The most damning reflection on COP26 is the gap between the words of our experts, those who know most about Climate Change and what is happening to our lives on the planet; and the words of our leaders, responsible for the outcome of COP26. In the first category, we have the IPCC, the Climate Change Committee, the Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity, not to mention David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg.
They all say the same thing. The last moment to act to avert the crisis is now.
Not tomorrow, nor the day after, definitely not next year or the year after. Now. It is also worth making clear what they mean. Carbon emissions are causing the warming of the globe which is causing in turn the climate to change. “Acting now” means stopping the process now. They mean an absolute and immediate end. Otherwise the damage we are doing to our potential future on the planet will be irreversible.
Here, in contrast, are the words of our own Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, on the middle Saturday of the conference: countries must be ready “to make the bold compromises and ambitious commitments needed” at the final week of the climate summit. Compromises. He called upon the world’s leaders to accept that their priorities must be balanced, as if they should be ready to allow Climate Change to be among them. As if this decision is discretionary, a matter of choice.
It is as if these two groups are living in two different worlds. The first group – call them the Climate Change educated – recognises that, at 420 particles of carbon per million in the atmosphere, we are now in a warming pattern that is mathematically certain to destroy almost all of us, and almost all other animal and plant life currently known on the planet if we continue on the same path as at present. The second group – the politicians and world leaders – agree that climate change is a serious problem, but still feel that other issues have to be taken into account in deciding what to do about it. The first group tells us that we can no longer afford to delay. The second group calls for compromise.
COP26 was always going to be a challenge. How could the requirement for urgent action be absorbed into the reality of the world economy and the geopolitical landscape? It is fair to say that an immediate stop is almost impossible. The global economy is a juggernaut, with enormous momentum. Perhaps a juggernaut is not such a good analogy as an ocean liner, Titanic, the doomed behemoth which needed time to change course, more time than it was allowed. The question is whether the human race on Earth has already passed the point at which it is possible to avoid the iceberg, or whether we can still swerve round it? All the experts have told us consistently that now is the last moment to change course, which suggests we can if we act decisively now.
So what has the reaction been from our leaders gathered in Glasgow? Multilateral agreements on binding intentions and budgetary support. These have read well, but have three enormous problems. They all have conditions and qualifications; they all have gradual time frames delaying their full implementation; and they all avoid punitive or constraining policies, which would stop the damage now.
As examples, the BBC listed these as some of the achievements:
- “More than 40 countries have promised to phase out coal by 2050.” 2050? These 40 countries will all be adding to the 420 particles per million of carbon in the atmosphere in the course of the next 30 years, when our only hope is to reduce them back to the 300 ppm figure that applied for the previous 10,000 years, until, that is, the last 50 years when it started to increase.
- “Another 100 leaders have pledged to end and reverse deforestation by 2030.” We have 10 years to wait before we can expect the chronic deforestation to end, but what hope have we of returning to the levels of forestation that existed as recently as 50 or 100 years ago?
- “The US and EU, meanwhile, announced that they would partner up to cut methane emissions.” Cut methane emissions? We need to stop methane emissions entirely. Methane is more dangerous by a substantial multiple than carbon, although it is fair to say that its lifetime in the atmosphere is much shorter. But is that any consolation? The warming of the planet will have taken effect long before the methane decays, if we allow more methane into the atmosphere now.
And then, coming towards the end of the conference, the surprise announcement of a US-China agreement to cooperate. There seemed to be a sigh of relief, but it is hard to see why. This is an agreement to cooperate on a set of target reductions, sharing technology and programmes. But in each case, they are once again targets, over time. Currently, the two countries contribute 38% of total global greenhouse gas emissions, according to Rhodium Group research. These are the two largest polluters in the world, by a considerable margin. They are agreeing to continue to emit. There is even an acknowledgement that peak emissions in China have not yet been reached. They are not just going to continue to emit, their emissions are going to increase. This agreement simply moves the target for peak emissions from 2030 to before 2030.
COP26 is another example of the world leaders approach to this problem since 1992 and the Rio Earth Summit. They all agree that it is a problem, and then they agree to take steps which are never enough. Nothing our world leaders have done in thirty years about this problem has deflected the accelerating pace of the problem which is going to affect all our lives. It appears that COP26 is simply repeating the failure. They continue to treat it as a choice, not a necessity.
To say this is a lack of leadership is an understatement. These are straw men and women, when it comes to the Climate Crisis. They simply do not seem to realise that it is a crisis. They simply fail, as they have failed time and time again, to undertake drastic and life-changing measures to address a drastic and life-changing problem – for all of us, including them.
This lack of leadership is not a consequence of lack of power. History shows perfectly clearly that our economic and social systems are not juggernauts, they are not the Titanic, needing over a mile to change course. History shows perfectly clearly not only that it is possible to turn a national economy on a sixpence, it also shows these people how to do it. Within one year of the start of both World Wars, the national economy of the UK was transformed. Entire sections of the workforce had been diverted into one of the different sectors required to fight the war – industrial production, food production, defence and R&D, health provision, or the military. How was this done? Government edict. Government presented the population with no choice, other than to comply with the conditions required to fight the war.
In case there is any doubt of the capacity to act quickly, this is precisely what Governments all over the world have been doing for the last two years in response to the COVID19 pandemic. Entire industries, communities, social habits, working conditions have been completely altered overnight to meet the challenge of the pandemic. This was achieved by the same people who are running COP26 and deciding what to do about Climate Change.
Why, then, do they not apply the same radical solutions to this problem, which is overwhelmingly more dangerous to our lives than COVID19? Because they still do not think it is urgent. Important, yes, universally relevant, yes, but urgent? No. Target dates of 2030, 2050, 2070 in the case of some nation states for their Net Zero achievement are treated as if they are acceptable. In fact, India was praised for committing to 2070 for Net Zero.
There is no leadership whatsoever in facing the problem, and there never has been. This is not to be critical of anyone in particular. It is by way of saying that, since Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, John Major and others gathered at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 to adopt the Climate Change Convention and give rise to the COPs, no-one has taken responsibility for the problem and set out to lead, with the possible exceptions of Al Gore and David Attenborough, neither of whom have any power. The consequence is that decisions are a matter of negotiation and treaty, they are neither decisive nor conclusive.
Hence the agreements following Paris and now Glasgow, accompanied by the rhetoric of care and concern, which seem to be calibrated to make the difference that we need to reverse Climate Change. But they are not. They are compromises that will ensure Climate Change continues to worsen until it engulfs us all. These agreements reflect the same failure to treat the crisis as if it is a crisis.
We know what these people whom we call upon to lead our countries can do when there is a crisis, because of Covid-19. Here we have a much greater crisis in Climate Change, but it really does seem they cannot see it.
This should not really be a surprise. In spite of the warnings, and the clear and present danger represented by the melting ice, the dying coral reefs, the methane emitting permafrost, and many more of the signals that we are now beyond the tipping point, there are Democrat Senators in the US arguing for the maintenance of the coal economy, there are Conservative politicians in the UK arguing in favour of opening a new coal mine in Cumbria, there are politicians in Russia arguing that global warming will be a good thing for Russia. These are people in positions of power and responsibility who still see no real urgency at all in Climate Change. To them, it really is not a crisis. It is no more than a consideration. Here again, the BBC reports:
“Australia did make a few climate headlines in Glasgow. Along with China, Russia, India and Iran, it snubbed the international pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030, and refused to sign up to phasing out coal-fired power and stop investing in new coal plants at home and abroad.” (BBC News: Science & Environment)
COP26 has been another failed COP and there is little doubt now that the frightening consequences of Climate Change will indeed be confronting us soon. Get ready. Because when they do, our leaders will start to take the steps they should have taken years ago. But, like the Titanic, the danger we face is that it will be too late to avoid the fatal collision with problems we can no longer control. And there are not enough lifeboats.