COP26 signals 'out with the old, in with the new' on energy
Jules Kortenhorst
The entrance to the COP26 Green Zone inside Glasgow Science Centre in Glasgow, United Kingdom, November 4, 2021. /Getty

The entrance to the COP26 Green Zone inside Glasgow Science Centre in Glasgow, United Kingdom, November 4, 2021. /Getty

Editor's note: Jules Kortenhorst is the CEO of Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) and a recognized leader on global energy issues and climate change. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily those of CGTN.  

For more than 25 years, the United Nations has convened every country on earth for international climate change summits - and yet global greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise. At the latest Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, progress in these negotiations was significant but not sufficient to ensure we're handing over a stable, livable planet to the next generation. The hope for limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius stays alive, "but the pulse is weak," as COP26 President Alok Sharma put it.

Many people around the world are feeling frustration, fear, and even despair about this slow-moving diplomatic process and the lack of tangible outcomes it has delivered. In particular, young people, activists, and citizens of developing and vulnerable nations, who are already feeling the worst climate impacts (but not getting the support they need from richer nations), made their feelings known in Glasgow. And rightfully so. Countries' current pledges would lead to an estimated 2.4 degrees Celsius temperature rise by the end of the century. We have so much more work to do urgently.

However, we can take heart in some of the bright spots from COP26, and furthermore in the economic realities of the clean energy transition already playing out in the global marketplace. With that foundation, we must shift gears into driving credible action faster.

Bright spots from COP26

Perhaps the most noteworthy outcome of the COP26 in Glasgow was that it signaled the end of fossil fuels. For the first time ever, the final text of the COP26 agreement explicitly names the leading cause of the climate crisis.

The language in the Glasgow Climate Pact calls for the "phase-down" of unabated coal power and fossil fuel subsidies. While this was softened from "phase-out" at the last minute of the negotiations, it is crucially important in setting a clear direction.

In addition, COP26 generated several encouraging announcements and commitments. More than 100 countries committed to cut methane emissions, a very powerful greenhouse gas, by 30 percent by 2030. A similar number of countries (representing more than 85 percent of the world's forests) agreed to end deforestation by 2030.

Major deals were inked on coal transitions, zero-emissions vehicles, and carbon trading, among other key issues. And in what may have been the biggest surprise in Glasgow, the United States and China announced that they will collaborate on slowing climate change during this decade - even amid broader diplomatic tensions.

A hydrogen-powered zero-emission ambulance is displayed in Glasgow, Scotland, November 10, 2021. /Getty

A hydrogen-powered zero-emission ambulance is displayed in Glasgow, Scotland, November 10, 2021. /Getty

Most striking to me, though, at a summit known historically for intergovernmental diplomacy and country-level negotiations, was how the private sector showed up in a way not seen before.

Real actors from the real economy - large numbers of CEOs from businesses and financial institutions - were present in force to talk about shifting their capital to low-carbon assets. This highlights a widespread and growing acceptance that net zero by 2050 is the destination. But, of course, talk is not enough, and we cannot afford to wait that long.

New economic realities

The unprecedented participation from non-state actors at COP26 may be evidence of a shift in mindsets taking hold behind the scenes. The clean energy transition is increasingly understood as less about burden sharing and more about opportunity seizing. Savvy business leaders want a seat at the table and a slice of the pie.

It is no secret that renewable energy technologies have seen their costs fall and deployment increase much more rapidly than most models predicted. Today, renewables are the world's cheapest energy source and the outlook for the critical years ahead has never looked more promising.

In fact, a new study from the University of Oxford's Institute for New Economic Thinking shows that if renewable energy technologies (i.e., solar, wind, batteries, and hydrogen electrolyzers) continue to follow their current deployment trends for another decade, we can achieve a near-net-zero global energy system within 25 years.

Directly confronting the misguided belief that this transition will be too costly, their analysis shows that such a rapid clean energy transition is actually the cheapest path forward and can deliver net present savings of up to $26 trillion. This is without even accounting for climate damages or the co-benefits of climate policy.

In contrast, a slower transition assuming lower renewables deployment rates and more gradual phase-out of fossil fuels would be more expensive, delaying the realization of savings from renewables. Clean energy is winning the economic race, and fossil fuels' days are numbered. These market dynamics have been playing out independently of any negotiations at COP26, and there's no stopping them now.

Shifting into higher gear

We need more government and business leaders to understand these economic realities and the massive opportunities at-hand for countries and companies to accelerate this shift. The trends are well underway globally.

Indeed, China is already ahead of the pack in many ways - deploying renewables, selling EVs, building batteries - and stands to benefit disproportionately given its manufacturing prowess. The newly released U.S.-China Joint Glasgow Declaration shows that China's direction is aligned with this global momentum, advancing an "out with the old, in with the new" philosophy when it comes to energy sources.

Now is the moment to build on the signals sent from COP26 and the unstoppable economic momentum of sustainable energy solutions with credible actions. Closing the gap on 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030 will require more international cooperation like we're seeing from the United States and China and more radical collaboration between public, private, and civil society actors.

The COP26 process is the best we have, but it's not enough. In addition to bolder government pledges and plans, we must harness the power of the business and finance world. The real economy is no longer just a side event to climate negotiations, it is the main act. These actors are ready, the technologies work, and the capital is poised to be deployed. The only thing we don't have enough of is time.

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