Alok Sharma, acting as President for COP 26, will no doubt do his best for positive outcomes from this climate summit, not least by announcing his personal conversion to vegetarianism in the interests of our planet, or rather human and animal life on it.
Climate politics has shifted. The rapid increase in public awareness and concern, both in the UK and internationally, and resulting pressures on governments, make the very real issues impossible to ignore. And as I indicated in my last post, the current government deserves some plaudits at least in respect of the late conversion of its members to acceptance of the climate science, its proposed general direction of travel to net zero, and against the many residual sceptics and deniers in its own party.
But there are big areas for concern.
UK leadership. The Brexit legacy is a first order disaster.
More than most general international agreements, progress and action on promises of emissions reduction depend heavily on a high degree of trust between major players. For COP 26 the behaviour and standing of the host nation are important. We have come a long way down since Tony Blair put the UK on the moral high ground as the first nation to enshrine serious climate targets in law. In particular the UK has
· shown a willingness to break solemn treaty commitments (the NI Protocol) within months of signing
· seeks trade deals with major climate culprits Australia, without climate conditionality, and
· ignores consequence of substantial additional carbon emissions from shipping, with such deals
· chosen to support an extremist Polish government of climate denialists against the EU
· has been at best ambivalent over development of its own coal, oil, and gas resources.
· chosen in the last week to reduce taxation on internal flights
· wasted time and goodwill on an irrelevant and trivial spat over fishing rights with a supposed ally
The Big Emitters. China, India, Russia and the USA.
China and India have huge populations and the potential for disastrous levels of future emissions. The USA, as the biggest historical emitter, remains an equally serious concern, mainly because of the irresponsibility of Trump and the American Right, while Russia is another major power with huge fossil fuel interest. But for all these countries COP 26 sits in the frame of other internal and external political agendas.
If the world’s biggest polluters – America, China, industrial Europe, India, Russia and others – meet their responsibilities fully then the worst of the climate catastrophe can be averted. (Independent)
And there are causes for hope. India and China are also among the countries at the greatest risk from the impacts of climate change, and are perhaps making more progress than is normally recognised in the Western media. Russia has a 2060 net zero target and argues correctly that cumulative emissions matter more than arbitrary dates for zero. Whether all this translates into meaningful headline commitments at Glasgow is much more doubtful.
All about the money. Jeffrey Sachs: ‘I see no financial obstacles to getting to net zero by 2050’
A consistent theme in international climate negotiations has been the necessity for large scale financial transfers to the Global South. Since the responsibility for limiting climate change to 1.5o or 2.0o will ultimately and inevitably fall on the wealthier countries with the deepest pockets, aid to support low carbon initiatives will turn out to be more cost effective, for the donors of aid, than the ultimate alternative of direct carbon capture. The issue here is not whether those transfers happen, but how large they need to be, division of the burden, and how we can be sure the resources are deployed effectively.
The other financial dimension will be domestic resources for low carbon infrastructure – for decarbonising power, electric vehicles and low carbon heat systems. But, as discussed previously, the scale of this is of similar or lower order than many other challenges such as late 20th century oil price shocks. There will be similar “Who pays?” questions but they sit within the wider framework of policies to limit inequality and protect the poor.
One easy win. But will we get it?
Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies impose huge carbon footprints for activities with no real value. International agreement in Glasgow to discourage these should be a simple win-win agreement between governments. But will it happen?
The last chance saloon?
Huge hopes are invested in COP 26, but whether it succeeds or fails, itself hard to measure, it will not be the end of the story. With "success" it may perhaps be the end of the beginning. But "failure" will just mean the issues will just need to be pushed with even more persistence in the years ahead.