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October 21, 2021

Mark Maslin talks the politics of climate change and what countries must achieve at COP 26

By Elana Knopp, Senior Content Writer


With COP 26 fast approaching, Edison Energy sat down with Mark Maslin, Professor of Earth System Science at University College London (UCL), to discuss the shifting political and social landscape around climate action. A leading scientist, Maslin has written 10 books, more than 60 articles, and over 170 papers. His latest book, “How to Save our Planet: The Facts,” was published by Penguin in early 2021. Maslin is also the co-founder of Rezatec, a leading global geospatial analytics company.


On November 8,1989, then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher addressed the United Nations General Assembly on the environment and climate change.

“The environmental challenge which confronts the whole world demands an equivalent response from the whole world,” she said. “Every country will be affected, and no one can opt out. We should work through this great organization and its agencies to secure world-wide agreements on ways to cope with the effects of climate change, the thinning of the Ozone Layer, and the loss of precious species.”

Thatcher called for a “realistic program of action and an equally realistic timetable,” noting that each country must contribute, and that society, as “trustees of the planet,” were charged with protecting it.

“In 1989, we were already quite advanced in our knowledge about climate change,” Maslin said. “Margaret Thatcher basically said to the world leaders, ‘We’re causing climate change. We the leaders of the world need to deal with it.’”

Fast forward to 1997 with the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, in which industrialized countries and economies in transition committed to limit and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in accordance with agreed-upon individual targets.

A critical element of the Kyoto Protocol was the establishment of flexible market mechanisms, based on the trade of emissions permits. It also established a rigorous monitoring, review, and verification system, as well as a compliance system, to ensure transparency and hold countries accountable for their actual emissions.

But the next two decades saw a series of false starts and stops, as the U.S. and other developed countries grappled with formalizing some semblance of a climate agreement.

It finally happened at the UN’s COP 21 conference, held in Paris in 2015.

“The French were incredible,” Maslin said. “They were able to shake the negotiations. The most important thing that happened in Paris was that the small island nations and some of the least developed countries agreed to get to an aspirational target of 1.5 degrees.”

COP 21 was followed by the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which stated that countries would need to hit net-zero emissions by 2050 through the removal of carbon emissions from the atmosphere.

“This is where net zero was born,” Maslin said. “And the political narrative changed.”

One by one, governments pledged to net-zero targets by 2050, including the EU, UK, and the U.S. Even China, long silent on emissions reductions, pledged to hit net zero by 2060.

With COP 26 fast approaching, Maslin says it’s crucial to ensure that all countries build solidarity and together commit to a net-zero pathway.

“They need to understand that it’s cheaper if we get there quicker,” he said. “The second thing we need to agree on is that coal has to die. The biggest problem we have is that coal use is staying the same, oil use is staying about the same. And because the world is using more energy, with renewables doing the top-off, they’re not replacing fossil fuels at the moment. This is something that’s difficult for people to understand, which is that we are not replacing fossil fuels. What we’re doing is feeding our energy-hungry societies and helping countries to lift themselves out of energy poverty with renewables, but we’re not getting rid of coal.”

November’s COP summit will also need to focus on climate funding, says Maslin.

“At every COP and every G7 has been this idea that there’s going to be $100 billion provided by the developed world for the developing world to help to lift their technology,” he said. “But the money doesn’t turn up in the bank, so that’s something we need to be able to do. We also need an agreement on how we fund development in other countries because we have some real issues where we have countries like the UK funding fossil fuel projects and power stations in other countries. We also need the U.S. to pass whatever Biden agrees to at COP 26, and it needs to go through the Senate and House of Representatives as fast as possible.”

Net-zero mechanisms

Renewable energy is now cheaper that fossil fuels, according to a recent report published by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). The report shows that 162 GW, or 62 percent, of total renewable power generation added last year had lower costs than the cheapest new fossil fuel option.

Globally, over 800 GW of existing coal power costs more than new solar PV or onshore wind projects commissioned in 2021. The outlook through 2022 sees global renewable power costs falling further, with onshore wind becoming up to 27 percent lower than the cheapest new coal-fired generation option.

“The top line is we have to replace fossil fuels. Full stop,” Maslin said. “That is the only way to deal with climate change. Renewable energy is now cheaper than fossil fuels. It’s going to be even cheaper if you remove fossil fuel subsidies, which is at about $600b that’s paid per year in the U.S. And guess what? They only employ about 350,000 people. It’s not a jobs market. The green economy is where the big growth in jobs is happening across the U.S. and in most of the industrial world.”

The U.S. green economy is expected to drive $1.3 trillion in annual sales revenue and employ nearly 9.5 million workers.

Beyond the falling costs of renewables, the recent spike in corporate climate commitments has spurred renewed interest in carbon offsets. Today, over 1000 firms in 60 countries and spanning 50 sectors have pledged to align their emissions with the Paris Agreement. For many companies, achieving this goal will require the use of carbon offsets.

“Carbon offsets is going to be a huge growing market,” Maslin said. “I’ve been working with companies and politicians to try and actually make sure that we have better guidelines going forward. It’s really a bit like the Wild West at the moment. When I talk to people from the industry, they really get quite upset because they don’t understand why there are some companies they can’t trust.”

Methodologies and standards for defining carbon offsets, and the rigor with which these standards are enforced, have evolved and improved over time, according to a recent Trove Research report co-authored by Maslin. But the challenge of this evolving landscape is that older projects registered in previous eras with poorer quality controls have continued to issue credits, with the volume of legacy credits in the system now disproportionately sizable in relation to demand.

Although in principle historic credits may have some legitimacy, says Maslin, in practice they risk swamping the market and undermining well-intentioned efforts to invest in genuine emission reductions.

“There are top of the range companies, there are some mediocre companies, and there are some companies you would not touch with a barge pole,” Maslin said. “You’ve got to do your homework and pick what you know is going to actually be top quality. We reckon that the prices will have to increase by 10 to 20 times to where we are now. That’s because the amount of land we’re going to need will mean that we have to pay people for what their land is worth to be able to reforest, rewild and regrow. This is going to be a shift.”

Click here to read our conversation with Edison Energy’s CEO Oded J. Rhone about the roadmap to achieving net zero emissions ahead of COP26. Stay tuned for the next installment of our Countdown to COP26 Series!