COP26: Will ending sales of petrol and diesel cars see the world level the climate change match?

File photo dated 16/12/20 of traffic of the A205 South Circular road in Lewisham, south London. Reliance on cars has reached a 15-year high despite a drop in commuting, according to a new survey. Issue date: Saturday October 23, 2021.
Could the sale of new petrol or diesel cars be banned by 2035? Credit: PA

On Saturday, I asked Prime Minister Boris Johnson if the best result from the COP26 climate conference would be for the 197 countries to agree to reconvene in a year or two and make new commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions - given that there is zero prospect of them doing enough here in Glasgow.

He did not disagree. But he slightly dodged the question.

On Tuesday however, he used a metaphor that suggested that he does indeed know that there will have to be a ratchet up in those national pledges to cut production of CO2 and methane much sooner than the five years enshrined in the Paris Accord.

Mr Johnson said the world is no longer five goals to one down in the “match” against global warming.

On Monday and Tuesday, the combined efforts of the government leaders - putting an end date on deforestation, subsidising the replacement of coal-fired energy with renewables in South Africa, securing near universal pledges to stop net emissions of greenhouse gases (though not soon enough), a good start on reducing methane leakage - are the equivalent of planet Earth clawing back two goals.

And he added, just maybe, by the end of the fortnight, COP26 will claw back another two goals - and we’ll be into extra time.

For what it’s worth, not everyone will agree that the match would be tied - even if, as I expect, governments next week sign up to end the sale of new cars that are powered by petrol or diesel before 2035 (which is realistic, given the rate at which China is creating its own electric car-making capacity).

But let’s take Mr Johnson’s words at face value and accept that - as I pointed out on ITV‘s Evening News - the best that can be achieved this week and next is a score draw.

That implies the necessity of a short period for the game to continue. It means there would have to be a new deadline for government leaders to come back together with amended national plans to combat global warming.

When would that deadline be?

The United Nations Secretary General António Guterres wants rolling annual deadlines. I fear that won’t appeal to many leaders - they’ve got countries to run, neighbours to beggar.

But maybe they could stomach doing it all again in 2023. And although such an outcome of COP26 may sound anti-climactic, in the war against climate catastrophe, targets and process are our best and only weapons.