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COP26 Day 2: Who moved the dial on Day 1?

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Published 02 November 2021


Did the fine words from the world’s leaders move the dial and raise expectations on the first full day of COP26?

Amid chaotic scenes at the venue with two-hour queues outside, wheelchair using dignitaries turned away and the UN pleading for people not to stay in the venue for longer than necessary, over 60 nations presented their national statements in two rooms.

There were high expectations that US President Joe Biden would raise the ante by committing the world’s second largest polluter after China to fresh action and firmer targets but his speech left many disappointed. Like many leaders, he has important domestic audiences to satisfy too and, in that context, his comments carry more weight than might initially appear, says our colleague Jonathan Meer, Partner at Wilson Elser in New York, another founding member of the Legalign Global alliance:

“He described his plan to incentivise and adapt to clean energy technology as part of job growth in the United States, which is part of a significant legislation that is pending before the US Congress. Also relayed was his goal for the United States to lead by ‘action, not words’ with a net-zero economy by 2050.

“These statements will likely reinforce the growing influence of environmental, social, and corporate governance on corporate activities in the United States”.

Overnight President Biden tabled an ambitious Global Methane Pledge to slash methane emissions by one-third by the end of the decade, something that will need to be scrutinised closely by agricultural insurers.

Chinese President Xi Jinping did not attend in person and sent a written statement instead, which so far has not offered further movement on China’s net zero by 2060 pledge, with peak CO2 emissions in 2030, which he promised at the UN Assembly last year. Faced with mounting pressure economically, China is not yet ready to take greater risks, says our China expert Nelson Wang:

“China simply flagged the need for ‘concrete actions’ in its written statement, referring to action plans for the 2030 and 2060 goals it published days before the Summit. Such cautiousness indicates the difficulty faced by the Chinese government in transforming China’s economy in an increasingly challenging international environment, particularly in view of the widespread power cuts in China recently, which was partly caused by the energy control measures already put in place by the government.”

There was excitement when India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi took to the stage and unexpectedly made five major commitments or "elixirs", as he called them.

The most eye-catching was a vow to achieve the target of net zero emissions by 2070.

India had previously failed to announce a net zero target alongside other major polluters so this was greeted as a breakthrough, although many will see the date of 2070 as a major disappointment because it puts India 20 years behind the rest of the world. India is one of the major CO2 emitters in gross terms, although it is some way down that league table of shame when measured by head of population.

Boris Johnson’s James Bond analogy, with which he opened his speech, left many leaders unimpressed according to observers in the main Cairn Gorm conference hall. His general stress on the urgency of the crisis was in keeping with the tone set by the two key external speakers in the opening session, Prince Charles and David Attenborough, and later reinforced in a video message from HM The Queen.

The need to set tougher targets for ending the use of fossil fuels, especially coal, featured in many contributions and will emerge as a strong theme as the detailed negotiations get underway, says Christophe Wucher-North, Partner in our Paris office.

“It is obvious that we need bold action now. We need targets regarding the end of coal power plants to be implemented before the end of this year or our children will see that we did not do our duty in securing the future”.

Insurers still active in the fossil fuel sector will watch those discussions carefully as they are already caught in the harsh spotlight of scrutiny by determined and well-informed campaigners.

Overlooked by many media outlets was the threat to tighten the screws on monitoring pledges by UN secretary general António Guterres. He criticised many countries for creating an “illusion” that they were tackling climate change but were not delivering real impactful action. He aligned himself with the demands of smaller, more vulnerable countries that, if COP26 does not make significant progress, then every country should be made to update their commitments and delivery annually at COP gatherings rather than once every five years as agreed at COP21 in Paris.

This threat is likely to hover over the rest of the two weeks’ discussions and should focus minds.