COP26 – success or failure?

I’d been counting down the days to COP26 on my twitter feed (@ClimateDaily1). I’d given thought to how to engage with the actual event at my university. I will be joint organising an event in the Business School for which I work on the implications for business. Watch this space.

The implications, however, are different to what I expected. I genuinely thought that COP26 would deliver on banishing fossil fuels from our economies. And that climate mitigation (measures to reduce and eliminate green house gases – GHG – from firms’ accounts) would be the challenge for all firms. Firms would be mandated to do so because of states’ legal commitments to a binding international treaty. But alas not.

I know it is complicated. This is geopolitics after all. Just look at the slow pace of negotiating World Trade Organization trade agreements. I’m told that I should be reassured that for the first time a COP has recognised the role of fossil fuels in climate change. Not just recognised, but also written-in to the Glasgow Climate Pact. The world leaders have signed up to a phase down of coal. Though, it seems that an hour before the final announcement at the COP plenary (13 November 2021), the world had agreed to phase out coal. One word makes a huge difference. I’m told that I should not pay too much attention to that. Coal is finished. Will any bank finance a future coal mine in light of this? Let me hold that thought.

Subsidies – in the 21st century despite years of neo-liberal economic management, we still talk of subsidies. State subsidies for fossil fuels, at least. We would not subsidise fair transitions for working people (mining industry in 1980s Britain, for example), but perfectly happy to do so for Big Oil. Interestingly, the COP drew a distinction between efficient and inefficient subsidies. So not only are we still talking about subsidies, but we now recognise that some subsidies are inefficient. I am not sure that I can get my head around that. Does that mean that states – their finance ministries – (knowingly) support projects with money that does not deliver the stated benefits?

The analogy: bovines are a source of protein for humans, but they are hugely inefficient as a transfer/conversion mechanism. It’s much easier to feed humans the soya protein currently fed to cattle. But still humans do it with state subsidies. In the process those subsidies contribute to deforestation and excessive methane (bovines are methane machines), amongst other. Is that inefficient? What about the huge subsidies that go into the motor industry? Then there is nuclear power. As a means of huge amounts of zero carbon electricity, they are hard to match. Nuclear plants take so much longer to build, even longer to decommission and leave a not-inconsiderable problem with waste. Notwithstanding that, in the UK, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy estimates (2015) that the electricity generated by nuclear is one-third more than onshore wind (offshore is more expensive), 10 per cent more than large-scale photovoltaic (the UK is not the sunniest country in the world). Though it is cheaper than gas-generation from plants with carbon capture technology fitted. Even that is old thinking. The future is not in national/regional grids; the future is local generation, distribution and storage.

At the beginning of COP, Narenda Modi, India’s PM surprised delegates by announcing his country’s intention to be net carbon zero by 2070. This is at least twenty years later than is needed, but again, the first time that India has set a date. It is that very same India that demanded and defended the change from phase out to phase down. Though China fully endorsed it. Of course, neither China nor India are responsible for the historic carbon emissions that warm the planet. The UK, US and Europe are. I am pretty sure that some of India’s low-lying neighbours are not happy about it. I am pretty sure that some of India’s own low-lying cities, too, fear for their own future as sea-levels rise. China, too, has many low-lying cities. So why do they want to keep burning coal? For the same reason that the government led by Jair Bolsanaro (right) continues to sanction the destruction of the Amazon rainforest? Because they can, because money flows to them for doing so, and because of the elephant in the room, the economic system that delivers their continued power, influence and legacies. They are all men. They operate in either undemocratic systems or have spent their time undermining the democratic institutions in their countries. They are popular populists. They enable consumption.

Whilst I would like to advocate for system change, as young campaigners and activists call for, I do think that we have to work with what we have got. My own history is one of activism. I am acutely aware that no amount of token civil disobedience or mass demonstrating will change things from a political perspective. (Though mass civil disobedience is another matter.) Change will come from us. It is up to us. We must decarbonise our own lives. In so doing we will make choices that will affect the bottom-line of the suppliers of the products that we consume. So, when I run my event on the implications of COP for business in the early spring 2022, it will be on that basis. It will still be a basic market self-interest that motivates firms to become carbon zero in this decade.

NB – I am not finished yet. First Nation people, small-island nations and many developing countries came away with little in comparison with the fossil-fuel lobby that seems to have had unwarranted access to delegates at the COP. This is the subject for another entry.

Adam Tooze’s article is also pertinent here: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/nov/16/cop-26-big-business-climate-crisis-neoliberal

Pic: Palácio do Planalto – https://www.flickr.com/photos/51178866@N04/49695919452/

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