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5 things the COP26 climate summit should address

Everyone is excited when I tell them that I will be one of the 26 Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) Rising-Star Researchers who will be contributing to the 26th edition of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change — or better known as COP26.

5 things the COP26 climate summit should address

The COP26 summit will be the first formal review of countries’ climate policies since the landmark Paris Agreement of 2015, with recent climate change reports indicating that the world is already on course to exceed pre-industrial temperatures by more than 2°C before the end of the century.

Everyone is excited when I tell them that I will be one of the 26 Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) Rising-Star Researchers who will be contributing to the 26th edition of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change — or better known as COP26.

To be held in Glasgow, Scotland beginning on Oct 31, and attended by leaders from all over the world, COP26 will be the first formal review of countries’ climate policies since the landmark Paris Agreement of 2015.

I am hopeful that the leaders of the world come together and develop policies that will limit the average warming.

However, the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report indicates that we are already on course to exceed pre-industrial temperatures by more than 2°C before the end of the century.

It looks like we are too far along to eliminate the predicted impact we sought to avoid, as well as those currently witnessed.

Therefore, we need to start thinking not only about reductions in global carbon emissions, but how we mitigate and live with the new climate we have made for ourselves.

Living with a warmer climate and limiting the worst impacts of the changed climate need action in a few key areas.

There are many aspects that will be discussed during COP26 but I would like to see some commitment on these key topics:

INVESTMENT IN RENEWABLE ENERGY

Read the news and the impression is that every country is on this renewable energy bandwagon. Scrutinise the numbers and you’d be surprised that so little is being done.

The maths is simple. The mitigation costs of living in a warmer climate are huge compared to the costs required to stimulate renewable energy research and development.

However, short-term political pressures can outweigh long-term global health and financial stability.

I would like to see a firm commitment to develop renewable energy. This will vary from country to country, but a greater shift away from fossil fuels to a renewable economy is needed.

Currently, about a quarter of energy produced is from renewables and this needs to be substantially increased to have any chance of stemming the flow of greenhouse gases.

However, I fear many world leaders will opt for the pseudo-green technology such as ‘clean coal’ — the capturing of carbon emissions from burning coal and storing them under the earth.

Clean coal is a myth. It is just plain old regular coal with an attempt of capturing the greenhouse gas emissions.

The net result is the same as when carbon is released into the air because capturing and storing these gases will require more investment and energy.

WASTE MANAGEMENT

Waste incineration and landfill are two ways in which our waste streams contribute greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

There are some technologies available to reduce these emissions, but they are expensive and not globally adopted.

But if these waste incineration technologies, such as carbon capture, are adopted, it is estimated that a reduction of 87 per cent of emissions from waste can be achieved.

We also have to look at waste management of renewable technologies.

Although we all agree that renewable energy is key to fixing the climate crisis, many are not aware that these renewable technologies have a substantial waste footprint.

For example, solar cells contain perovskite, a lead-based compound.

The solar cell will eventually reach the end of its life and need to be properly disposed of, so that the use of these new technologies does not result in several smaller environmental issues, such as lead poisoning of water tables.

So, as renewables rise in use, this increase must be in tandem with the urgency to promote sustainability within the renewable energy sector.

Many of these new technologies are also not easily recyclable. This translates to an increased pressure on countries’ waste infrastructure.

Combine that with a growing population and we may inadvertently contribute to another global issue.

Not only do we need a plan to curb greenhouse gases by employing renewables, we need to ensure that the next generation of renewables are designed with sustainable end-of-life processes built-in.

FOSSIL FUEL EXTRACTION

This issue is simple to understand yet complex to solve. We utilise fossil fuels for energy, transportation and even manufacturing of domestic household products, such as plastic furniture.

Currently, fossil fuels are cheap to procure through government subsidies yet they are the root cause of the global climate crisis. I would like to see some real discussion on carbon tax/credits.

I understand there are many economic issues here, but at the end of the day, anything that reduces the volume of fossil fuels removed from the earth is a price most likely to be worth paying.

I would like to see a shift away from government subsidies of any industry that cannot show adequate sustainable processes being an integral part of their products or business plans.

FOOD SECURITY

With a changing climate comes a few other impacts that are not immediately expected.

Warmer water means more storms, higher rainfall, increased biological blooms and even biological extinctions.

The impact that this has on food is important as crops may be subjected to increased diseases, drought or flooding.

In Singapore, seafood is a large part of the diet and if the seawater becomes less fertile for fisheries, then fish prices will increase.

There have been several attempts to insulate food production from the natural environment, such as greenhouse crops, hydroponic farms and land-based aquaculture.

These innovative approaches will help mitigate the worst of the climate impact but are still being fine-tuned and will require more research to achieve the great yields that can feed a community of seafood lovers.

Governments around the world must seriously address the issues of food security. This can be achieved through increased funding, policy shifts or education of industry and populations.

SEA LEVEL RISE

Global sea levels have already risen by 20cm since pre-industrial times. Given that we have already blown through our best case scenario for global average temperature rise, we can expect further sea level increases in the future.

If we carry on as we are, by 2100 we can expect sea levels to rise between 0.5m and 1.5m above 1900 levels.

Should we ignore warnings and continue to burn fossil fuels, we may see rises of 2m to 15m by 2300.

To put this in context, around 30 per cent of Singapore is less than 3m above sea level, meaning that by 2100, there would be major flood risks and as time passes, we could expect significant loss of land to the sea.

Therefore, COP26 discussions should concentrate on how to defend islands like Singapore, and many others in the region, through seawall defences and storm surge protections, such as breakwaters.

The topics listed above are linked in many ways. But the relationship between them and the changing climate is not open to debate.

What is debatable is how we fix the damage already done. We currently tackle each of these issues independently in some cases.

This can have benefits, but we need a global holistic approach to save lives, livelihoods and natural resources for future generations.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Dr Stephen Summers is Senior Research Fellow at the Singapore Centre for Environmental Life Sciences Engineering, Nanyang Technological University. He will virtually attend COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland from Oct 31 to Nov 12.

Related topics

climate change summit United Nations climate policy

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