There has been a lot of negativity about the COP26 climate summit, which kicks off in Glasgow a week today.

Hardly surprising, with China boycotting it, petro-states frantically lobbying to reduce targets and nonsense being talked here about heat pumps which just inflame voter cynicism.

There will be a lot of corporate mischief on the sidelines, a lot of fudging and obfuscation and a vast expenditure of hot air. One of the biggest rows will not be about greenhouse gases at all, but the paucity of Covid vaccines for developing countries.

There is very little prospect of this two week-long super-spreader event, as some are calling it, actually delivering legally-binding commitments on capping global warming to 1.5 degrees by the end of the century. That would require 200 governments, some of which like China and Russia won't be here, agreeing a 45% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. According to the authoritative Climate Transparency Report, only the UK is likely, under very optimistic assumptions, to reach that goal. Green demonstrators will call it “Copout 26”.

But before we dissolve into negativity and reach for the bottle, it's worth remembering that the last big climate summit, in Paris in 2015, also failed to deliver. It too was supposed to agree legally-binding emissions targets, but only agreed, after frantic late-night horse-trading, on a legal obligation to report on emissions targets. There was no actual requirement to meet them. Donald Trump's departure from the Paris Treaty was thus ineffably stupid since it didn't actually commit America to anything concrete.

But most economists still regard Paris as a success, if only because it concentrated the minds of politicians and accelerated a shift from fossil fuels that was beginning to gain momentum in the 2010s. The International Energy Agency believes that the recent spectacular reductions in the wholesale cost of renewable energy, especially offshore wind and solar, are down to Paris and the signals it sent to investors.

Capitalists may be greedy, but they aren't stupid. They can see that climate change is bad for business for all sorts of reasons, and they also see that there's money to be made in combatting it. Banks like Goldman Sachs, HSBC, BNP Paribas are jostling to get a slice of the trillions that are even now being invested in the transition to a carbon-free economy. Blackrock, one of the world's biggest asset funds, says investment opportunities of $3-7 trillion a year will be unleashed by agreement at COP26.

The one unassailable fact about net zero is that it cannot be funded by taxes alone (as the SNP's Green coalition partners are rapidly discovering). Nor would it be desirable to try to exclude industry and finance from the global effort. Market forces have to be directed by governments to virtuous ends as we saw during Covid.



That's what Boris Johnson meant last week at the investor summit in the Science Museum when he said government can deploy billions but only business can deploy trillions. Commentators are sniffy about Johnson's “Green is Good” boosterism, and his promising Sun readers that no one will be “kicking away their combis”. But just because he is a Tory doesn't mean he's wrong.

Boris Johnson is a new kind of environmental populist. He realises that voter attitudes have changed and that the environmental campaigners he used to poke fun at have won. Public consciousness of, and concern about, climate change has increased markedly since Paris, according to Pew Research (except curiously in Japan). Public opinion has turned against oil and gas, just as it turned against coal in the 1950s, when we saw measures like the Clean Air Acts.

The oil and gas companies have seen the light and are desperately trying to clean up their act, not least by promoting carbon capture and storage CCS of we will hear much in coming days. Most Green campaigners oppose the idea of scrubbing CO2 from power station chimneys and storing it under the sea. They call it a “quick fix”. But the fact is, the climate needs fixing and the quicker the better. The International Energy Agency insists that we already have too much CO2 in the atmosphere, no matter how fast we switch to renewables, and it will have to be removed by geo-engineering.

There were cries of “betrayal” from SNP MPs last week after Scotland's ACORN carbon capture project at St Fergus in Aberdeenshire was sidelined by the UK government. Financial support for carbon capture will now go to projects in the North of England. However, this was hardly surprising. Scotland's Green ministers, Patrick Harvie and Lorna Slater, are deeply sceptical about carbon capture.

HeraldScotland: Scottish Greens co-leaders Lorna Slater and Patrick Harvie outside Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh, during their party's Autumn conference. Picture date: Friday October 8, 2021. PA Photo. Photo credit should read: Jane Barlow/PA Wire.

The danger of denigrating CCS and other forms of geo-engineering is that this may lead, in a few years, to a panic reversion to nuclear - the ultimate climate 'fix'. Nuclear power produces very little CO2 as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change repeatedly points out in its reports. Indeed, one of its “pathways” to 1.5 deg. envisages up to 500% increase in global nuclear power generation. That's a lot.

Unfortunately, nuclear power produces lots of other emissions including waste that has to be guarded for thousands of years. It also generates public resistance because of accidents like Fukushima. But if it is a question of keeping the lights on, public opinion is liable to turn rapidly pro-nuclear. If President Xi responds to the torrent of criticism likely at Glasgow, then we can be pretty sure that China will press the nuclear accelerator.

China, the world's biggest user of fossil fuel, is already one of the world's largest users of fissile fuel. It is about to fire up the world's first thorium-based nuclear power station in the Gobi desert. Thorium is thought by some to be safer than uranium as reactor fuel because the waste produced, though initially more radioactive, decays faster and requires less long-term storage. Others views are available. China is also keen on Small Modular Reactors of the kind used in nuclear submarines, and may shortly become an exporter of such technology.

As the world's largest emitter of CO2, China is in the dock for opening a new coal power station every week. But China bashers should remember that the USA is the second biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and, more importantly, emits more than twice as much CO2 per head of population. The carbon footprint of the average American is twice as big as a Chinaperson's.

As I write, President Biden is desperately trying to get Congress to agree to halve US emissions by 2030. Britain has already halved its emissions on 1990 baseline, so this is eminently achievable. But Biden is having difficulty, and not just from the Trump rump. The US wants to be self-sufficient in energy and has invested heavily in shale gas fracking.

There will be much climate hypocrisy in the coming weeks. And finger pointing. The $100 bn per year for the global south to decarbonise will probably be finally delivered. There will be new emissions targets and promises to keep them this time, since the world is watching. There will be progress and that needs optimism. It won't be the end of the beginning, but nor will it be the beginning of the end.