This week, world leaders met in Glasgow, Scotland for the start of the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). This year’s conference, like those of years past, convenes with the ultimate goal of setting the world on a path to preventing global temperatures from rising by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-Industrial Revolution temperatures. Experts warn that this is the threshold where the effects of global climate change become catastrophic and will have irreversible long-term effects.
The conference meets at a dire moment in the climate crisis. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), 2020 was tied with 2016 for the warmest year on record. In September, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said that despite a brief slowdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, carbon emissions have greatly recovered, causing more extreme weather events and increasing the chances of global temperatures surpassing the 1.5-degree threshold in the next five years. The rapidly increasing threat has led to COP26 being billed as “the world’s best last chance to get runaway climate change under control.”
During the conference’s first week, world leaders announced agreements on several actions to mitigate and reverse the effects of climate change. These actions are intended to be critical aspects of a wide-ranging strategy and commitment to achieve a global goal of net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century.
The United States and the European Union announced a commitment signed by more than 100 nations to cut methane gas emissions by 30 percent by the end of the decade. Aside from carbon dioxide, methane emissions are the second largest contributor to climate change among greenhouse gases, and account for 10 percent of all U.S. greenhouse emissions. The U.S. and E.U. believe that if all nations follow through on this commitment to methane reduction, then it will result in reducing global warming by 0.2 degrees Celsius by 2050.
Leaders also announced a pledge to end and reverse the effects of global deforestation by 2030. The pledge, which was signed by more than 130 countries representing more than 85 percent of the world’s forestland, includes commitments to forest and ecosystem conservation, sustainable trade and development practices, and significant financial commitments. It is estimated that deforestation and the carbon released from felled trees account for roughly 10 percent of global greenhouse emissions.
Finally, more than twenty nations, including the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, pledged to end international subsidies for fossil fuel development. This pledge represents a step toward abandoning the use of fossil fuels entirely in favor of renewable sources. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, this agreement will assist in transitioning to renewable energy and slowing global warming but warned that it will require a full and total commitment from the U.S. Government.
In addition to the announcement of various agreements and pledges negotiated by global leaders, the conference’s Green Zone Programme of Events included numerous panel discussions focused on the many challenges posed by climate change, and also innovative and practical solutions that can help to address these challenges. Many of these discussions focused on resiliency, adaptation, and sustainability.
On Tuesday, several U.K. water policy experts participated in a discussion on the importance of nature-based solutions to combat the effects of climate change and the role of the natural environment in strengthening water infrastructure. Tony Juniper of Natural England noted that natural structures, such as peatlands, can absorb more carbon, thus increasing the supply of clean water. Such features can also provide natural flood controls by slowing down water flows. Others noted that expanding natural structures can support efficient wastewater systems by reducing the amount of rainwater in combined sewers, and can ultimately reduce stressors on wastewater treatment systems. ASCE supports the utilization of natural systems as means of reducing carbon emissions and preserving natural systems and features such as flood plans to mitigate flood risks and effectively manage water flows.
The built environment’s resilience to the impacts of climate change was a subject covered during a session held on Thursday. Speakers noted that engagement from a wide variety of stakeholders—including engineers, industry groups, investors, contractors, and government agencies—are key in the effort to decarbonize buildings as a means of addressing climate change. ASCE supports government policies that prepare for the impacts of climate change on the built environment. With regard to structures, modern, updated building codes are a reliable way to ensure infrastructure is resilient, and ASCE supports funding for research needed to develop model building codes. ASCE 7 is one of several of the Society’s documents that offers a basis for designing structures that can reasonably withstand the ever-increasing impacts of climate change.
An Ongoing Challenge
Despite commitments made during the first week of COP26, significant challenges remain. While the commitments made by leaders would, if fulfilled, end deforestation, reduce greenhouse emissions, and move away from fossil fuels, many argue for caution or even outright skepticism. While the Biden Administration was committed to the goals of COP26 and put forward policies to meet these goals, similar pledges were also made by the United States under the Paris Climate Agreement only for former President Donald Trump to withdraw the U.S. from the agreement during his administration. Despite concerns, there remains a consensus that action needs to be taken immediately. If it is not, with increasingly powerful storms, extreme weather, and rising sea levels, it may end up being too late.