It’s not business as usual at COP26 in Glasgow

Posted October 14, 2021

By Randi Davis, UNDP Resident Representative for Trinidad and Tobago, Curacao, Aruba and Sint Maarten

Port-of-Spain, 13 October 2021 –  On August 9, 2021 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the foremost scientific assessment body on climate change, released its scientific findings that revealed dire warnings of an increasingly warming planet. Against this background, the UN Secretary General rattled world leaders at the UN General Assembly when he opened the general debate by decrying that the world was on “edge of an abyss” and unfortunately moving in the wrong direction.  “The disruption to our climate and our planet is already worse than we thought, and it is moving faster than predicted.” he noted. 

According to the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), despite a temporary blip in 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we remain far from the emission reduction targets set by the Paris Agreement aimed at slowing global warming. In fact, with the current rate of emissions and warming, we are likely to reach the 1.5 degrees Celsius global warming set by the Paris Agreement for the end of this century already between the end of this decade and 2050! This will trigger severe climate change, a future reality with which we are all too familiar here in the Caribbean, and in this projected scenario, will make life in the region highly challenging.  At the current rate of warming, we will reach 3 to 4 degrees rise by the end of the Century.

We know that nobody is immune to the destructive effects of climate change, not least of which are Small Island States, who  face rising sea levels, eroding coastlines, increased flooding and the destruction of land livelihoods and crops.  This year alone, the world experienced record-setting catastrophic climate events from fires to floods, and hurricanes, with greater intensity and frequency than ever before.  Considering that a warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius is likely to destroy between 70 to 90 percent of coral reefs, and a warming of 2 degrees Celsius will virtually decimate all coral reefs, and all of this possible within a few decades, the implications for the Caribbean remain gravely concerning.

This is why the stakes are so high in Glasgow next month where countries will come together  to agree on strong climate pledges or Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs).   Over 130 world leaders are expected to attend COP 26 and they are expected to commit to, and act on more ambitious 2030 emission reductions targets - that align with reaching net zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century.  Importantly, they are also expected to direct the trillions of dollars of post COVID-19 recovery investments towards building a greener, decarbonized global economy.

While meeting the goals set in the Paris Agreement will be no easy task as the world emerges from the chaos left by COVID-19, the pandemic did provide an opportunity for the world to pause its development trajectory, pivot and accelerate in an altogether different direction – a direction focused on accelerating the phasing out of fossil fuels, rapidly curtailing deforestation and speeding up the switch to renewable energy. 

Anyone who thinks it’s business as usual should look again. The race to ‘net zero’ has already started. Large economies like the US, China and Europe have committed to aggressive reduction targets and aggressive financing to make the transition. In Glasgow, we will likely see some of the world’s largest lenders, insurers and banks announce more stringent lending criteria aligned with net zero and a goal of phasing out dirty business altogether.  The move towards carbon neutrality is making it more difficult to mobilize global capital for investments in polluting industries or markets for their products.  Even titans of the fossil fuel industry are transitioning to become renewable energy leaders and they are transitioning quickly.

While the ginormous task of turning the global economy green may seem impossible – it is already well under way.  A report by the International Renewable Energy Agency in June of 2021 showed that the cost-competitiveness of renewable power generation has reached historic levels. “Biomass for power, hydropower, geothermal and onshore wind can … provide electricity competitively compared to fossil fuel-fired power generation where good resources and cost structures exist”.   Countries on all continents are shifting to renewables, creating a new market for energy technologies and services. 

For a fossil fuel-based economy like Trinidad and Tobago, the global transition to net zero has very immediate implications and opportunities.  As Trinidad and Tobago’s NDC focuses on mitigation actions  mainly in industry, power generation and the transport sector,  higher ambition will be expected when delegates arrive in Glasgow for COP26 – including commitments to accelerating the role of renewables in the energy mix.  The process of removing fossil fuel subsidies is a critical step in the right direction, as are recent efforts to introduce solar energy and expand the market for electric vehicles -  efforts we at UNDP are proud to support.  Following the COP 26, more efforts will be needed to develop a long term strategy towards de-carbonization, one which could harness Trinidad and Tobago’s unique expertise to become a leading actor in a future decarbonized world by creating the enabling environment for  investment in green jobs and green industries.

In fact, I would argue that Trinidad and Tobago is in an enviable position to benefit from record high prices and demand for Liquidified Natural Gas (LNG) to finance what needs to be done.  I am convinced that Trinidad and Tobago has more than that in its favor – it has an educated and skilled workforce, a solid manufacturing base and strong global market linkages - to achieve a successful ‘just transition’, through job retraining and other measures, that harness its capabilities to become a regional and even global leader in cleantech manufacturing and other low carbon activities.  With a renewable energy market anticipated to double in value over the course of the next ten years from US $800 billion US dollars to approximately US $1.9 trillion, Trinidad and Tobago has a lot to gain.  The opportunities are enormous and bold, and transformative thinking and action is what is required. 

The COP 26 is also anticipated to ramp up international action and investments in climate change adaptation – with the goal of strengthening resilience in those countries who feel the impacts of climate disruptions the most. Although Trinidad and Tobago has been spared the widespread damage of intense weather events such as hurricane Irma, it is vulnerable to rising sea levels, a loss of coastal habitat, increased flooding, and hillside erosion with considerable human and financial impact.  Here too Trinidad and Tobago also has a lot to gain as increased global resources are already being made available to vulnerable SIDs to finance actions such as the building of climate resilient infrastructure, to underwrite climate risk insurance and invest in disaster risk reduction. While Trinidad and Tobago already recognizes climate change as a national development issue, building adaptation measures and climate resiliency on the ground through strategic planning and policy reform is the next step.  SIDs in particular must be prepared to withstand the impacts of climate change which are unfortunately already upon us.

COP26 is a critical moment to set the world on the path away from fossil fuels towards a zero-carbon future, while also preparing for the consequences of the climate crisis. UNDP has supported 120 countries in this endeavor through its Climate Promise . By drawing on decades of experience and a network of Global Policy advisors with expertise on climate change, UNDP is ensuring that countries like Trinidad and Tobago have access to world class advisory services, access to technology and financing to realize their climate ambition.  At COP26 in Glasgow, and beyond, we recognize the task before us all is huge, but not insurmountable. And I have no doubt that Trinbagonians can weather this storm.