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COP: beyond the headlines


Sam Gardner
Head of Climate Change & Sustainable Development  
From the outside it can often seem that the annual UN COP climate events don’t always result in the clear and progressive action we desperately need on climate change.  Much has been said about the last-minute concessions on language at COP28 in Dubai still not being enough to divert us from our current path towards climate chaos.  So, does the annual climate jamboree work, are they helping to correct our path and protect those most impacted by climate change?   

Climate Change ActivistI think it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that having the dialogue means every COP, at its worst, offers the potential to turn down the temperature and at its best can provide a massive, systemic shock to global efforts that can kick start much, much more.

Back in 2009 I attended my first COP, COP18 in a very cold Copenhagen. Despite it being described as an abject failure that set back the global efforts to seal a deal by a decade, it was this conference that was the catalyst for the transformative UK Climate Change Act of 2008 and the Scottish Climate Change Act from 2009. The global climate movement can and does drive national ambition and action.  The UK legislation provided us with the concept of carbon budgets and established the UK Committee on Climate Change, both of which have been lauded around the world.

Fast forward to 2015 and COP21 and the Paris Agreement delivered the much need shot of ambition.  The ripple effects were felt across the world.  Here in the UK, it led directly to new climate legislation that for the first time put in law a net zero emissions target for a major economy.  Since Paris more than 90% of the world’s GDP is captured by some form of Net Zero ambition.

A COP can deliver so much more than nation state commitments and Paris did this in a significant way.  It kicked off a process that now sees ScottishPower and all large UK companies reporting on their climate risks and opportunities, assessing future climate scenarios and putting in place effective governance – effectively turbo charging the private sector transition.  These regulations are being rolled out across Europe and the USA, providing the evidence for investment to flow to the growth sectors delivering a safer climate future.

Sometimes it can take a few years for a new initiative or idea to really catch fire, but the annual drum beat of global climate focus means ideas do progress.  The launch of Science Based Targets at COP21 set the global standard for private sector climate ambition and now almost 7,000 companies across the world are committed to taking action.  For ScottishPower, having the SBTi standard is driving new conversations and actions.  It has seen us launch our Emission Reduction Plan, support our supply chain, offer new solutions to the high carbon status quo and  closely track our emissions throughout the year.

COP26 in Glasgow also saw commitments on everything from forestry to methane gas to coal and importantly, cash.  The finance sector turned up in force at COP26 and delivered the Glasgow Finance Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ); a global coalition of leading financial institutions managing over $170 trillion of assets committed to accelerating the decarbonization of the world economy. 

Jump forward to December 2023 and although COP28 has concluded with muted fanfare we now finally have for the first time in 31 years the acknowledgement that climate change is a fossil fuel problem.  Modest though this may seem we must resist the temptation to leap past this; it opens the door to stronger, more transformational commitments and signals fossil fuels must be left behind.    However, the conclusions don’t come close to preventing 1.5 degrees of global warming, we remain on a path to ever worse climate impacts. 

What really matters now is what follows COP28. As Al Gore says “Whether this is a turning point that truly marks the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel era depends on the actions that come next, and the mobilization of finance required to achieve them."