What next after COP? Fund the future or face the fire

Speech by Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, to the Association of Foreign Banks, 16 November 2021

Introduction: Earth’s burning, fetch the engines, pour on water

It’s a great honour to address such influential decision-makers at such a pivotal moment for our planet.

Many of you and the institutions you represent are based in the historic City of London. In 1666, the Great Fire of London started in Pudding Lane, close to the heart of the City, and destroyed over 80,000 properties. Some historians argue that the fire was able to spread because local leaders failed to take urgent action. When the Mayor was begged to create firebreaks, he famously scoffed that it was nothing to worry about and returned to bed. That ended badly for him and most of the City. The Great Fire led to big changes in the way London was built to make it safer. To use a modern phrase in a seventeenth century context, what the people of London did was build back better. But if they had known the Great Fire was coming, they might well have acted sooner to prevent it or reduce its impact.

Today, we know an even bigger fire is coming for us unless we act now. Climate change is burning our planet. Since the Industrial Revolution, which was largely financed from the City of London, rising carbon levels from the burning of fossil fuels have been pushing global temperatures higher and higher.

We are already seeing the consequences – more extreme weather, rising sea levels, bigger than ever floods, extreme droughts, massive wildfires, ecological harm wiping out species, and rising impacts on the economy, the way we live, and the health and wellbeing of every human on this planet.

This is Earth’s Pudding Lane moment: we need to put out the climate fire before it consumes us, and build the better future we want not just for London but the world.

COP26: what just happened? And what now?

  • You will have seen last weekend’s headlines on the outcome of COP26, the UN climate conference in Glasgow. Let me give you my take on the outcome and what it means. During the two weeks of the conference, several important side agreements were announced. The most significant were:
  • A pledge by the US and China to boost their own climate co-operation, including on the transition to clean energy. That matters because there is little chance of tackling climate change successfully without collaboration between the world’s two biggest CO2 emitters.
  • A commitment by over 100 countries representing about 85% of the world’s forests to stop deforestation by 2030. That matters because cutting down trees puts more carbon into the atmosphere and leaving them where they are absorbs carbon.
  • A plan by more than 100 countries to cut 30% of current methane emissions by 2030. That matters because methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases.

The final agreement adopted at the end of the conference – the Glasgow Climate Pact – commits all the 197 countries involved to strengthen their efforts to mitigate the extent of climate change, adapt to its effects and finance that work.

At Paris in 2015, countries set a target to keep average global temperature rise to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels and as close as possible to 1.5°C. Before COP26, the planet was actually on course for a much more dangerous 2.7°C of global warming. The announcements made during the Conference put us on a path to between 1.8°C and 2.4°C. In the final Glasgow conclusions all countries agreed to revisit their commitments, as necessary, by the end of 2022 to put us back on track for no more than 1.5°C of warming. To help deliver on these promises, all countries agreed for the first time to phase-down “unabated” coal power – coal-burning without some form of carbon capture and storage to reduce its contribution to global warming.

COP26 was never going to solve all the problems of the planet in a fortnight. But what it has done is give renewed impetus to the global effort to tackle climate change. Its success will be measured not in this week’s headlines but over the next several decades by whether those commitments are actually implemented.

So what now? Coming out of COP26, I have three messages on where we need to go next. The first is a warning – about the risks, including to your businesses. The second is an insight: that successfully tackling the climate emergency offers massive investment opportunities for you and the rest of the business world. And the third message is a call to arms.

A warning

Let’s start with the warning: any bank, business or organisation which does not rise to the climate challenge will go the way of the dinosaurs – who also, incidentally, failed to cope with a changing climate.

The main messages out of Glasgow are brutally simple, and they apply to banks and other businesses as much as to the rest of us. They are that there is no future in carbon and that we must adapt or die.

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