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A zero emission National Express bus outside the SEC at the COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

Era free of fossil-fuel powered vehicles comes into focus at COP26; draft outcome is met with calls for more ambition

UN News/Laura Quiñones
A zero emission National Express bus outside the SEC at the COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

Era free of fossil-fuel powered vehicles comes into focus at COP26; draft outcome is met with calls for more ambition

Climate and Environment

A world where every car, bus and truck sold is electric and affordable, where shipping vessels use only sustainable fuels, and where planes can run on green hydrogen may sound like a sci-fi movie, but here, at COP26, many governments and businesses said they have started to work to make it a reality.

Wednesday was another day of new announcements, statements and coalition-building, this time focused on the transport sector, which is responsible for approximately one quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel of Experts on Climate Change (IPCC).

The sector’s emissions have more than doubled since 1970, with around 80 per cent of the increase caused by road vehicles. The United Nations environmental agency UNEP calculates that the world’s transport sector is almost entirely dependent on fossil fuels.

But this could change in the coming decades.

At COP26, over 100 national governments, cities, states and major businesses signed the Glasgow Declaration on Zero-Emission Cars and Vans to end the sale of internal combustion engines by 2035 in leading markets in 2040 worldwide.  At least 13 nations also committed to end the sale of fossil fuel powered heavy duty vehicles by 2040.

Local efforts are also underway, with Latin-American cities, including Bogota, Cuenca and Salvador, aiming to transform to zero-emissions public transport fleets by 2035.

“The message for decision makers is: We need to make sure that we start normalizing that by 2035, we must stop selling petrol and diesel cars. For buses, it’s going to be earlier, 2030; heavy trucking, can give some time, 2040. The point is getting used to the idea of having a calendar so we can shift to zero emission options in all segments. This is not just for advanced markets in developed countries, it’s also for developing economies because we know the worst pollution is there,” said Monica Araya from the global initiative Drive Electric Campaign.

Ms. Araya was very clear that during the transition, developing countries must not become the dumping grounds for old technology from the richest ones, and instead they should be seen as drivers of transformational change.

“I grew up in Costa Rica. I do remember going to school on a third hand bus imported from the US. That experience shaped a lot of my thinking around this transition. I know, on the one hand, we have to make sure we transform the big markets that produce trucks, buses, cars, (but we also) have to activate changes in those markets so there are ripple effects,” she explained.

A container ship arrives in New Orleans in the United States.
UN News/Daniel Dickinson
A container ship arrives in New Orleans in the United States.

A green shipping industry

The shipping industry also made moves today with 200 businesses from across the shipping value chain committing to scaling and commercializing zero-emission shipping vessels and fuels by 2030. They also called on governments to get the right regulations and infrastructure in place to enable a just transition by 2050.

Meanwhile, 19 countries signed the Clydebank Declaration to support the establishment of zero-emission shipping routes. This means creating at least six zero-emission maritime corridors by the middle of this decade, while aspiring to see many more in operation by 2030.

“There’s about 50,000 merchant ships out there in the world so it is a large task at hand, and I think different parts of shipping will move at different paces. So, having the commitment of the Clydebank Declaration for green corridors enables first movers to trial and prove technology then bring down costs, create the policy, enable the ecosystems that are needed, and then others can learn from that and then follow,” Katharine Palmer, a UN Climate Change High-Level Champion, explained to UN News.

These green corridors mean the ships that transport goods all over the world would travel without using hydrocarbon fuels and instead would use fuels derived from green hydrogen – hydrogen generated by renewable energy – renewable electricity and other sustainable options.

“It also includes engaging with energy producers so they can produce enough (green) fuel. A public-private collaboration with governments [will also be needed] to put out the necessary policy,” the expert added.

In other good news, nine big-name brands including Amazon, IKEA, Michelin, Unilever and Patagonia announced that by 2040, they plan to shift 100 per cent of their ocean freight to vessels powered by zero-carbon.

Aircraft on runway. Ghana
The World Bank/Arne Hoel
Aircraft on runway. Ghana

The challenge of aviation

Aviation industry businesses and large corporate customers also announced an update of their Clean Skies for Tomorrow Coalition, whose mission is to accelerate the deployment of sustainable aviation fuels.

Now, 80 signatories have committed to boost the green fuel to 10 per cent of the global jet fuel demand by 2030.

These ‘green fuels’ are produced from sustainable feedstock such as cooking oil, palm waste oil from animals or plants, and solid waste from homes and business, and are very similar in chemistry to traditional fossil jet fuel.

If achieved, this will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 60 million tonnes a year and provide around 300,000 ‘green’ jobs.

But what about solar or electric? According to Lauren Uppink, head of Aviation at the World Economic Forum, these power sources might be possible for short flights in the future.

“There will be a small portion of the energy demand that will rely on new technology like hydrogen and battery, but long haul is not feasible for the physics of it. So sustainable aviation fuels are our only solution for decarbonizing and flying carbon neutral,” she told UN News.

The expert also announced that the first electric and hydrogen fueled planes will possibly start being deployed by 2030, and the transition of the industry could also generate thousands of green jobs in developing countries.

Countries must urgently transition away from fossil fuels. Pictured here, black smoke smoke rises from a chimney at a brick kiln, which uses coal fire to bake bricks, in eastern Bangladesh. (file photo)
UNICEF/Shehzad Noorani
Countries must urgently transition away from fossil fuels. Pictured here, black smoke smoke rises from a chimney at a brick kiln, which uses coal fire to bake bricks, in eastern Bangladesh. (file photo)

The COP26 draft agreement text is released

 Beyond transport, the other big news at the conference on Wednesday was that the COP26 draft agreement was published by the Presidency, a preview of the final outcome document of the conference when it wraps up on Friday.

The document urges countries to strengthen their national commitments and submit their strategies for their net-zero plans by 2022 to keep the 1.5C goal within reach.

It also includes, for the first time in a COP outcome text, a mention of ‘loss and damage’, as well as a call to end fossil fuels subsidies.

“The eyes of the world are very much on us. So, I will ask you to rise to the challenge” Alok Sharma, COP26 President, told negotiators during an informal plenary.

“We have all shifted gears this week as we seek to accelerate the pace and I still have the intention to finish COP26 at the end of Friday, this Friday for clarity!” he said, sparking some nervous laughter in the room (COP negotiations are known for spilling over beyond their official day).

Later in the day, Mr. Sharma told journalists that the text, drafted by his office, will change and evolve as countries begin to engage in the details but the commitment to accelerate action this decade must be “unwavering”.

“I want to be clear: We are not seeking to reopen the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement clearly sets out the temperature goal well below 2 degrees and pursuing efforts to 1.5 degrees,” he said, adding that the presidency is aiming to chart a path across the three main pillars of Paris: finance, adaptation and mitigation.

He said getting to the final draft of the text would be a ‘challenging’ task but stressed that there is a lot at risk if an ambitious outcome is not reached.

“Everyone knows what’s at stake in this negotiation. What we agree in Glasgow will set the future for our children and grandchildren, and we know nobody wants to fail them,” he told journalists.

Mr. Sharma cited Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Motley’s words last week: “Two degrees for her country and many others is a death sentence”.

“We are fighting tooth and nail so that we have an ambitious outcome, and I have reminded negotiators that world leaders set out ambition last week and we need to deliver. [If that doesn’t happen] the negotiators and world leaders are going to have to look people in their countries and other countries in the eye and explain why we didn’t get this one over the line,” he underscored.

Thousands of people have been displaced after tens of thousands of homes collapsed or were damaged.
IOM/Monica Chiriac
Thousands of people have been displaced after tens of thousands of homes collapsed or were damaged.

Civil society: ‘A text that creates an illusion of action is worse than no text at all’

 Members of the NGO Climate Action Network said that they welcomed the first mention ever of “loss and damage” recognizing that communities dealing with the challenges of rebuilding and recovering after climate disasters need the support of the world to do so but said that the text’s words were just “fluff”.

“When it comes down to it, they will make no difference to the communities, to the small holder farmers, to the women and girls in the Global South. This text will still not do anything for those who have been hit the hardest by deadly flooding, cyclones, droughts, rising sea levels,” said Teresa Anderson of Climate Policy Coordinator of Actionaid International.

Indeed, she said the text was yet more empty rhetoric, and that merely calling the situation “urgent” means nothing without a real commitment to action.

“If COP26 doesn’t match its recognition of urgency with real action to address it, to meet the needs of the people in the frontlines of the crisis, then it will be an empty vessel. A text that creates the illusion of action is arguably worse than no text at all,” Ms. Anderson declared, and added that the people of the world were sick and tired of “all this pretense” and of “leaders sitting on their hands...while devastation is heading our way.”

She said world leaders need to “go back and get it right by referencing all fossil fuels – not just coal – and by recognizing equity, by demanding more of the biggest polluters, and linking the call to action with finance for developing countries,” she added.

Finally, she said net-zero promises are a myth used by polluters and governments to lure people into a false sense of security that the climate crisis is being addressed.

“If you scratch the surface of a net zero target, you’ll likely search in vain for the radical systemic transformation in energy, food, transport, and industrial systems that are so urgently needed to ensure a livable planet,” Ms. Anderson said.

The activist told journalist that with the draft outcome document leaders are ‘still failing us” with empty words that are not on target to meet the scale of the “enormous challenge facing humanity.”

“Where is the support to help people forced to pick up the pieces from climate disasters? Where is the action to meet all this urgency? And where are the commitments to limit global warming or to back up climate finance?” she concluded.

Also today, Greta Thunberg and other youth activists announced on Twitter that they sent a letter to the United Nations filing a legal petition to the UN Secretary-General urging him to declare a system-wide climate emergency, which would allow him to send resources and staff to countries most susceptible to climate change disasters.

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