Artist’s impression of a Rolls-Royce small modular reactor
Sign up for Today at COP26, our free daily briefing on all the latest news and analysis from the crucial climate summit
There are three days left of COP26 and the talks are entering their final stretch. Everyone is tired and a bit fed up, but the negotiators are still pushing each other – and up in space, satellites are helping track our greenhouse gas emissions.
The Glasgow text, v1.0
Tonight, the first draft of how nearly 200 countries will strengthen their ambition on climate change is due to be published.
The text is known as the cover decision, and will specify what countries have promised on revisiting their 2030 climate plans. The contents will be crucial to putting the world on track for the targets of holding global warming to 1.5°C and “well below” 2°C.
COP26 president Alok Sharma wouldn’t be drawn on what the decision might say. However, he told journalists at a press conference today: “We are making progress at COP26, but we still have a mountain to climb over the next few days. What has been collectively committed to goes some way, but certainly not all the way, to keeping 1.5°C within reach.”
Another senior figure also appeared to be managing expectations. Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, was asked by the BBC if the negotiations would achieve everything that is needed on both emissions reductions and climate finance. Her response: “Of course, this week we will not be able to solve it.”
Tina Stege, climate envoy for the Marshall Islands, told New Scientist that the Glasgow agreement needs to commit countries to issuing more ambitious plans next year. “The decade of action is now. For these things to have impact and to make sense and actually do what you need them to do, you have to start next year.”
Pledges so far
The main text needs to be a strong one, because other announcements made at the summit haven’t cracked the problem.
In fact, the pledges made to date will only limit warming to 2.4°C. That’s according to a new analysis by Climate Action Tracker, an independent non-profit scientific body based in Germany. New Scientist’s Adam Vaughan describes this as “a far more sobering view” of what the Glasgow summit has achieved, compared to analyses last week that suggested we were on course for as little as 1.8°C of warming. The issue is that, while many countries have committed to hit net-zero emissions later this century, there have been few concrete promises for action this decade – which means we are set to emit a whole lot more carbon dioxide over the next 10 years, locking in a lot more warming.
To find out which countries are doing the most and the least, we can consult the latest edition of the Climate Change Performance Index. This ranking has been produced every year since 2005, and covers 61 countries representing 92 per cent of global emissions. Not one country is doing enough across the board, which is noted by the top three spots being left blank for countries that are succeeding on all fronts. The highest placed are Denmark, Sweden and Norway. China is also in the top 10, having climbed up the rankings by stopping its emissions increasing, and by expanding and setting ambitious targets on renewables. Meanwhile, the climate laggards include the US at 55 (albeit up six places), Australia at 58 and Canada at 61.
That all sounds bleak and frustrating, so it is worth noting that 2.4°C still represents meaningful progress. Before COP26 started, we were on course for 2.7°C, so the promises so far (assuming they are kept) will knock 0.3°C off the total warming. That will make a real difference to the lives of millions of people.
Of course, it isn’t enough. Governments are supposed to be limiting warming to 1.5°C. A warming of 2.4°C would be almost double that, and is likely to take us past dangerous tipping points in the Earth system, for instance leading to the irretrievable collapse of the Greenland ice sheet over the coming centuries.
Still, here is a glass-half-full way to think about that 0.3°C improvement. If the next three COPs were to each knock 0.3°C off future emissions, we would be on course for 1.5°C. That is, if the next few COPs go as well as COP26, we will be on track for 1.5°C by the end of 2024. The word “if” is of course doing a lot of work in those sentences – but it is crucial not to be disheartened.
The role of nuclear
The UK government has committed £210 million to support the development of new nuclear reactors. These will be “small modular reactors” or SMRs, each capable of powering 1 million homes. The funding will help engineers at British aerospace and defence company Rolls-Royce develop the designs and take them through the regulatory process. But there is as yet no commitment to actually buy any reactors.
The idea behind SMRs is that most nuclear power plants are bespoke, which drives up costs – helping explain why nuclear energy is often so expensive. In contrast, SMRs are meant to be mass-produced, and therefore cheaper.
The UK government is also trying to make nuclear cheaper with a piece of legislation called the Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill. This attempts to fix a conspicuous problem. At the moment, the private companies that build nuclear reactors in the UK have to put up all the money upfront, and can only start making money when the plant is generating electricity. As a result, they charge extremely high prices for the electricity. The new scheme will mean the government puts some money in upfront, in exchange for lower electricity prices later – which in theory, at least, ought to save money.
Nuclear power produces very few greenhouse gas emissions. It also offers a sustained stream of electricity, with none of the intermittency associated with solar or wind power. For this reason, some argue that nuclear power is essential to help limit dangerous climate change. It is unpopular among environmentalists, thanks to disasters like the 1986 Chernobyl meltdown, but the argument is that these are rare and the benefits far outweigh the risks.
Nuclear’s bad public image was made worse by the Fukushima Daiichi incident in 2011, in which a massive earthquake and tsunami off the coast of Japan led to a nuclear power plant being damaged and releasing radioactive material. In the years that followed, Japan and other countries started shuttering nuclear reactors – but they largely replaced them with coal, which releases lots of greenhouse gases. The fact is that Fukushima wasn’t another Chernobyl: its safety systems proved much more effective and the amount of harmful material released was orders of magnitude smaller. Nevertheless, most countries, including the UK, are still only moving slowly with nuclear power.
The one country that is putting real faith in it appears to be China. Last week Bloomberg reported that China is building “at least 150 new reactors in the next 15 years, more than the rest of the world has built in the past 35”. This will cost up to $440 billion and will mean China surpasses the US as the world’s largest generator of nuclear power later this decade.
What to watch for
The draft text of the final agreement. There will be other announcements – possibly including one about phasing out cars powered by fossil fuels – but the core text from the summit is the main thing. UK prime minister Boris Johnson will reportedly return to Glasgow to meet with negotiators and push for “ambitious action” to close out the summit.
Quote of the Day
“We’ve got a whole generation that’s absolutely determined to do this.” Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser to the UK government, speaking to New Scientist. Vallance emphasised that, alongside technological changes, solving climate change is going to require behavioural changes from everybody. British astronaut Tim Peake made a similar point, arguing that the role of government is “to make the green choice the easy choice”.
More on these topics: