Coming to terms at COP26: Reflections from CATF Executive Director Armond Cohen
Glasgow is returning to normal after a widely covered 26th Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. COPs are equal part media event, wonk conference, and serious negotiating forum. And it’s easy to be a little cynical about them. The first COP happened just about the time CATF was created 25 years ago, and annual global carbon emissions have increased by half since then, so you might say: what good are they?
But it’s not that simple. Mitigating climate change is a long haul. It took 250 years to create this problem, so we shouldn’t be surprised it’s taking more than 25 years to solve it. And as frustrating as it is to some campaigners, there is no single fix – it’s likely to require an ensemble of complementary policies and private sector actions. Indeed, in some ways, it’s surprising that there has been any progress at all, given that world energy demand has grown 60% from the first COP as the developing world industrializes, as the West did two centuries ago, and demands industrial production, light, heat, and mobility. Meanwhile, emissions are trending down steadily in the rich world, not nearly fast enough, but again, defying historic trends.
And now nations representing most of the world’s emissions, including the largest developing countries, have committed – at least on paper – to reducing emissions to net-zero. That’s not nothing. They can’t unsay that. (Or, as one wise campaigner once told me, “Lip service is always the first step.”) Now we need to make those reductions real.
So CATF approaches all of the COPs – and all of our work – with that end in mind: how to go from aspiration to reality with concrete and measurable actions.
And so we went to Glasgow to COP26 with clear goals: Highlight the urgent need to reduce global methane emissions; showcase the imperative of developing and commercializing a new generation of carbon-free technologies; and advocate for climate policy that helps us do both. We did all three and then some, but returned home more acutely aware than ever of the work that remains to be done.
On the methane front, we — and leaders from around the world — delivered the message loud and clear. U.S. President Joe Biden and EU President Ursula von Der Leyen formally launched the Global Methane Pledge, with more than 100 world leaders joining them to commit to collectively reduce methane emissions 30% below 2020 levels by 2030. For the first time, methane took center stage at a major climate summit — with heads of state from all over the world underlining that methane is a harmful super pollutant some 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and that reducing methane emissions is our best and perhaps only chance to reduce the amount of global warming we’ll experience in the next 20 years — the time period scientists have deemed crucial for avoiding potentially irreversible climate tipping points. If the current supporters of the pledge achieve their collective 30% reduction, it will represent the equivalent of shutting down more than 1,000 coal fired power plants.
Clean Air Task Force laid the groundwork for the Global Methane Pledge, and has been working with leaders on methane every step of the way, dating back to when we were the very first environmental organization
I also had the honor of addressing world leaders at a high-level Climate & Clean Air Coalition ministerial meeting on methane. Speaking alongside leaders like U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and Executive Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans, I commended the pledging nations on their new commitment to tackling methane emissions and stressed the importance of taking advantage of the solutions we have at hand right now, including in the energy sector, to make a sizable reduction.
Our efforts paid off, and at the close of COP26, after additional cajoling from CATF and its partners, the official summary of the key outcomes from this year’s COP highlighted, for the first time, the importance of cutting methane emissions. The U.S. and China also pinpointed methane, as well as carbon capture, in their first-ever agreement to act together to combat climate change.
Methane shone as a bright spot in Glasgow, and the progress on the issue we made at COP26 should embolden policymakers around the world to go home and push through smart policies to tackle methane in the oil and gas, waste, and agriculture sectors.
The Global Methane Pledge should serve as the starting gun in the race to implement deep emissions reductions at the national and regional level. With methane squarely on the climate agenda, CATF is redoubling our efforts to turn ambition into action, advocating for strong policies and working directly with governments around the world to reduce methane at pace and scale.
Next-Generation Carbon-Free Technologies
CATF also came to Glasgow to advocate for a new suite of carbon-free technologies. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has found that 75% of emissions reductions on the path to net-zero emission will come from technologies that are not yet mature, and COP is a crucial platform to advocate for their commercialization and deployment. Our experts spoke on many high-level panels and closed-door briefings on the imperative of advancing technologies like carbon capture and storage, zero-carbon fuels like hydrogen and ammonia, advanced nuclear energy, superhot rock geothermal energy, and expanded electricity transmission — all of which could be critical tools in the toolbox we’ll need to decarbonize our global energy system while meeting growing energy demand.
At COP26, CATF convened experts for a discussion on how to advance deep decarbonization hubs that co-locate next generation climate technology for industrial cluster decarbonization, generating key recommendations to catalyze the deployment of hydrogen, carbon removal, carbon capture and storage, and firm low-carbon power technologies. CATF also helped launch Carbon Gap, a new European carbon removal organization, and welcomed the U.S. Department of Energy’s launch of the Carbon Negative Shot, an all-hands-on-deck effort to position the United States as a leader in research, manufacture, and demonstration of carbon removal technologies such as direct air capture.
CATF amplified the launch of the First Movers Coalition, a buyer’s club designed to advance innovation and accelerate the development of carbon-free technologies to decarbonize the aviation, shipping, steel, trucking, cement, chemicals, and aluminum sectors. This effort pairs well with another recently launched buyer’s club that CATF has supported, the Coalition of Zero-Emissions Vessels (coZEV). These initiatives send a clear market signal out around the world, showing lawmakers, industry leaders, and investors that there is strong demand for decarbonizing technologies like carbon capture and zero-carbon fuels — both critical to decarbonizing sectors that are difficult-to-electrify.
In a similar vein, CATF helped formally launch the 24/7 Carbon Free Energy Compact at COP26. CATF is the first environmental NGO to join this UN-Energy compact, linking with the likes of Google, the Government of Iceland, and the United Nations to work to develop and scale carbon-free technologies, advocate for critical climate policies, and improve procurement practices to transform the global energy system and enable rapid and cost-effective carbon-free energy — every hour, every day, everywhere. 24/7 Carbon Free Energy procurement is the new frontier for corporate climate action, and this effort focuses the private sector on the right goal: squeezing all the carbon out of the system, and commercializing the full range of technologies necessary to do that.
While these and other calls for an expanded focus on innovation and technology option creation have had an impact on the broader COP26 negotiations and the climate plans rolled out by countries, we know we must do much more to highlight the need to think in terms of climate solutions that build on the huge gains we have achieved in deploying renewable energy. In order to meet net-zero emissions targets while providing reliable and affordable energy that meets growing global demand, we must think differently about what climate action looks like. That means investing in an expanded suite of options now, so that we can deploy them around the world, as appropriate by region, in time to meet our mid-century emissions targets.
While COP is not where national policy is written, it is where ambitions are set, agreements are reached, and stakes are raised. It’s also where elected officials go to showcase their work, meet with peers, and begin to think through plans to make sure they have something to show for their efforts the next time around. Our policy leads traveled to Glasgow to ensure CATF was part of that conversation, briefing lawmakers on climate solutions and advocating for effective and resilient climate policy around the world.
Many of these conversations touched on policy and regulatory decisions that are evolving in real time, including the passage of the bipartisan Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act in the U.S., the new U.S. EPA rules regulating methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, the yet-to-be-passed Build Back Better Act, and (meeting with a delegation of California legislators) matters as practical as how to build out the clean energy infrastructure to meet California’s ambitious emissions goals.
We also met with policymakers on a suite of developments in the EU, including the Fit for 55 legislative proposals, which touch on everything from transport infrastructure and CO2 storage to innovation funding and emissions trading, as well as the first call of the Innovation Fund, which focuses on the deployment of carbon capture, removal, and storage, industrial decarbonization, and pathways to clean hydrogen production.
On methane policy, many nations will be moving from promises to action in the coming months. Colombia will finalize oil and gas methane regulations this month. Nigeria will issue methane standards early next year, as will Ecuador. And new European methane legislation will be proposed in mid-December, alongside legislation aimed at supporting the decarbonization of the EU’s gas system.
It’s hard to leave a COP or any major climate summit feeling completely optimistic. As noted, these summits underscore the complexity of the task at hand, the distance we still have to travel, and the many ways we are all falling short on delivering concrete solutions in a just and equitable way. But it’s important to think of COP not as a make-or-break moment, but as a ratcheting mechanism. Through that lens, it was productive. The final COP26 text, agreed upon by all parties, included language to “phase down” coal, the first time fossil fuels have ever been mentioned in a COP agreement. The text also mentioned methane for the first time, and more people than ever before now understand its importance in our efforts to address climate change. Newly announced climate plans put us closer to a steep reduction pathway, including the U.S.’s net-zero plan, which includes an approach rooted in optionality with carbon capture, zero-carbon fuels, and nuclear energy playing a role.
We are increasing our ambition, and in-so-doing, coming to terms with what it will take to make good on that ambition. As I reflect on COP26, I can’t help but think that’s a good thing, and so was COP26.