In November, world leaders and policy makers converge on Glasgow for Cop26.

These annual meetings have their origins in the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, at which the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was set up.

This treaty was signed up to by 154 countries, who all agreed to take measures to combat the dangerous influence of humans on climate, and to meet annually to monitor progress.

Many of these meetings have failed to produce much in the way of action, with the notable exception being Cop21 in 2015, which resulted in the Paris Agreement.

This produced a global target to “hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels recognising that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change”.

The key mechanism in the Paris Agreement is ‘nationally determined contributions’ that each country pledges, in order to collectively reach the overall target.

The main bit of legislation the UK is using to drive down emissions is the Climate Change Act. This originally set a legally binding target of an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050, but the level of ambition has since been raised, and we are now committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, with legally binding carbon budgets covering five-year periods in the interim.

READ MORE: The National Environmental Awards

Wales is subject to this Act, and the Senedd has since passed its own legislation superseding much of it, the Environment (Wales) Act 2016, and as such the Welsh Government publishes plans for each of these carbon budgets.

The most recent (Prosperity for all: A low carbon Wales) lacked clarity of vision, consisting of a fairly disparate range of pre-existing commitments with very few additional measures.

The low-carbon delivery plan for the next carbon budget is imminent, and in the meantime the Climate Change Committee has stated that: “Underlying indicators and the lack of a cohesive, economy-wide strategy for 2050 – at both UK and Welsh Government level – mean that Wales is not currently on track for the 80% target, let alone net zero.”

To be fair to the Welsh Government, devolved powers do not cover many of the sectors where action is required (eg aviation, shipping, manufacturing).

However, it is also the case that in areas where the Welsh Government does have powers (eg agriculture), there has been little or no progress.

In reality, the only area of the economy making significant progress is electricity generation. If we look at the first carbon budget period (2016-20), 55% of the emissions reductions in Wales resulted from the closure of the coal-fired power station at Aberthaw.

If we remove this reduction, the economy-wide reduction in Wales was a much less impressive 4%. Wales is therefore hardly leading the way, and the Climate Change Committee’s criticism is entirely justified.

In the same way that children leave homework until the last minute, so too do world leaders; perhaps the biggest stumbling block in the fight against climate change is the tendency of world leaders to focus on long-term targets (eg net zero by 2050) rather than discussing what we need to do in the near term.

Whilst the Paris Agreement made clear that limiting global temperature increases to an average of 1.5C was highly desirable, we have made little progress and are likely to hit that limit in the early 2030s.

In theory, Wales won’t fall into this trap, because the Climate Change Act incorporates five-yearly carbon budgets.

Similar mechanisms that instil a sense of urgency are required at a global scale. In practice however, as discussed above, even these five-yearly carbon budgets are proving woefully inadequate in terms of driving tangible change.


So far, so depressing. But is there any hope left for Cop26? I’d like to believe so.

Many of the significant negotiations actually happen in the weeks and months preceding the summit, which allows the event itself to deal with last-minute details and problems.

The most significant early announcement is the global methane pledge, to which nearly half the global economy (including the EU and US, and also the UK) have signed up.

Compared to CO2, methane is relatively shortlived but potent; it is approximately 84 times worse than CO2 on a 20-year time scale.

Consequently, a near-term drastic reduction in methane emissions would be an excellent way of buying a bit more time in which to make the significant structural changes in economies that make low-carbon futures possible.

And in other areas, significant announcements are likely. A rapid phasing out of coal-fired power stations is essential, and with the global boom in renewable electricity generation, seems not to be an unreasonable ambition.

Similarly, phasing out domestic gas boilers and petrol/diesel vehicles could well be measures that some richer nations will commit to.

But the devil is in the detail, and in the important detail here will be the dates for each commitment.

To me the most frustrating outcome of Cop26 would be a package of apparently strong measures but with target dates later than 2030.

Anything less than ambition and a tangible sense of urgency locks us into what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has labelled ‘code red for humanity’.

Dr Judith Thornton works on biomass and bioeconomy projects in the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences at Aberystwyth University.

Note, this article has been updated to include the significance of the Environment (Wales) Act.

If you value The National's environment and climate-action stories, help grow our team of reporters by becoming a subscriber.