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Claims of COP26’s success have been unpicked – but political journalists have repeated the spin
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Claims of COP26’s success have been unpicked – but political journalists have repeated the spin

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Clarity is what everyone expects from a UN climate summit. It is important to be able understand the many decisions, deals, coalitions, pledges, and pacts that have been made by the UN climate summit. This is crucial for scientists, campaigners, policymakers, and the general public.

For months, British political journalists have been working in the UK. have played up the notionBoris Johnson, the polemic power and personage of Boris Johnson, are integral to summit success. The idea was partly conceived by support newspapers and has a very practical result: the summit cannot fail. This has had a terrible impact on clarity.

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A recent story by the BBC’s political editor.
BBC News

One of the distinguishing features of the first week at COP26 in Glasgow was a “blizzard” of announcements on three of the UK presidency’s four priorities – coal, cash and trees. They were preceded a global pledgeon reducing methane emission, and was followed up by three evaluations of the combined effect of these announcements.

We suspect that several purposes were served by the decision to launch this storm during week one. First, it distracted from formal negotiations which can be a very dysfunctional affair. Real-economy stories like the decline in coal were also included in the announcements. Finally, they allow the UK government to tell a story of COP “success” even if week two negotiations founders.

In all these announcements, headlines were more apparent than the reality behind them. However, claims can be uncovered: unfortunately for the government spin machine many were.

The spin can be stopped

Whereas US president Joe Biden claimed the methane pledge could potentially reduce global warming by around 0.2°C, independent analyses suggested the impact would be less than 0.04°C. A “Breakthrough Agenda” to align development in areas such as green hydrogen lacked any operational details.

Most glaringly, the claim23 countries had pledged not to eliminate coal-fired electricity generation for the first ever time. It was discovered that ten countries were among the first to pledge not to phase out coal-fired electric generation. are using no coal generationHowever.

Climate Resource analysts were still analyzing the claims, even as they were being investigated. calculatedAll of these pledges plus new targets were announced by a few countries, including India, could limit temperature rise to 1.9°C. The temperature rose to 1.9degC a day later International Energy Agency said 1.8°C.

The Energy Transitions Commission was established the day following. declared the pledges had substantially closed the gap between likely emission levels in 2030 and those needed to keep global warming below 1.5°C.

All gave crucial caveats, the most important being the two words “if enacted”. Pledges do not cut emissions – policies do. And by common consent – now confirmed by the widely-respected Climate Action Tracker – the sum of governments’ policies is taking us towards 2.7°C of global warming.

Double-counting is another important caveat. The most obvious is that if one of these pledges makes it easier to reach its 2030 target, it doesn’t necessarily have to reduce its emissions in other areas.

It is here that clarity is needed.

Critical caveats in journalism can be overlooked, especially when articles are written by journalists who are not familiar with the topic. So it was with the Sunday Times, for example, stating: “The UN warned before the summit that [temperatures] are set to rise to 2.7°C. By the end of the week, experts suggested the agreements reached would lower this to 1.8°C.”

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A recent article by the Sunday Times chief Political Commentator.
Sunday Times

Two days later, when the Climate Action Tracker highlighted the yawning gap between countries’ headline pledges and concrete policies, we had headlines such as “World on track for disastrous heating of more than 2.4°C”.

It is a great way of confusing the public.

The COP has actually made significant progress. The draft agreement recognizes the enormous risks posed by climate changes and the urgency to find solutions. There has also been movement on adaptation, finance and loss and damage – and this COP decisionCould be the first person to advocate for the end of fossil fuel subsidies and the phasing-out of coal.

As we enter the summit’s crucial final days, when spin flies around like chaff from a combine harvester, the stakes are higher than ever. Scientists and analysts must be clear about the caveats and journalists should reflect them. Leaders are also responsible for not over-claiming. COP26 will not be a complete success or a complete failure. It will however be somewhere in the middle. The details matter – not least for prioritising what comes next.

COP26: the world's biggest climate talks

This story is part of The Conversation’s coverage on COP26, the Glasgow climate conference, by experts from around the world.

The Conversation is here to help you understand the climate news and stories. More.


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