What COP26 did (and didn’t) do for rail – Part Two

Part Two: the Glasgow Climate Pact

We saw in our last piece that rail did well to raise its profile at COP26 under its own steam and thanks to the enthusiasm of those who believe in the industry’s green-aligned agenda.

The summit, additionally, gave like minds the chance to come together and get their innovative technology under the spotlight.

As part of this, we saw that rail is now inextricably green: businesses have fully committed to the notion of rail offering an environmentally sound solution, and as such they have become an incubator for industry-leading technology. The world saw this at COP26, for instance, with Vivarail’s battery-powered train, and with Porterbrook’s HydroFLEX.

But, meanwhile, the leaders of the world were sat inside COP26, debating about what the Glasgow Climate Pact issued from the summit should say.

The question is, with profile-raising outside proving a success, why even worry?

The UK Government, for instance, has sounded enthusiastic about green innovation and greener transport for some time. In one example, the Department for Transport’s Rail Environment Policy Statement from earlier this year discusses the importance of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050. It talks about how:

New, aligned incentives across the sector will help to make stations and trains more sustainable by reducing energy consumption and improving efficiency. Great British Railways will also take over the contracting of train services through Passenger Service Contracts, setting required service levels and specifications, including on environmental sustainability. Targets will be set for renewable energy generation and use at stations.

Great British Railways, of course, being the replacement for Network Rail, taking over in 2023.

Promising words, perhaps. Especially with talk of possible incentives – financially or regulatory, they will help create certainty for green innovators in rail, and at the same time provide a clear mode of thinking for those who need to get on with delivering the future of our network, whether through developing infrastructure or rolling stock.

But the world, as we have seen recently, can change quickly. What if the heart of world leaders was not in greener solutions anymore? What if COP26 was to see an unravelling of green policy, greater than when the US withdrew from the Paris Agreement?

What if countries kicked the environmental can further down the road? Would there be the governmental will domestically to back rail as a green solution for travel, and give more opportunity to businesses invested in green rail technology? What would happen in terms of global trade?

There was an obvious reason this might occur: COVID-19.

With the pandemic refocussing minds on recovery, would the world ‘build back better’ with the environment in mind, or would everyone start to cut corners to bring bank balances back up?

Indeed, support has dropped sharply for green solutions and innovations before – just ask anyone who has worked in solar.

Political outcomes – down but not out

The Glasgow Climate Pact could be described as perhaps not particularly inspiring – but it was far from the worst-case scenario many might have feared, where climate change might easily have taken a back seat to immediate remedies for broad economic recovery.

Most disappointing for many looking on was the disjointed international partnership – major voices including China and India wanted the pledge from this year to be not about “phasing out” coal and its subsidies, but more a “phasing down”.

And, as arguments erupted, there was a sense that time was running out on the creation of the pact.

Finally, COP26 president Alok Sharma gave a message with conflicted sentiments at the end of the event, as ink on the pact dried. He said: “We can now say with credibility that we have kept 1.5 degrees alive. But, its pulse is weak and it will only survive if we keep our promises and translate commitments into rapid action.”

Despite obvious disappointment at some of the outcomes, the Glasgow Climate Pact provided a sense that the ambition he, the UK prime minister and others had of keeping the rise of the world’s temperature to 1.5 degrees rather than 2 was still possible.

In other words, there is still a small chance of zero emissions by 2050, with the necessary halving by 2030.

So the good news here is that hands were not being thrown up in desperation, nor passive shrugs given by countries. There is still an intense focus towards pushing for green targets, nobody has given up, and the likelihood is that green plans for the country, including electrification, hybridisation and more, are going to appear increasingly urgent, not less. And we can imagine many other COP26 countries will feel the same.

Accordingly, the COP26 countries agreed to focus on “coal, cash, cars, and trees”. The money mentioned here is $100 billon for developing countries to go green, the “cars” going diesel and petrol-free, the “coal” being “phased down” and the “trees” being protected against deforestation. There were mixed levels of commitment to each of these, but the headline means countries are still focused.

Another important strand to the “money” focus is to make private finance portfolios, such as insurance and pensions, net zero. In line with the Paris Agreement, this means that you stand a better chance of your business’s stock doing well in the markets if you have good green credentials.

Another sigh of relief for those driving innovative green rail technology is a collective understanding from countries that it costs more to “fix” climate change than it does to prevent it. Green is not a nice to have, green is a fiscally-important must-have.

If anything then is disappointing for a railway focused on green tech, it’s that there are no explicit mentions of trains in the climate pact. Cars might well be seen as “green” in the coming decades, thanks to technological advances, which means rail has to ensure it continues to press its own essential green credentials more than ever.

But, if anyone is disheartened by the noise made by countries inside the COP26 summit, they should be reassured by that outside. Glasgow saw its biggest-ever protest, at 100,000 people, backed by other environmental action around the world. It was an event that passed largely without incident – but shows how many people are willing to make their voice heard.

There was a time when people would consider protest to be less consequential than many might hope on policy, but whether you politically align with this government or not, there is good precedence to say it corrects course on important topics – from school dinner provision to COVID measures – if the public makes their voice heard.

So rail has the public on-side and, as each COP goes ahead, its seems their support of green solutions to the burning question of climate change is getting louder and louder.

That alone should provide the industry with some encouragement as we head into the future.

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