived emissions now will help to rein in global warming while many of those reading this article will still be alive.
The job is becoming easier with the development of satellites that can pick up and even quantify methane emissions on earth, delegates were told.
In Israel, the Energy Ministry is embarking upon a two-year project to map the potential points for methane emissions along the entire gas industry supply chain.
According to the Natural Gas Authority, some 0.06 billion cubic meters of natural gas are lost along the distribution network, equivalent to 40,000 tons of methane, or 15% of all national methane emissions. (The way these emissions were measured is disputed by the gas industry.)
In Israel, though, it is the burial of organic waste, which homes are not mandated to separate from other trash, that is responsible for some 77% of methane emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Ministry, with the energy sector, agriculture and wastewater accounting for the rest.
The Environmental Protection Ministry has set itself the goal of cutting 47% of methane emissions from the waste sector by 2030 and 92% by 2050. To deal with organic waste emissions, it is planning a number of large organic waste composting facilities, which were recently approved by the National Planning Council.
Welcome to the future
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett used his podium time in Glasgow on November 1 to declare that Israel’s real contribution to the war on climate change will come from technology development. In a press briefing just before that, he said he would set up a fund to encourage investment in climate tech.
In Glasgow, talk about tech oozed out of every nook and cranny and solutions were discussed that boggled the mind with their ingenuity.
While renewable energy will become the source for sectors that can easily go electric, such as cars and buses, it is not suitable in fields such as aviation, shipping, heavy haulage and the steel and cement industries.
Around the world, the promise of hydrogen power, harvested by separating and reuniting the elements that make up water, is sparking the next revolution in clean energy.
While hydrogen can be produced in a variety of ways, green, or clean, hydrogen is generated by using renewable energy (wind and solar) to power the electrolysis that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen.
Late last year, a group of overseas companies created a coalition, the Green Hydrogen Catapult, aimed at accelerating the scale and production of green hydrogen by 50 times over the coming six years.
At a green hydrogen session, participants heard that the technology should become competitive in seven to eight years.
Decarbonizing the heavy industrial sector was also at the heart of presentations about Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).
This involves sucking in air, separating out the carbon dioxide and taking it to a place where it can be buried deep in the earth’s rocky lithosphere.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made clear in its sixth assessment report published in August that nature-based solutions, such as planting more trees and rehabilitating wetlands, will not be enough to absorb all the carbon dioxide necessary and will have to be supplemented by technological carbon removal programs.
A businessman who runs a large air capture company and is planning to start building a substantial facility in the US next year declared that the technology is “feasible, affordable and available.”
In September, the Swiss company Climeworks launched the world’s largest direct air capture facility in Iceland, near to a geothermal power plant. Powered by renewable thermal energy, it uses massive fans to suck the ambient air in. The carbon dioxide is mixed with water and pumped deep into the earth where it reacts with the basalt stone, mineralizes and eventually turns into rock.
The Norwegians, who have been storing carbon dioxide for years, are meanwhile involved in a project called Longship which aims to store CO₂ produced by industry across the European continent deep within the seabed.
Where’s the money?
As ever, money is an essential catalyst for change, and at COP26 several thorny issues are being discussed.
The first relates to getting the developed nations, which have built their wealth on the back of fossil fuel-powered industry since the 19th century, to foot a $100 billion annual bill that will help the poorer nations to cope with the mess that fossil fuels have created.
But nobody likes to spend money, and governments are particularly reluctant to do so following massive spending sprees to rein in COVID-19. Having failed to meet the goal for 2020, the UN is now pledging to reach it for 2023. (Israel is not contributing.)
Other issue include compensating those poorer nations for climate-related loss and damage and agreeing on a mechanism for an international carbon credit trading system. The latter would enable richer nations to buy carbon credits to finance projects that rehabilitate the environment to help offset emissions that they have not been able to cut.
Another issue, of more direct relevance to Israel, is how to encourage banks, pension funds and other financial institutions to divest from fossil fuels and invest in green projects and technologies instead.
A study by the Clean Money Forum, the results of which were published last month, revealed that Israel’s leading pension, provident and insurance funds have invested more than NIS 50 billion ($16 billion) in shares and corporate bonds of the fossil fuel industry.
Governments tend to be as reluctant to take on the financial sector as they are to face up to large polluting industries.
But it seemed clear at Glasgow that in the financial world, there is a growing awareness that fossil fuels are on their way out and that the institutions have to decarbonize their portfolios by integrating climate considerations into their investment decisions.
In Israel, the Bank of Israel is leading by example. It recently published draft disclosure rules for consultation prior to issuing instructions on climate change disclosure and what it should include.
For its part, the Environmental Protection Ministry is working on a database that will help investors to judge the carbon friendliness of companies so that they can make informed decisions about where to put their money.
In Glasgow, a group of 450 banks (including HSBC, Bank of America and Santander), insurance companies and asset managers from 45 countries pledged to direct up to $130 trillion of private capital away from projects that are bad for the environment (with the exception of coal for the next few years), such as agriculture-led deforestation, and toward initiatives that cut carbon, by 2050.
That group, the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ), set up in April, is led by the former governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney.
Carney, an economist and banker and the UN Special Envoy for Climate and Finance, has been a leading voice on the environment for some years and Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry is following the guidelines he devised for making the financial sector climate accountable.
On Wednesday, he chaired a panel in front of an audience that included former US vice president turned climate campaigner Al Gore.
The need to reach net zero had to shape the entire financial system, Carney said.
In a net zero economy, the amount of carbon emitted is offset by the amount that is captured and stored.
Panelists spoke about “going from country to country, company to company” in their efforts to distinguish between the climatically good and the climatically bad.
Charles Emond, CEO of CDPQ, a global investment group, cautioned that the sector had to be “ambitious but also pragmatic.” Reflecting the complexities of judging whether a project was good or bad for the climate, he noted, “I get applauded when I invest in wind turbines, but you have to remember that they’re made of steel, copper and concrete” — all of which emit greenhouse gases during production.
Others spoke of the importance of green bonds, which are issued by borrowers to raise financing for projects with a positive environmental impact. In a new development, some banks are lowering the cost of borrowing for green companies, delegates heard.
“We’re creating new ground rules for a new industry,” said Audrey Choi, chief sustainability officer at Morgan Stanley, which on the day of the panel announced interim targets for its September 2020 pledge to reach net-zero financed emissions by 2050. The new rules required creating the “measurements, metrics, reporting and accountability” needed, along with transparency and industry-wide standardized rules, Choi said.
Inger Andersen, UN under-secretary general and the executive director of the UN Environment Program, told the panel, “If we want to hit 1.5ºC, the net zero reductions need to be realized this side of 2030. So there are real opportunities for investors in sectors such as transport and shipping and we need to step out of coal and gas.”
Investment decisions had to be “science-based, portfolio-wide and economy-wide,” she added.
On the plus side, as one official from the Environmental Protection Ministry put it, COP26 is underlining the extent to which the climate crisis has moved away from the purely environmental realm to the heart of the political, economic and social debate.
But it is after the conference is over that the real work will begin, holding those that signed pledges to put them into practice and cajoling those that didn’t to step up to the plate.
Scores of countries, including Israel, have signed a long list of pledges at COP26.
The problem is that the biggest global warming gas emitters such as China, Russia and India are not on board when it comes to cutting emissions. The first two have committed to net zero only by 2060, and India only by 2070 (with some nearer term targets for 2030).
So it remains far from clear how the world intends to cap the global temperature rise at 1.5ºC, when the UN says this will requires slashing carbon emissions by 45% by the end of the current decade.
Add to that several sets of gloomy figures indicating that the world is currently on course for a 2.7ºC rise in temperatures by 2100, compared with preindustrial times (according to a UN Emissions Gap Report), and that the world is way off course for funding the costs of adaptation, which could reach an annual combined $280 billion to $500 billion by 2050 for developing countries alone (according to a UN Adaptation Gap Report).
There is a dissonance surrounding COP26 given the many questions over the ability of the UN — a body with no teeth — to bring about the massive and profound systematic change that is needed if humanity is to survive long term.
Putting the brakes on climate change requires a measure of courageous leadership that is rare at the best of times, an investment of funds with more zeros attached than an ordinary mortal can fathom, and a level of coordination that can get immensely complex systems to work in sync and move forward toward a greener future together, despite the best efforts of the fossil fuel industry to stop them.
According to a BBC report, there are more accredited delegates at the conference with links to the fossil fuel industry than there are from any single country.
COP 26 drew many VIPs in posh suits who flew into Glasgow in carbon-spewing private jets and were only seen by most participants on a screen.
They, of course, were absent from the lengthy lines to get into the conference, where this reporter got to hear stories about the impact of climate change on real people’s lives.
One young man spoke of the drought and intensifying cyclones affecting his homeland of Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), while others described increasingly violent and irregular downpours causing floods and washing crops away in Ghana and Gabon.
In the pavilion area, indigenous people from Brazil who are victims of President Jair Bolsanaro’s deforestation offensive in the Amazon manned a stand while wearing traditional headgear.
Will COP26 do anything for them? Was the young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg right to tell thousands of young protesters in Glasgow on Friday that the conference was no more than a “global north greenwash festival”?
On Friday night, US climate envoy John Kerry told the UK’s Channel 4 News that he did not blame people for being frustrated. “We are behind where we need to be,” he said, “But there is an enormous amount of really hard work work and incredible groundbreaking initiatives and there are huge sums lying on the table, more than we’ve ever seen before.”
He added, “Something different is happening here at this conference.”