Scottish Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham and UK Minister for Climate Change Lily Knowles discuss the COP26 in Glasgow.l 10 June 2019 AFP / Reuters
As we convened in Glasgow to talk about mitigation and adaptation to climate change, we heard some very sobering news about the events of the past decade. Indeed, this conference was an unmitigated bust.
It’s well known that emissions were supposed to be falling in the run-up to Copenhagen at the turn of the century, but they continued to soar, at least in the European Union, while the oil-producing states dug deep into their own coffers and chose to ignore the Kyoto Protocol.
The Paris Protocol was an ambitious and legally binding agreement that was supposed to have prevented and mitigated climate change through the adoption of ambitious greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. Instead, it merely stabilised global emissions at 2005 levels. Despite this monumental failure, participants in the Kyoto Protocol have failed to agree to an extension.
The U.S. in 2015, the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, abrogated the Climate Accord and other countries, especially developing ones, have opted to follow suit, leaving us down to 230 or so poor and vulnerable countries.
Climate change is no longer one of life’s great existential threats. It is the biggest economic threat humankind has ever faced and could significantly reduce our standard of living. It is stealing our employment and will eventually cost us our life and livelihoods. Inevitably, we will see more and more environmental refugees from the global south.
However, it’s because the global elite have failed, or rather stopped our governments from achieving the targets they agreed to as a result of the 2013 Copenhagen Summit. There are more questions than answers when it comes to the future of this conference, whether this will even be necessary, and whether other opportunities will emerge in the year ahead.
Contrary to the soundbites that have proliferated over the past decade, the challenge is not to simply stop people from polluting. The former UK Climate Change Secretary, Amber Rudd, once said that “the Paris goal of cutting all emissions by at least half by 2030 should mean everything does become carbon neutral.” But the technical and economic analysis does not support this claim, and experts know it. It will cost more than we can afford. We need serious action and political will to get us there.
The first, but crucial, element of the global war on climate change is the urgency of finally getting the global energy mix to a zero-carbon regime. It’s done. The question is: what do we do with the huge amount of carbon that we already burned?
We are now at the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The lower your carbon dioxide levels, the faster climate change will be prevented and the wider benefits from life-saving new technologies are realised. Progress on this front was put in doubt by the call from the International Energy Agency (IEA) for countries to slow down their transition to low-carbon energy as a whole, and specifically for gas. It seems that there is still nothing to “embrace”.
The second element of the global war on climate change is energy security. We need to invest in offshore wind and let the free market determine what fuels and where they get sourced. In the UK, we have abandoned nuclear energy for nuclear fracking and fossil fuels on land as a backup to our gas-fired power stations. Bizarrely, this will reduce emissions but is clearly not going to ensure the UK’s energy security. You have to ensure your energy supply has an internationally competitive and secure price, or else there is simply no point in investing in it. Gas cannot, and should not, be considered a bridge fuel.
The third element of the global war on climate change is poverty and inequality. It is obvious that this is a product of a fossil fuel-based global economy. And the World Bank and others have been trying to prop it up for years. The WTO allowed the EU to intervene in the farm sector – the largest industry, in its entirety, by value-added, in developing countries – which artificially distorted trade. It is already causing market volatility and wage distortions. It will cause a significant increase in food prices.
In many instances, the fossil fuel economy is actually hurting the people that are supposed to be its main beneficiaries. For the climate and the environment, the solution is universal, not local, and we need global, not national, approaches.
Rather than limp along to another meeting next year, why not try and get something more constructive done? We already know what to do. We have to demand real action from the politicians we elect.