US environmentalist Tom Steyer likened the upcoming United Nations Cop26 summit as the moment “when every country’s term paper is due” on more ambitious commitments to cut planet-heating emissions driving the climate crisis.
Speaking at an event hosted by The Independent on Tuesday, the former Democratic presidential candidate and co-executive chair of financial fund, Galvanize Climate Solutions, recalled his experiences as a veteran attendee of Cops, the UN’s annual conference of parties to tackle global climate change.
Mr Steyer will once again be an official observer at this year’s Cop26 which begins in Scotland on 1 November.
Countries need to make more dramatic cuts to levels of greenhouse gas emissions in order to keep global temperature rise to the increasingly ambitious 1.5 degrees Celsius, or “well below” 2C, above pre-industrial times as set out by the 2015 Paris Agreement.
The world is on track for temperature rise in excess of 3C this century.
Watch the full recording of the event in the video below
COP26: The summit to change our future?
“I’ve been an investor for more than 30 years, and there’s an old saying which is strategy comes first, but execution is hard,” Mr Steyer said.
“And so to a very large extent, the Cop is a forcing mechanism, like the day your term paper is due, for every country in the world. They have to come in and submit their term paper in Glasgow – their nationally determined contribution – to saving the world.”
To meet long-term Paris goals, every country is expected to put forward an updated NDC – its roadmap to reduce emissions – every five years.
Mr Steyer said that Glasgow could be a “transformational” moment, from where “society has to figure out how to actually turn into real-world execution, that promise from every country in the world”.
Ed Miliband, the UK government’s shadow business secretary, who also joined The Independent’s virtual discussion said Cop26 should act as a “large embarrassment mechanism” for the world’s biggest polluters.
“Some people will be thinking, what is the point of these [summits]? Lots of people flying around the world, is that really a good idea?” he said.
“I see them as a rather large embarrassment mechanism. It’s basically a way to put world leaders on the spot and to make them account for what they’re doing. It’s a forcing mechanism.”
Mr Miliband, who represented the UK at the 2009 UN climate summit in Copenhagen, singled out Australia as a country that must be put under the spotlight.
“We have very friendly relations with Australia, [but] Australia is doing very badly on climate,” he said.
“This is about [stepping up] to one’s friends, as well as countries that aren’t naturally one’s friends. Everybody’s got to be in here. Nobody gets a free pass because this is the ultimate collective action problem.”
Mr Steyer, who served as co-chair of Mr Biden’s “Climate Engagement Advisory Council” during the 2020 election, also addressed the current fraught negotiations in the US Congress to pass the president’s ambitious spending bill, packed with proposals to tackle climate issues.
As of Wednesday, the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package was being hammered down to a reported $2tn to satisfy a few party moderates needed to pass the legislation on razor-thin margins in the Senate, where it lacks the support of a single Republican. Among the efforts being stripped from the bill was cornerstone clean energy plan to reduce US emission levels.
The California-based investor said that while Democrats were “still coming to grips” with cuts to the bill, he believed that it would contain efforts strong enough to meet the US’s NDC. Mr Biden pledged earlier this year that the US would make a 50-52 per cent reduction in emissions from 2005 levels by 2030.
However he conceded that there was a “real question” over whether the legislative package could be passed by the time Cop26 begins on November 1.
“If President Biden shows up with that as a done deal in his hand, it’s proof to the rest of the world that he’s in fact accomplishing what he went around the country for a couple of years saying he was gonna accomplish,” Mr Steyer said.
“But what I would say to the people who aren’t Americans is, we do not need a single Republican vote in order to pass this reconciliation. This is an internal negotiation between Democrats. I think everybody understands that we have to come out with something [and] that not coming out with something would be a very bad outcome.
“I believe we will and there will be enough climate parts left in it so that we can meet our NDC. But of course, the sooner the bigger, the better.”
The two speakers were also joined at The Independent’s event by WaterAid’s Mozambique country director Adam Garley, who said that his “one big worry” for Cop26 was a lack of clear leadership from the UK government.
“There’s a paradox about the UK. Our targets are good internationally compared to other countries, but our delivery has been incredibly poor,” he said.
He added that the UK’s long-awaited plan for how it will meet its net-zero target, which was released on Tuesday, “repeated the problem” of promises over action.
“They’re not willing to make the public investment necessary to make this transition [to net zero] with the urgency and fairness that is required – when all the evidence is that investing now on climate saves money later,” he said.