There’s a reason why we’re awaiting COP26 with the type of breathless anticipation most people would lavish on the latest Bond film. It’s an all-too-rare moment when, right across the world, all eyes turn towards the environment. The Summit is an open-goal opportunity for bold global action; and, if our political leaders get it right, then it could prove a major shot in the arm for the renewable energy revolution.
Yet the programme suggests we might need to temper our expectations. The attention paid to finding technological solutions to the climate crisis through COP26’s Tech For Our Planet’s, Dragon’s Den-style pitch format suggests a misunderstanding of the issues truly hampering the clean energy transition. After all, the technology is already widely available – from wind and solar, to biomass and nuclear.
It isn’t a lack of technical development, but rather the deployment and dispersal of resources that remains the concern. And while practical policy and robust political alignment might not make for the flashy front-page splash Alok Sharma is after, they’re exactly what we’ll need to see if we’re to overcome the barriers that still stand in our path.
Here are just a few of the issues that need to be tackled head-on if we’re to avoid squandering this precious platform:
At the top of the wish list is global political alignment. It’s not easy to get everybody around the same table – let alone agreeing – but legally binding international resolutions to meet targets, increase accountability, and remove barriers to the energy transition down the governance chain will make or break the success of this summit.
The omens aren’t overly positive. China and Russia aren’t currently due to attend, and the US climate envoy John Kerry has stated that COP26 will be a chance to see “who is doing their fair share, and who isn’t” – a sign that finger-pointing rather than skilled diplomacy may be the order of the day.
The volatile energy markets, surging prices and rampant fuel inequality – all cast into sharp relief over the last few weeks – demonstrate the extent and danger of our collective exposure to fossil fuels. Our leaders will have to grapple with the challenges of resource distribution and ensure that energy and natural resources are no longer leveraged as geopolitical weapons. The politicization of energy policy must be cast aside, and consensus reached if we’re to match the strides made in Paris in 2015.
Delegates will need to confront the environmental damage and human costs that currently lurk deep within even our clean energy supply chains. It’s an uncomfortable truth that green energy is still in many cases dependent on non-renewable and ethically dubious means, and this will need to be addressed.
Take the soaring global demand for lithium and cobalt – minerals driving the electric car revolution and key ingredients in the batteries that store energy from wind and solar.
Lithium mines are responsible for chemical leaks that pollute the waters from Australia to Tibet; and the water-intensive methods of extraction in South America’s Lithium Triangle – requiring an extraordinary 500,000 gallons per tonne of lithium – consume huge portions of the local water supply. Then there’s the horrific working conditions within the mines themselves. Over 70% of the world’s cobalt is found in DR Congo (with the majority of its industrial mines owned by Chinese conglomerates), and the mining industry in the country is marked by barely-existent safety precautions and little regulation. Children as young as three pick out ore from the rocks; workers handle toxic – even radioactive – metals; and landslides and cave-ins are commonplace.
Demand for lithium and cobalt is on the up. The International Energy Agency revealed that the average amount of minerals needed for a new unit of power generation capacity has grown by 50% since 2010 as renewables rise in prominence. It’s time for leaders to get to grips with how we source these minerals, and to expose and expunge the inhumane conditions buried within the supply chain. International cooperation will be necessary to act on the IEA’s recommendations, with regulation and an increased emphasis on battery recycling high on the list of priorities.
Closer to home, there’s much work to be done. As hosts, let’s hope that the UK look to set the example through a viable clean energy blueprint that addresses our inadequate infrastructure and introduces ambitious new policy to incentivise the transition up and down the country.
Will the government seize the opportunity to implement the much-discussed carbon tax and announce further funding and subsidies for renewables? It’s clear that there can be no level playing field for renewables while fossil fuels remain subsidised and clean energy subsidy schemes such as the Feed-in Tariff and Non-Domestic RHI are brought to an abrupt close.
Furthermore, there’s the issue of exactly who can take advantage of the revenue streams that do exist. The Rural Community Energy Fund (RCEF), a £10 million government programme that supports rural communities in England to develop renewable energy projects, for example, has been praised for bringing renewables into the heart of rural communities, but uptake remains low – and skewed towards more affluent areas. Community share offerings are hindered by time and capital-intensive application models that mean these grants predominantly benefit middle-class communities with the capacity and resources to tap into this funding, often at the expense of deprived communities that need it more.
With over 2.5 million households captured by fuel poverty in this country (and hundreds of thousands more set to join them as a result of spiralling energy bills), we risk huge swathes of the population being left behind if renewable alternatives remain out of reach. If we’re to expect the public to change ingrained behaviours then we need to offer attractive incentives – and to ensure that they are accessible across all levels of society.
When Boris Johnson remarked that this year’s summit must be a “turning point for humanity”, the Prime Minister set expectations sky-high.
He’s right though: it can be.
It can’t be overstated what an opportunity COP26 offers as a platform for credible long-term change and for the future of the clean energy revolution. But we need to see words backed by credible action: sound bites and tub-thumping trumped by sound diplomacy and tangible progress. The public won’t accept being fobbed off by promises pushed into the long-grass – more ‘blah blah’ as Greta Thunberg might put it. They deserve to see genuine political alignment, robust regulation and concrete policies that ensure that renewables are distributed and deployed properly, morally – and for everybody.
The technology is there. Let’s harness it.
more than a word.