Stanley Johnson with his wife, Jenny (Photo by Roy Riley) Stanley Johnson with his wife, Jenny (Photo by Roy Riley)
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Government must do more to protect the environment

By Stanley Johnson. Published in The Times: Tuesday 5th October 2021

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One balmy summer's evening, at the beginning of June 1972, I walked with the crowd through the streets of Stockholm behind a huge inflatable Leviathan chanting "Save the Whale". That was the time of the first UN Conference on the Human Environment (UNHCE).

Barbara Ward and Rene Dubos' book Only One Earth: the care and maintenance of a small planet, specially commissioned for the conference, featured on its cover a photograph of a pale blue fragile orb which US astronauts had recently taken from space. This was Planet Earth, and we were busy making an awful mess of it.

Though "climate change" had barely featured as an issue at Stockholm, international concern grew dramatically over the next two decades.

I was lucky enough to be present also in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 20 years later, in June 1992, when the "Earth Summit", properly named "the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development" (UNCED), adopted the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Applause rang out in the vast conference centre. People danced in the street and on Rio's famous beaches.

In adopting at Rio the UN's Climate Change Convention, the nations of the world committed themselves to one overarching ambition: namely "stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system".

I never envisaged back, back in 1992 just how long it would take to put flesh on the bones of the new treaty. Environmental enthusiasts - and I was one of them - were perhaps deceived by the success of recent international efforts to avoid the destruction of the ozone layer, as exemplified by the Vienna Convention on the Protection of the Ozone Layer (1985) and its Montreal Protocol on Ozone-Depleting Substances (1987).

In the event, dealing with greenhouses gases (GHGs) with multiple emitters was much more complicated than dealing with the relatively small number of manufacturers of ozone-depleting substances such as chlorofluorocarbons.

It took 23 years for the UNFCCC's 21st Conference of the Parties, held in Paris in December 2015 (Cop21), to establish its key operational goal, viz "Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change."

The Paris Agreement of 2015 recognized the gap between where GHG emissions were heading and where they needed to be to limit dangerous levels of warming.

Under the agreement all parties are required to submit "nationally determined contributions" (NDCs) to reduce GHG emissions in the near term, as well as long-term low emission development strategies (LT-LEDS) which should guide their transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient future by mid-century.

Unfortunately, the pledges made by governments in Paris in 2015, far from achieving "not more than +1.5C goal", in fact implied a global temperature increase of more than 3C above pre-industrial levels by the year 2100.

Happily, some countries have since revisited their NCDs and/or adopted legally binding net zero targets. Nevertheless, even if the revised programmes are fully implemented (which is by no means certain), global temperature would still rise by 2.4C by the end of the century.

So, the key issue now — perhaps the most important issue of our time — is how to "close the gap" and get the world back on track. That is what Cop26, to be held Glasgow next month, is all about. Because it falls to the UK to preside over that meeting, Britain's role is crucial. Realistically, Alok Sharma, MP, as president designate of Cop26, has a Herculean task on his hands.

His most important job is to persuade governments around the world to strengthen their emission reduction programmes for 2030. This is the decade that counts if we are to close the gap.

Here the G20, whose members include China, India, and Brazil, will play a crucial role. If all G20 countries were to align their 2030 targets with a 1.5C domestic emissions pathway, the 2030 emissions gap could be narrowed by 64 per cent, thereby bringing the world much closer to a 1.5C emissions pathway.

But Cop26 could go one step further. Glasgow 2021 could adopt a Global Net Zero Carbon 2050, complementing the Paris objective, even if some countries are not yet ready to commit themselves to such a goal in terms of their own national legislation. As far as the UK is concerned, the Net Zero Carbon by 2050 goal is already enshrined in law (as it is in the case of the EU, Japan, and Canada).

And there is no doubting the prime minister's own commitment. Speaking at the United Nations in September, Boris Johnson said: "We are fast-approaching a critical moment for our planet and our people, when - in just one month’s time - world leaders will gather in Glasgow for the long-awaited Cop26 climate summit.

"We need everyone to bring their ambition and action, so we can limit rising temperatures and set the world on the right path to net zero emissions. That means bold commitments on coal, cars, cash, and trees: to drive forward our green, industrial revolution with clean energy and electric vehicles, close the gap on the climate finance promised to developing nations, and halt devastating deforestation.

"We've seen positive progress so far, but it isn't enough. I look forward to meeting with leaders — from big emitters to climate vulnerable nations — to make sure Cop26 counts."

Realistically, much depends on China. With a 23.9 share of Global GHG emissions in 2018, China can determine whether or not Cop26 will be seen as a success. China has already committed itself to a 2060 net zero target, which means that its trajectory between peak emissions (2030) and net zero will be among the fastest in the world. It has promised not to finance any more coal-fired power stations in third countries.

If China agrees not to object to a Global NZC2050 goal, if it commits to advancing its domestic 2030 "peaking" target, the whole atmosphere at Glasgow would surely be transformed.

Stanley Johnson is International Ambassador for the Conservative Environment Network


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