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COP26 – what we know so far, and why it matters

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In a world shaken by a pandemic, and a fast-closing window of opportunity to avoid climate catastrophe, the pivotal COP26 UN climate conference kicks off this Sunday in the Scottish city of Glasgow – the stakes could not be higher. 

“Without decisive action, we are gambling away our last chance to – literally – turn the tide”, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has said ahead of the meeting. But why could it be our last chance?

Here’s some answers we’ve found to the most common questions you might have about what’s coming up.

Let’s start with the basics, what is COP26?

To keep it simple, COP26 is the biggest and most important climate-related conference on the planet.

In 1992, the UN organised a major event in Rio de Janeiro called the Earth Summit, in which the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was adopted.

In this treaty, nations agreed to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere” to prevent dangerous interference from human activity on the climate system. Today, the treaty has 197 signatories.

Since 1994, when the treaty entered into force, every year the UN has been bringing together almost every country on earth for global climate summits or “COPs”, which stands for ‘Conference of the Parties’.

This year should have been the 27th annual summit, but thanks to COVID-19, we’ve fallen a year behind due to last year’s postponement – hence, COP26.

So, what happens at COP26? Don’t we have enough meetings about climate change already?

Various “extensions” to the UNFCCC treaty have been negotiated during these COPs to establish legally binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions for individual countries, and to define an enforcement mechanism.

These include the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, which defined emission limits for developed nations to be achieved by 2012; and the Paris Agreement, adopted in 2015, in which all countries of the world agreed to step up efforts to try and limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures, and boost climate action financing.

So, here’s where COP26 gets interesting: during the conference, among other issues, delegates will be aiming to finalise the ‘Paris Rulebook’, or the rules needed to implement the Agreement. This time they will need to agree on common timeframes for the frequency of revision and monitoring of their climate commitments.

Basically, Paris set the destination, limiting warming well below two degrees, (ideally 1.5) but Glasgow, is the last chance to make it a reality.

So, this bring us to our initial question: why is it the last chance?

Like a boa constrictor that slowly squeezes its prey to death, climate change has gone from being an uncomfortable low-level issue, to a life-threatening global emergency, in the past three decades.

Although there have been new and updated commitments made by countries ahead of COP26, the world remains on track for a dangerous global temperature rise of at least 2.7°C this century even if Paris goals are met.

The science is clear: a rise of temperatures of that magnitude by the end of the century could mean, among other things, a 62% increase in areas scorched by wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere during summer, the loss of habitat of a third of the mammals in the world, and more frequent four to 10 month-long droughts.

UN chief António Guterres bluntly calls it “climate catastrophe”, one that it is already being felt to a deadly degree in the most vulnerable parts of the world like sub-Saharan Africa and Small Island States, lashed by rising sea levels. 

Millions of people are already being displaced and killed by disasters exacerbated by climate change.

For Mr. Guterres, and the hundreds of scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a scenario of 1.5°C warming, is the “only liveable future for humanity”.

The clock is ticking, and to have a chance of limiting the rise, the world needs to halve greenhouse gas emissions in the next eight years.

This is a gigantic task that we only will be able to do if leaders attending COP26 come up with bold, time-bound and front-loaded plans to phase out coal and transform their economies to reach so called net zero emissions.

Hmm, but didn’t countries like China and the United States already commit to net zero?

The most recent UN Emissions Gap Report explains that a total of 49 countries plus the European Union have pledged a net zero target.

This covers over half of global domestic greenhouse gas emissions, over half of global GDP and a third of the global population. Eleven targets are enshrined in law, covering 12 per cent of global emissions.

Sounds great right? But there’s a catch: many of the commitments delay action until after 2030, raising doubts over whether these net zero pledges can actually be achieved. Also, many of these pledges are “vague” and inconsistent with the officially submitted national commitments, known as NDC’s.

This again explains why COP26 is so important: “The time has passed for diplomatic niceties…If governments – especially G20 governments – do not stand up and lead this effort, we are headed for terrible human suffering”, warned Guterres in the UN General Assembly this week.

So, what exactly is COP26 hoping to achieve (practically speaking)?

The official negotiations take place over two weeks. The first week includes technical negotiations by government officials, followed by high-level Ministerial and Heads of State meetings in the second week, when the final decisions will be made – or not.

There are four main points that will be discussed during the conference according to its host, the United Kingdom:

1.     Secure global net zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach

To do this, countries need to accelerate the phase-out of coal, curb deforestation, speed up the switch to greener economies.  Carbon market mechanisms will be also part of the negotiations.

2.     Adapt more to protect communities and natural habitats

Since the climate is already changing countries already affected by climate change need to protect and restore ecosystems, as well as build defences, warning systems and resilient infrastructure.

3.     Mobilise finance

At COP15, rich nations promised to channel $100 billion a year to less-wealthy nations by 2020 to help them adapt to climate change and mitigate further rises in temperature.

That promise was not kept, and COP26 will be crucial to secure the funds, with the help of international financial institutions, as well as set new climate finance targets to be achieved by 2025.

4.     Work together to deliver

This means establishing collaborations between governments, businesses and civil society, and of course, finalising the Paris Rulebook to make the Agreement fully operational.

In addition to formal negotiations, COP26 is expected to establish new initiatives and coalitions for delivering climate action.

How, when and where?

The main event will be held at the Scottish Event Campus, from 31 October to 12 November, with the possibility of negotiations spilling over an extra day or two. So far, there are over 30.000 people registered to attend representing governments, businesses, NGOs, and civil society groups.

The 197 Parties to the UNFCCC treaty, often get in groups or “blocs” to negotiate together such as the G77 and China, the Africa Group, the Least Developed Countries, the Umbrella Forum, the Small Island Developing States, and the Independent Alliance of Latin America and the Caribbean.

The negotiations also include observers, which have no formal part in them but make interventions and help maintain transparency. Observers include United Nations agencies, intergovernmental organizations, NGOs, faith-based groups, and the press.

But besides the official negotiations, there will be a conference, a pavilion, and thousands of side events happening, divided over thematic days, on topics like finance, energy, youth and public empowerment, nature, adaptation, gender, science and innovation, transport, and cities. 

The conference will happen across two zones – The Blue Zone (Scottish Events Campus), and the Green Zone located at the Glasgow Science Centre.

The Blue Zone is a UN-managed space where negotiations are hosted, and to enter all attendees must be credited by the UNFCCC Secretariat. 

The Green Zone is managed by the UK Government and open to the public. It will include events, exhibitions, workshops and talks to promote dialogue, awareness, education and commitments on climate change.

Anyone famous attending?

Several heads of state and government including UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and US President Joe Biden are expected to attend. Other famous faces in Glasgow will include Sir David Attenborough, the COP26 people’s advocate, activist Greta Thunberg, the famous Game of Thrones actress Maisie Williams and singer-songwriter and UNEP ambassador Ellie Goulding. The Queen announced with regret, on Tuesday, that she would not be travelling to the event’s main reception after all.

The United Nations newest SDG ambassadors K-pop superstars BLACKPINK will be also joining the event. The Korean all-girl group released a video before their appearance, sharing a sneak peek of their heartfelt message to inspire climate action.

And with such a big conference, are there any special COVID-19 measures?

While COVID-19 continues to be a huge challenge across the world, tackling the climate crisis cannot wait according to the COP26 hosts.  

In-person negotiations are preferred over online ones, to ensure inclusive participation by high and low-income countries as well as ensuring scrutiny and transparency.

Fully vaccination is encouraged for those attending the conference, and the United Kingdom ran a programme ahead of time, to deliver vaccines to participants living in countries unable to get one.

There will also be strict COVID-19 testing protocols in place, including daily testing for everyone entering the Blue Zone to ensure the health and wellbeing of all those involved and the surrounding community.

There are also COP-specific arrangements for the COVID Travel Regime people will encounter as they enter England and Scotland, with some countries requiring quarantine (which will be funded by the UK Government for attendees in difficult circumstances.

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G20 summit must formulate plan for Global South climate change threat

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The G20 summit in India must have a “concrete plan” for “scaled-up” green financing for the Global South as a critical strategy to combat climate change, affirms the founder of one of the world’s largest independent financial advisory, asset management and fintech organizations.

The comments from deVere Group’s Nigel Green comes as leaders of the Group of 20 top industrialised and developing countries will gather this weekend in New Delhi for a summit that will celebrate the end of India’s 12-month G20 presidency.

He says: Climate change is no longer a distant threat; it is a present reality. Rising global temperatures, extreme weather events, melting ice caps, and sea-level rise are already affecting communities, ecosystems, and economies worldwide. 

“The Global South, comprising developing nations with limited resources, bears a disproportionate burden in this climate crisis, despite contributing minimally to greenhouse gas emissions.

“As such, the leader of the G20 – the richest countries in the world – must use the summit starting in India this week to formulate a concrete plan for scaled-up green financing to help the Global South tackle the biggest issue of our time. 

“A failure to do this could, ultimately, have catastrophic consequences for our planet and its communities.”

Green financing encompasses a range of mechanisms designed to support sustainable, environmentally friendly projects that mitigate climate change and enhance resilience. 

These include investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency, climate adaptation, sustainable agriculture, and conservation efforts. 

“One of the major challenges faced by the Global South is access to financial resources needed for climate action. Developing nations often lack the financial capacity to invest in green projects without incurring significant debt,” says the deVere CEO.

“The G20 summit must play a pivotal role in bridging this financial gap by prioritising green financing and creating mechanisms to make it more accessible.”

G20 countries, being the largest economies in the world, must also “commit to increasing in a considerable way their financial contributions to international climate finance mechanisms. These funds are essential for providing support to developing nations in their efforts to mitigate emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change,” he notes.

Nigel Green goes on to add that the G20 summit should also serve as a platform for fostering collaboration between developed and developing nations. 

This collaboration can take various forms, including knowledge sharing, technology transfer, and capacity building. 
In addition, to scale up climate action, it is crucial to engage the private sector. G20 countries can promote public-private partnerships and initiatives that attract private sector investment in green projects. 

“This can be achieved through incentives, guarantees, or risk-sharing mechanisms that make investments in sustainability more appealing to businesses.”

Innovation in financial instruments, such as green bonds and climate insurance, can unlock alternative funding sources for climate projects in developing nations. 

The deVere CEO says: “The G20 summit must urgently encourage the development and adoption of such instruments to diversify funding options.”

The G20 summit in India presents a crucial opportunity to prioritize green financing for the Global South as a key strategy to combat climate change. 

This summit can be a turning point in the global fight against climate change, demonstrating that unity, innovation, and commitment can drive transformative change toward a sustainable future for all.

“The urgency of climate action cannot be overstated, and the global community must act decisively. 

“By committing to green financing, promoting collaboration, and bridging the financial gap, the G20 can lead the way in ensuring that all nations, particularly those in the Global South, have the resources and support they need to address the climate crisis effectively,” concludes Nigel Green.

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To tackle wildfires, researchers in Europe team up with frontline forces

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The EU is seeking to limit growing threats from blazes through the use of satellites, artificial intelligence and unmanned aerial vehicles.

By  JACK MCGOVAN

Picture the following scene on the French island of Corsica: a local fire service uses a special surveillance camera to detect smoke in the area, quickly declare the outbreak of a blaze and mobilise a targeted response.

No, the action in the Biguglia municipality on Corsica’s northeastern coast wasn’t one of the many wildfire emergencies in Europe in 2023. Rather, it was a demonstration in October 2022 under an EU-funded research project to help regions in Europe counter threats from wildfires.

Teaming up

The Biguglia exercise used a smoke bomb to simulate the start of a fire and an extensive data network to trigger the rapid-reaction steps. It involved a service that has 1 300 firefighters who protect a population in this part of Corsica – the Mediterranean’s fourth-biggest island – that grows to around 400 000 in summer.

‘This first demonstration on Corsica was very positive,’ said Michael Pelissier, a firefighter who participated in the test.

As part of the EU project, called SAFERS, a similar firefighting exercise took place in the Piedmont region of Italy in February 2023 and two more trials are planned in Greece and Spain toward the end of this year.

After the next two demonstrations, we would like to push the management system forward in Europe and also beyond,’ said Claudio Rossi, who coordinates the project and is a senior researcher at an Italian research and innovation centre called the Links Foundation in the city of Turin.

With the help of EU funding, Europe’s research community is joining forces with firefighters to prevent fires from spreading or from happening at all. SAFERS is one of several EU projects to combine resources and know-how for tackling wildfires on the continent.

Satellite support

The focus of SAFERS is primarily on the use of satellites and artificial intelligence, or AI, to provide information that could help save lives and contain environmental damage.

‘The orchestrated utilisation of AI-powered solutions can increase resilience to forest fires,’ Rossi said.

Running for three and a half years through March 2024, the project features weather and hazard maps, fire-detection techniques, input from the general public and other tools to help local authorities prepare.

The ultimate goal is to build on the demonstrations in France, Greece, Italy and Spain and develop a comprehensive wildfire-control system for use around Europe.

By combining satellite images and other data, the system is intended to give first responders, decision-makers and ordinary people a clearer view of what’s happening and to facilitate the best responses.

Earth-observation data from the EU’s Copernicus programme is the primary source of information. This would be combined with data collected from smoke detectors, mobile applications, social media and forecast models.

Present threat

A stark reminder that wildfires pose a growing threat in Europe came from news images in July 2023 of tourists fleeing flames on the Greek island of Rhodes and blazes spreading near the Sicilian city of Palermo.

A month later, attention turned to Spain and Portugal where blazes destroyed more than 16 300 hectares of land and forced the evacuation of villages and tourist accommodations.

The Biguglia municipality on Corsica was chosen as a SAFERS demonstration site in part because of a major fire there in 2017.

‘These last years we have noticed that, notably because of global warming, the summer season has a tendency to expand,’ said Pelissier, the firefighter. ‘So we are increasingly threatened by forest fires.’

The EU, which recently doubled its firefighting fleet of aircraft, has deployed more than 10 planes, 500 firefighters and 100 vehicles to help control and quell wildfires in Greece alone during the summer of 2023.

Over the past two months, the EU has also mobilised such support for Cyprus and – outside Europe – Tunisia. The moves were closely coordinated with national authorities.

Hotspot training

Another EU-funded project – TREEADS – plans to feature drones, high-altitude balloons and satellites in a Europe-wide protection system.

‘We can’t only invest in fire trucks, helicopters or planes – we need to train our communities before the fires happen,’ said Kemal Sarp Arsava, who coordinates the project.

Arsava is a senior research scientist at Norway-based RISE Fire Research, which specialises in fire safety.

TREEADS aims to establish a comprehensive fire-management platform covering all three stages of wildfires – before, during and after a blaze breaks out.

Arsava is a native of Turkey who has also worked and studied in the US.

While in the US in late 2019, he was reminded of the international dimension of the wildfires threat by noticing the effect of Australia’s major outbreak of bushfires at the time.

Based then in the state of New Hampshire, Arsava said the blazes caused a slight haze in North America while primarily hurting air quality in South America. 

‘The smoke from all of the wildfires in Australia basically crossed the Pacific Ocean and even changed the colour of the sky in America,’ he said.

Drones and balloons

TREEADS began in December 2021 and is due to run until end-May 2025.

The initiative brings together research institutes and companies from 14 European countries and Taiwan.

Besides Norway and Taiwan, the participants are from Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Romania, Spain and Sweden.

The team of researchers is developing new technologies that’ll be tested in eight countries represented in the project.

One plan is to use drones and high-altitude balloons to detect blazes early, collect data for fire crews and even aid their actions by dropping fire-suppressant materials.

A four-layer approach is foreseen: low-altitude drones to locate fire hotspots; mid-altitude drones to drop fire suppressants; high-altitude balloons to provide a broader view; and satellites for the whole picture.

The trials are due to start early next year.

The project is also testing a virtual-reality headset to train firefighters who aren’t typically assigned to dealing with wildfires. That means teaching city firefighters to deal with blazes in different terrains should the need arise.

In total, more than 26 technologies including for fire protection and suppression will be enhanced, developed and verified in TREEADS.

‘These new technologies will make it easier to fight wildfires in the future,’ said Arsava.

Research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine. 

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Clothing manufacturers aim to get fashionable with greener practices

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Clothes made from recycled textiles are emerging in Europe, highlighting new business opportunities that also reduce the industry’s environmental footprint.

By  OFIA STRODT

Two textile plants in southern Finland point to the future of the industry.

At the sites in Espoo and Valkeakoski, pre-treated textile waste is turned into a cellulosic fibre that looks and feels like cotton.

In with the old

The activity is part of a research initiative called the New Cotton Project that received EU funding to help green the fashion business by recycling discarded textiles into new clothes. The three-year initiative is being extended by six months to March 2024 and builds on the notion of a “circular economy” in which goods get repaired, reused and recycled.

‘We want to show that a circular economy for textiles is possible in Europe,’ said Paula Sarsama, who coordinates New Cotton Project and is programme manager at Infinited Fiber Company in Espoo. The project uses the company’s recycling technology. 

Discarded clothing is an environmental menace in Europe and globally.

Much of the waste is dumped into landfills in poorer parts of the world, discharging methane into the air and chemicals into the soil and groundwater. An estimated 5.8 million tonnes of textiles, or about 11 kilogrammes per person, are thrown away annually in the EU.

The EU is one of the world’s largest importers of clothing, with such shipments worth €80 billion in 2019.

While the EU gets most of its textiles from abroad, it also produces them in countries including Germany, Italy, France and Spain. Italy accounts for more than 40% of EU apparel production. Furthermore, European exports of discarded clothing have tripled in the past two decades.

The textile sector in Europe employs more than 1.5 million people and, with global textiles production predicted to rise 63% by 2030 from 2022, the waste would only increase without action.

The European clothing industry is seeking to break the cycle by moving towards more sustainable production and consumption. The shifts promise to open new business opportunities while aiding the environment.

Commercial case

Under New Cotton Project, the used textiles were obtained by a Dutch company named Frankenhuis that collects and organises them and is a partner in the initiative.

At Infinited Fiber, Sarsama and her colleagues work with numerous textile collectors and sorters. Most are located in northern Europe – an effort to keep transport routes, costs and emissions to a minimum.

‘In the future we hope to see textile circularity hubs, sourcing textiles locally and having different recycling and circular solutions on site,’ said Sarsama.

After being broken down, the waste is revived as the fibre that looks and feels like cotton and is named “Infinna”.

Hoodie and sweatpants

Actually making the clothes is the next step in the whole process. 

German athletic apparel and footwear maker adidas and companies belonging to Swedish fashion retailer H&M are among the businesses that will use the Infinna fibre to design, manufacture and sell their own items.

A milestone for New Cotton Project was getting the first garments made from textile waste into the marketplace in 2022, according to Sarsama.

The retailers’ collections were limited product lines sold on the online market. Sarsama said this ensured a larger geographical spread than would have been the case from selling the items in a single European shop, however large.

The garments included an “adidas by Stella McCartney” set with a hoodie and sweatpants and an H&M denim jacket and pair of trousers.

All parts of the textile production chain – from initial design through to the shop floor – are represented in the project. The aim is to demonstrate that creating new clothing from cotton-rich textile waste can be commercially viable.

Collection is key

A key component in the transition to a circular economy is the organised collecting and sorting of textile waste.

Currently, less than 1% of materials used to produce new clothing comes from recycled textiles. As of 2025, EU law will require all 27 Member States to put in place a waste-collection system for household textiles and to comply with minimum recycling goals.

A big challenge is getting different parts of the sector to align on specifications, according to Sarsama.

For example, at the start of New Cotton Project, the partners planning new collections had some specifications for required materials that were unclear to the collecting entities. This prompted the two segments to improve their exchange of information.

Collaboration in the sector got a boost with the launch in early 2023 of the ECOSYSTEX platform. Bringing together 23 EU-funded initiatives – including New Cotton Project – that focus on textile sustainability, ECOSYSTEX aims to deepen cooperation among the partners.

Sorting it out

Another European project that is part of the platform has received EU funding to demonstrate how a system to transform household textile waste into a feedstock for new products could work.

Called T-REX – short for Textile Recycling Excellence – the initiative began last year and is due to run through May 2025. The focus is on grouping the waste. That’s because, to be repurposed on a large scale, discarded garments first need to be sorted according to their material.

‘A problem for the sorters is that items are made from different materials,’ said Elizabeth Martin, T-REX’s coordinator and a manager at adidas. ‘If we can harmonise the quality criteria for sorting practices, we can improve the scale-up as well.’

New actors

On top of this hurdle comes an unknown: how consumers will become part of the process, as they’ll be the ones discarding old garments.

Bringing this segment into the mix will require simpler textile waste-disposal options. That in turn will mean changes in labelling as well as in production.

‘The ways in which consumers are going to dispose of their household textile waste is going to play a role because this is going to affect the sorting process that follows,’ said Martin.

In a 2022 Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles, the European Commission proposed to establish an EU “Digital Product Passport” – an electronic record that would be required by 2030 to encourage customers to make more educated choices in the first place.

Basic data such as a garment’s composition, sourcing, toxicity, maintenance options and disassembly possibilities would aid companies in adopting circular models.

The hope in Europe is that the knowledge generated through research initiatives like New Cotton Project and T-REX will also contribute to improving practices globally.

For any substantial change in the textile sector, international collaboration is needed.

‘Europe is currently at the forefront of this push for change, but these problems need to be solved at a global level,’ said Sarsama.

This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine. 

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