Making sense of the COP26 agenda
In December 2015, 196 participating countries at that year’s conference of parties (COP 21) signed the Paris Accord whose aim was to restrict global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. The accord bound them to ongoing 5- year cycles of increasingly ambitious climate actions. By 2020, they were to have submitted their plans for climate action, their ‘nationally determined contributions’ or NDCs. In these they would say what they were going to do to reduce their Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. They were also invited to formulate and submit non-mandatory, long-term low greenhouse-gas emission development strategies (LT-LEDS) by 2020; these would provide long-term horizons for their NDCs. The Paris Agreement also provided that, at the next five year major meeting after this one, countries will report transparently on what they have done and what progress they have made.
With this as background, how should a rational observer approach COP26? It tempting to follow Gramsci and say, with “pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will”. Pessimism because so few of the GHG problem nations are delivering on their Paris Accord undertakings, but optimism that they will get things right in the future.
Another reason for pessimism isn’t hard to find: all COP decisions require consensus, a rarity in international meetings. With roughly 200 nation states participating, each bringing its own pattern of issues and incentives, consensus will never be easy. Over half of the world’s GHGs are produced by four countries, China, the USA, India, and Russia. If their commitments are tepid, enthusiastic support by LDCs will be irrational.
But even the optimism carries risks. Those who demand immediate solutions to climate change, often fail to recognize that their present quality of life has been built on the emissions they decry. More importantly, they forget that many of the world’s poor might be happy to exchange two degrees of global warming for a first world standard of living (if only the trade were certain to deliver). Anthropogenic climate change may come to hurt the global poor, but their immediate threat is unemployment, and the hunger and absolute poverty that accompany it. Unsurprisingly, their priorities are in the present, not with mitigation of risks by 2050. The Paris Accord’s signatories recognized the dilemma, and promised, “to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change, in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty”.
The issue is present even in the first world. The USA under Trump already showed how easily a problem polluter can pull out of an agreement like the Paris Accord. Two of the politicians most derided in the ‘green’ media, Australia’s Scot Morrison, and China’s Xi Jinping, are also both clear that their first obligations, as national leaders, are to their own citizens and to the present generation.
Morrison put his argument succinctly a week ago, “Australians want action on climate change. They’re taking action on climate change, but they also want to protect their jobs and their livelihoods. They also want to keep the costs of living down, and they also want to protect the Australian way of life”. His solution is to keep using coal and gas, which the country has in abundance, and then use new technologies to remove the carbon. There are some details in Australia’s written submissions, but not many; the transparent details called for by the Paris Accord, are limited.
China, the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, is making noises that sound marginally better, but the details are similar. Like Russia, it offers carbon neutrality by 2060 (10 years later than most other large nations), which sounds good – until one realizes that this will be nearly two generations down the line, when the current generation of youthful climate activists are becoming grandparents (recall too that 40 years ago, desktop computers didn’t yet have hard-drives). While China promises that its GHG emissions will peak in 2030, its annual construction of coal-fired power stations makes nonsense of the efforts made in countries like South Africa. CREA, the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, reports that, in the first half of this year alone, China started construction on “15GW of new coal power capacity, with 24GW of new projects announced or re-activated.” To give context, South Africa, which gets 80% of its power from coal, is only producing 48GW in thermal power stations, and Medupi, the country’s largest coal-fired power station, if it were working at full capacity, would generate 4.7 GW of power. China also remains the world’s largest producer of cement by a considerable margin, and its production continues to grow. It is also expanding its iron and steel production. In other words, production and jobs come first, the global climate a distant second.
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