Midway through the second week of COP26, a feeling of optimism hangs in the air across much of the climate conference’s ‘Blue Zone’. Delegates are buoyed by the pledge of more than 40 countries to phase out coal, the pledge from 20 countries to end international public finance for fossil fuels, and one from 105 countries to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030. Hearts were also lifted by the surprise announcement from India that it would reach net-zero emissions by 2070, only days after India’s environment minister had rejected a net-zero target, saying such pledges were “not a solution in itself”. 

Analysis of climate pledges by Energy Monitor suggests 88% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 92% of the global economy is now covered by a net-zero pledge. The International Energy Agency (IEA) said on 4 November that recently announced pledges could, if fulfilled, limit global temperature rise to 1.8°C. This was swiftly rebutted by a UN scientist who said the world remained on “a 2.7 degree pathway, a catastrophic pathway”.

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A delegate walks past a UN climate conference poster on the first day of the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Alain Jocard/AFP via Getty Images)

Nevertheless, countries have signalled their firm intention at COP26 to wind down traditional energy systems. This means renewable energies must take the place of fossil fuels. The scale-up of renewables needed will be massive: the International Renewable Energy Agency’s (IRENA) 1.5°C Pathway says renewable power should reach 10,770GW globally by 2030, compared with 2,982GW in 2020. The IEA’s Net Zero by 2050 Pathway says annual capacity additions of wind and solar between 2020 and 2050 must be five times higher than the average over the past three years. 

Over at the wind pavilion, which is run by the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC), the conference has been a non-stop series of seminars and networking events. There have been meetings with government delegations from South Africa, Sri Lanka, India, Vietnam and Kenya, among others. 

“Throughout COP, the voice of the industry is being heard where it needs to be heard,” says Ben Hunt, global head of corporate affairs at turbine manufacturer Siemens Gamesa. “There are a huge number of bilateral discussions going on between the wind industry and various government delegations and advisors.

“We are able to talk to them about how we can help support a sustainable roll-out of renewable infrastructure in their countries, and in return, they are telling us about the plans that they have, the infrastructure that is required, and the challenges they face.” 

Hunt thinks the days of greenwashing “are behind us”. He believes the urgency and intent evident at COP26 is significantly greater than was the case at COP25 in Madrid in 2019. 

Ben Backwell, CEO of GWEC, says that “renewables are on everyone's agenda” at COP26. Backwell believes the mechanisms at play in COP discussions – whether they be national climate targets, new pledges or simply discussions between governments – encourage countries to plan for a new energy system that will have to be largely renewables-based. 

Yet even in the climate echo-chamber of the Glasgow SEC (the campus where COP26 is taking place), optimistic discussions cannot mask the fact that the cold hard data shows renewables remain massively off-track what is needed to reach the ambitious targets most of the world’s nations have now set for themselves. 

Analysis of upcoming project plans from analytics company GlobalData finds that, under current policies, overall renewables capacity will be just over half what IRENA says is needed in 2030 to be on track for net zero by 2050.

Backwell argues that to speed up the roll-out, countries need the right legislation and frameworks, as well as effective planning and permitting systems. “There is too much bureaucracy, too much red tape, and projects take too long to get set up in a way that can quickly replace fossil fuels with renewables,” he says. 

‘The power of incumbency’ 

Dan McGrail, CEO of industry body RenewableUK, says COP26 is a “humbling experience” because people from nearly every corner of the world are here, intent on making a difference. But, he adds, the “power of incumbency” can still be felt at the conference.

“Thousands of people are still employed in oil, gas and coal, and that lobby remains strong,” he says. He points to how global subsidies for fossil fuels ($5.9trn in 2020, says the IMF) remain significantly greater than global subsidies for renewables. Analysis by Energy Monitor also shows how clean energy investment is not spread evenly: Africa and the Middle East have 23% of the global population, but just 2% of renewables investment

The enduring influence of oil and gas was felt at a flagship renewables event on the COP's Energy Day, organised by the Marrakech Partnership for Global Climate Action, a body set up to support the implementation of the Paris Agreement through collaboration between business and public authorities. 

Among just five keynote speakers was Mariam Almheiri, UAE minister for climate change, who announced that the country’s national oil company will start “running all its operations purely from clean and renewable energy”, but has no plans to actually phase out oil and gas extraction. 

Meanwhile, Yvonne Denise Aki-Sawyerr, the mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone, said the country planned to continue to pursue projects powered by gas. Her reasoning is that a country that uses ten times less energy than the world average needs to develop. Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate has repeatedly said she believes the African continent can develop without fossil fuels. 

An alliance of wind and solar

Given the enduring challenges facing renewables, GWEC and the Global Solar Council (GSC), the equivalent body for the solar industry, have announced the formation of the Global Renewable Energy Alliance. Its aim is to step up cooperation, knowledge exchange and advocacy between the two key energy sources that analysts believe will lead the global transition to net zero. 

Announcing the alliance, the two organisations said they were spurred to action by data showing solar and wind installations set to fall 29% short of what is needed in 2030 for the world to be on track for net zero by 2050.

“We are in a climate emergency, and we need to be taking action now,” said GWEC’s Backwell, as he announced the alliance. “Both solar and wind technologies are available right now, but rather than fighting with each other, we want to go together and speak with a louder voice, sharing data, information about markets [and] cooperating more closely on the ground. 

“We now want to really flesh out what the alliance means in practice, so that between now and COP27 in Egypt we can really create something special”. 

Speaking to Energy Monitor after the launch, Backwell’s counterpart at the GSC, Gianni Chianetta, added that his aim with the alliance, as well as more generally at the COP, is to boost the voice of the industry and ensure real solutions are implemented alongside distant pledges. 

“We believe the voice of the industry is not as involved in discussions at COP26 as it should be,” says Chianetta. “We have had numerous bilateral meetings with countries, particularly in emerging markets, where we are able to tell our message about solar, but there is frustration from our members that industry voices are not front and centre of discussions at COP26, given that renewables will lead the energy transition.” 

Chianetta says industry should be present at the highest level of multilateral discussions at the COP, so countries can understand that renewable solutions exist and are accessible. NGOs may feel that opening the door to any business interests could mean lobbyists from dirty sectors also find their way in – but Chianetta believes this could spur countries to adopt more ambitious pledges that are backed by practical strategies. The absence of such strategies has long been a criticism of net-zero pledges. 

“There is still a perception renewables are more difficult to install and expensive, even though this is no longer true," says Chianetta. "We want to make it clear clean energy solutions can be economically attractive to private investors without subsidies, and offer both a sustainable and economically desirable model for countries going forward.”