At the typical COP gathering, the hosts promise that a turning point has been reached. They talk of the need for action but do nothing that comes close to matching the scale and urgency of the challenge. The climate crisis reveals a crisis of diplomacy and global politics.
By Dr Gareth Dale, Senior Lecturer in Political Economy, Brunel University London.
The climate-political calendar has blessed 2021 with two major events, and the discrepancy between them could not be more striking. The first, in the summer, saw the publication of the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). IPCC reports are essentially the product of scientists, albeit with some interference from politicians.
The picture painted by the climate scientists could hardly be more alarming. Due to anthropogenic climate change, as well as habitat destruction, many species of plant and animal are joining the dodo every single week. Even if greenhouse gas emissions were to halt tomorrow, substantial future heating is baked in for around four decades, due to oceanic thermal inertia—and this is even before we get to the dangers of positive feedback mechanisms (albedo decline, oceanic methane release, and suchlike). At current projections, the best guess is that the planet is heading, by the end of the century, for a rise of three degrees (Celsius) above the pre-industrial norm, which even sober and sceptical publications such as the Economist magazine warn would be truly disastrous. And the longer the emissions continue, the greater the risk of triggering tipping points in Earth systems that could include ice sheet disintegration, a stalling of thermohaline circulation, and conceivably even the destabilisation of seafloor methane hydrates that would propel the planet toward a hothouse state.
‘Climate emergency,’ then, is the appropriate term, and even an understatement. We are presently mourning the death of the Holocene, never to be resurrected. The Holocene isn’t simply an arcane category of interest only to geologists. It’s the stable and benign climatological era that cradled human civilisation for 11,000 years—its entire recorded history. Aside from a few cave paintings, every known human document, from Ancient Mesopotamia and the Indus Civilisation onward to the twentieth century, was produced during the Holocene, but it is no more. Ahead lie much stormier climes.
Some locations are right in the path of the storm, Pakistan being a case in point. The recently published assessment by the USA’s security agencies ranks it in the group of eleven countries most vulnerable to climate change. By some accounts it is the world’s fifth most vulnerable nation. Global heating was a major contributing factor to the plagues of locusts that devastated eastern Pakistan last year, as unusually warm and wet conditions in the Arabian Peninsula had created their ideal breeding conditions. The better-known threats to the region include heatwaves, intensifying monsoons, and glacial melting that is set to exacerbate flooding and landslides in the short term, and drought in the long term. By 2050, if the IPCC’s predictions are accurate, Pakistan will be running dry.
What, then, of the other major climate-political event taking place this year? I’m referring to the twenty-sixth annual meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP26), to which Glasgow plays host in early November. The COP meetings are chiefly for lawmakers and diplomats, with some input from scientists and NGOs. At the typical COP gathering, the hosts promise that a turning point has been reached. But the words are empty. Some governments brandish graphs that purport to demonstrate that their nation has reduced its emissions, but they generally exclude the emissions embodied in imported goods, as well as those from international aviation and shipping. If a single graph can sum up our plight, without deceit, it’s one in which the measured quantity of atmospheric carbon dioxide is plotted against the annual meetings of the COP. This graph shows the lawmakers and diplomats meeting, and meeting again, while the carbon dioxide line rises, and continues its remorseless rise. It reminds us that policymakers and business leaders have known of climate change for decades, they’ve convened and reconvened, they’ve talked of the need for action but have done nothing that comes close to matching the scale and urgency of the challenge.
In Britain, host to this year’s COP, the lack of vision among policymakers has been highlighted by recent events. Earlier this month, the campaign group Insulate Britain blocked ports and motorways to draw attention to its demand that by 2025 the government should fund the insulation of all social housing and plan for the low-carbon retrofit of all homes by 2030. The plan offered a clear ‘win win’: a jobs programme that would underpin employment levels and upgrade the skills of a large segment of the workforce; the insulation of the draughty homes of poorer citizens that would end the problem of fuel poverty and save thousands of lives each year; and the insulation of all homes to enable a rapid replacement of gas heating by electric heat pumps, thereby switching off one of the biggest emissions spigots. Any government committed to lowering carbon emissions, or to a social agenda of levelling up, would at least have considered the proposal, and should have embraced it. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, with a clear interest in burnishing his green credentials in the run-up to the COP26 talks, could have waved to the protestors and taken their proposal on board. Instead, his government took action to put the Insulate Britain activists behind bars, while his Home Secretary, Priti Patel, turned on them, labelling them “selfish.” (A peculiar dictionary is required if ‘selfish’ refers to those who risk their lives by sitting down on a motorway in order to press for policies that will improve their own lives barely at all, but instead the fate of poor people in chilly homes and people and animals who face climate terrors.)
One month after Patel’s outburst, her government announced a raft of policies to cut greenhouse gas emissions. It contained practically no new money for homes insulation. Instead, the focus was on encouraging consumers to buy new gadgets (heat pumps, electric vehicles), helping the nuclear industry reinvent itself after the Fukushima disaster, buying into the myth that the aviation industry can by 2050 meaningfully go green, and granting a new lease of life to fossil fuel giants by supporting investment in a dubious solution known as ‘blue’ hydrogen. Above all, the plan gambles on carbon capture and storage, a speculative technology that, although proven at small scale, will be impossible to upscale in time to meet Britain’s legally determined decarbonisation targets.
What this tells us is that Britain’s leaders remain in the thrall of technology fetishism, a syndrome that, we should recall, in recent memory proved the undoing of what had been a seemingly successful COP gathering. I am referring to COP21 in Paris, which yielded the celebrated Paris Agreement. That diplomatic concord of 2015 was based heavily on the COP delegates’ magical belief in a particular technology: Bio Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS).
Since then, however, BECCS has been discredited and the Paris Agreement on which it was built has necessarily fallen apart. The hosts of COP26 appear determined to learn no lessons from that debacle.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are of the author and do not necessarily represent the institute’s policy.