Anatomy of spin: how UK is trying to frame Cop26 as a success
Officials have been sending out misleading and overhyped statements during the conference. Fiona Harvey dissects one missive
The first week of Cop26 was a packed affair, with world leaders of the G20 group of the world’s biggest economies first meeting in Rome, then moving on to meet more than 100 other leaders in Glasgow for the initial stage of a fortnight of intensive talks.
Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary general, warned that recent optimistic assessments were “an illusion”, exhorting leaders to make stronger efforts to cut greenhouse gases. The biggest country to respond was India, the world’s third biggest emitter, which set out a target of net zero by 2070, which most regard as too late for the Cop26 goal of limiting temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels but some said would be met sooner.
Joe Biden used his final words to take a swipe at China. The Chinese delegation seemed less perturbed, having its own issues with marshalling smaller developing countries, which are concerned that the 1.5C goal is slipping out of reach.
Boris Johnson was alternately hopeful and despairing, and viewed with puzzlement at best and as clownish at worst by the rest of the world, before hopping on a private jet on Tuesday for dinner with the arch-climate denier and former Telegraph editor Charles Moore to discuss the Owen Paterson scandal (and look how that went).
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has been working behind the scenes to stymie progress on ratcheting up ambition on emissions cuts.
But by far the biggest flurry of activity in week one came from the UK hosts, who orchestrated a series of major announcements and deals on forests, finance and coal, to keep up a stream of positive news and momentum, buoying the talks while the negotiators worked on the tricky details.
One particular missive, sent by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy at 4.14pm on Wednesday but embargoed until 10.30pm that evening, tells the story of the week in microcosm.
END OF COAL IN SIGHT AS UK SECURES AMBITIOUS COMMITMENTS AT COP26 SUMMIT
“Cash, coal, cars and trees – to keep the world to 1.5C” was the catchy mantra set out earlier this year by Johnson’s spokesperson Allegra Stratton. Coal is a key element of this: the dirtiest fossil fuel, still in widespread use and still expanding in some countries. If coal use continues, the International Energy Agency chief Fatih Birol has made clear, the world has no hope of remaining within 1.5C.
Taking aim at coal is thus essential to any successful outcome at Cop26. But within the UN process, countries are asked for their own nationally determined contributions (NDCs). In these, their use of particular energy forms can be obscured or not recorded at all. So separating out coal from other sources of energy is a key way for the UK to highlight the problem and set countries on the clean energy track needed.
Thanks to a package of support from the UK and our international partners, a 190-strong coalition has today agreed to both phase out coal power and end support for new coal power plants.
But here is where the UK runs into trouble. There are just over 190 countries at Cop26. Can all of them be planning to phase out coal? Or is this too good to be true?
The UK’s campaign sees major banks commit to end financing coal, on top of China, Japan, Korea and the G20 commitments to end overseas finance for coal generation by the end of 2021, effectively ending all public financing of new unabated coal power.
Again, this is a key goal of Cop26 – earlier this year, the G7, under the UK’s presidency, agreed to halt the overseas financing of coal, after stiff opposition from Japan. China later announced that it would follow suit, a major achievement that means all the biggest state financiers of coal in the developing world will stop funding new plants in developing countries.
But it does not say anything about these countries setting up new coal plants in their own countries – they can still do so. And it does not say anything about the private sector – banks can still fund coal even if they have signed up the UK government’s other major finance initiative of the week, the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ), supposedly a $130tn (GBP96tn) pact by 450 banks to move their portfolios to net zero by 2050.
Agreed under the UK’s Cop26 presidency, countries pledge to accelerate coal phase-out and rapidly scale up deployment of clean power generation, marking a momentous turning point in the global clean energy transition.
This stream of announcements reflects the approach the UK has taken to Cop26, which has essentially two strands: the tough UN negotiations, which centre on getting countries to come forward with NDCs to reduce emissions and sorting out the complexities of the 2015 Paris agreement; and a series of deals and initiatives that are outside the technical part of the UN process but will provide a means of cutting emissions.
These two strands are nothing new – there has been broad acknowledgement for years that not everything needed to cut emissions will be achieved through the UN framework convention on climate change, not least because the cumbersome processin which decisions can only be made by consensus, can easily be halted by unfriendly governments. In the US, Republican administrations with presidents hostile to climate action have been in power for 12 out of the last 22 years, and could soon be again. While Donald Trump was in the White House, withdrawing the US from the Paris agreement, initiatives from businesses and “non-state actors”, such as individual US states and cities in the US and around the world, were essential to keeping progress alive.
So at Cop26 there has been a broad variety of side deals (though UK officials bridle at the term) including a US-EU led pact to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030, which if successful would reduce warming by 0.2C; an agreement by more than 130 countries to halt deforestation by 2030; and the Glasgow emissions-cutting deals among global businesses involved in cement and steel production, which experts said would be vital to reducing emissions from those hard-to-decarbonise industries.
The end of coal – the single biggest contributor to climate change – is in sight thanks to the UK securing a 190-strong coalition of countries and organisations at Cop26, with countries such as Poland, Vietnam, Egypt, Chile and Morocco announcing clear commitments to phase out coal power.
That 190-strong coalition again – but this time it is referred to as countries and organisations. And we get a hint that the announcement may be less powerful than it first seemed: Poland and Vietnam are big users of coal, but Egypt, Chile and Morocco are minor users. Egypt, for example, uses just 0.1% of the world’s coal.
Today’s commitments, brought together through UK-led efforts including the new ‘Global Coal to Clean Power Transition Statement’, encompass developed and developing countries, major coal users and climate vulnerable countries. This includes 18 countries committing for the first time to phase out and not build or invest in new coal power, including Poland, Vietnam, and Chile, marking a milestone moment at Cop26 in the global clean energy transition.
So here is the actual point: only 18 countries are actually agreeing to phase out coal power, and they do not include 15 of the world’s biggest coal users.
This statement, launched today, commits nations across the world to:
. End all investment in new coal power generation domestically and internationally
. Rapidly scale up deployment of clean power generation
. Phase out coal power in economies in the 2030s for major economies and 2040s for the rest of the world
. Make a just transition away from coal power in a way that benefits workers and communities.
Take careful note of the dates for phase-out here. The 2030s for major economies is too late – they should be phasing out coal in the next decade for a 1.5C target to be possible. Germany, for instance, is targeting 2038 for its coal phaseout – much too late, experts say. And the 2040s may be just about tenable for some developing countries, but who are developing countries?
Well, it turns out that Poland considers itself a developing country, despite being the world’s 21st biggest economy by GDP. And Poland will phase out coal by 2049. Technically, that means it can reach net-zero emissions by 2050. But if all countries did that, the 1.5C target would be well out of reach. That’s because of the “area under the curve”. The climate responds to the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere. Every year of emissions adds to the stock of carbon. Scientists say we must reach net zero emissions by 2050 to have a a hope of sticking to 1.5C. But unless we also cut emissions in the short term, on the way to 2050, the cumulative emissions up to mid-century – the area under the curve if you plot annual emissions from now to 2050 – could be so high that we bust through the 1.5C target anyway.
This is on top of China, Japan and Korea, the three largest public financiers of coal, committing to end overseas finance for coal generation by the end of 2021, announced in the last year during the UK’s incoming Cop26 presidency. Agreements at the G7, G20 and OECD to end public international coal finance send a strong signal that the world economy is shifting to renewables. This could end over 40GW of coal across 20 countries, equivalent to over half of the UK’s electricity generating capacity.
The business and energy secretary, Kwasi Kwarteng, said:
“Today marks a milestone moment in our global efforts to tackle climate change as nations from all corners of the world unite in Glasgow to declare that coal has no part to play in our future power generation.
“Spearheaded by the UK’s Cop26 presidency, today’s ambitious commitments made by our international partners demonstrate that the end of coal is in sight. The world is moving in the right direction, standing ready to seal coal’s fate and embrace the environmental and economic benefits of building a future that is powered by clean energy.
“To meet the goals of the Paris agreement to limit global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees, the global transition to clean power needs to progress four to six times faster than at present. With coal being the single largest contributor to climate change, phasing it out and delivering a rapid, inclusive transition to clean energy is essential if we are to keep 1.5 degrees alive.
“28 new members have today signed up to the world’s largest alliance on phasing out coal, the Powering Past Coal Alliance launched and co-chaired by the UK. Chile, Singapore and Durban have today joined over 150 countries, subnationals and businesses, including finance partners NatWest, Lloyds Banking, HSBC and Export Development Canada. This accounts for over $17tn assets now committed to PPCA coal phase out goals.”
The Powering Past Coal Alliance, set up in 2017 by the UK and Canada, has been heavily criticised by NGOs for the weakness of its rules, which allow countries huge latitude in continuing to use coal. HSBC has also come under fire at Cop26 for having poured $15.2bn into coal from 2018 to 2020.
Patrick McCully, senior analyst at the campaign group Reclaim Finance, said: “We do need to make coal history, and fast. But sadly, this new coalition replicates the failings of the Powering Past Coal Alliance. Put bluntly, the PPCA doesn’t do what it says on the tin, given that its global coal exit date of 2050 comes 10 years too late [and] the question of coal mining is simply omitted.”
There has also been a 76% cut in the number of new coal plants planned globally over the last six years, which means the cancellation of 1,000GW of new coal plants since the Paris agreement, roughly equivalent to 10 times the UK’s total peak generating capacity.
Today’s global agreement to move away from coal to clean power has been made possible thanks to a number of other UK-convened initiatives, including:
. No new coal power: The end of new coal power construction is in sight. The launch of the No New Coal Power compact by six countries at the UN high level dialogue in September was followed by the commitments in the Global Coal to Clean Power Transition Statement. This means that by the end of this year, all new public finance for unabated coal power plants will have stopped, with investments increasingly focused instead on accelerating the transition to clean energy sources such as wind and solar power, now cheaper than coal generation in most countries. This accelerates the growing global momentum to end new coal power, demonstrated by the 76% collapse in the global pipeline of proposed coal power plants since the Paris agreement in 2015.
. Supporting emerging economies: In addition, major emerging economies have announced plans to accelerate a just transition from coal to clean power. This includes a South Africa Just Energy Transition Partnership worth $8.5bn, as well as Indonesia and the Philippines agreeing a ground-breaking new partnership with the Asian Development Bank to support the early retirement of existing coal plants. Further financing announcements are expected today at Cop26.
. Supporting coal-intensive economies: Countries with significant coal power generation and mining face large social and financial challenges in the transition from coal. The UK’s Cop26 energy transition council (ETC) mobilises and coordinates the assistance required to enable coal intensive economies to equitably transition from coal, bringing together 20 governments and over 15 international institutions to accelerate the transition from coal to clean power as part of a green economic recovery. For example, the energy transition council’s rapid response facility delivers fast-acting technical, regulatory and commercial assistance to countries and has already responded to 24 requests in a range of areas, including energy efficiency in the Philippines and grid management in Egypt.
. Ensuring a just transition: Today the UK government has also launched a new International Just Transition Declaration, ensuring the move away from coal-high carbon industries results in a sustainable, green and fair future, and one that creates high-quality new jobs and champions local social dialogue in developing and emerging economies. Coordinated by the UK government, so far, 12 countries have signed, as well as the UK and EU Commission, covering a broad spectrum of the world’s donor funding, now driving towards a just transition for communities around the world.
The UK’s announcements on coal came very late in the day for newspaper deadlines, so there was little time for fact-checking. That meant some media reported on them, only to have to backtrack later – leading to suggestions that the deals were flawed or contained loopholes.
Some queries submitted by the Guardian, asking for the full list of countries involved and what exactly they were signing up to, were only answered at 7pm, which is close to our first print deadlines. Further queries were answered at 10pm, just before the embargoed story could go live online, and at 5am the next day there were still more clarifications.
Some of this mess is inevitable because at a live and busy conference some countries will only ever sign up at the last minute, and the UK cannot be faulted for trying to get as many on board as possible. But it also means that if anything is unclear in the announcement, accusations of flaws and backtracking will inevitably follow.
It also shows the difficulty for the UK of coordinating its Cop26 strategy across government – these announcements came from BEIS, but the Cop26 unit is the one leading in Glasgow.
The coal announcements were not the only controversial news last week. The UK’s forestry announcement, of 130 countries agreeing to halt deforestation, was also criticised when Indonesia appeared to deny that it intended to enforce the goal, and critics pointed out that previous forestry agreements had failed to deliver. The GFANZ alliance was also criticised for allowing the 450 participating financial institutions – which the UK announcement noted had a combined value of $130tn but failed to note were only likely to use a small slice of that for green ends in the short term – to carry on investing in fossil fuels.
Mohamed Adow, director of the Nairobi-based thinktank Power Shift Africa, summed up the frustration of many: “This week has seen a blitz of announcements from the UK [that] may generate headlines, but assessing their true worth is hugely difficult, especially at speed during a Cop meeting. Boris Johnson has been criticised ‘for government by press release’, and it now seems to extend to their management of a UN climate summit. These announcements are eye candy, but the sugar rush they provide are empty calories.”
The UK’s first week as Cop26 president – although the government has been preparing for this moment for more than two years – has been lively and has marked important progress as well as some reversals and rows. The second week, when negotiators have to come up with the full text of an agreement, will be much harder.
But despite the difficulties above, the problems over queueing and access to negotiating rooms, most countries spoken to by the Guardian have felt that the UK was doing a creditable job.
Whether that will still be the case by next weekend will depend on the UK resolving key outstanding elements: provisions in the Paris agreement governing how countries account for their emissions; whether carbon trading should play a role in helping countries meet their emissions targets; whether countries should have to return to the negotiating table every year with better NDCs if their current plans are inadequate; and above all, persuading countries that limiting global heating to 1.5C is still genuinely possible, rather than an illusion or “hypothesis”.