COP’s plan to bring together all the countries in the world to achieve a reduction in CO2 emissions is both challenging and laudable. So too is the ambition to negotiate fair and reasonable commitments based on voluntary adherence. However, it could be argued this approach makes a virtue out of necessity since COP cannot decree what individual countries commit to. Political leaders need to step up to stop us sleep-walking towards a tipping point.
What few of the so-called ‘developed world’s’ leaders seem willing to confront is a hard dose of reality, which gets harder as every COP goes by. Renowned environmental scientists have been telling us for years that the current resource-hungry, environmentally destructive lifestyle of the world’s affluent populations is indefensible if our planet is to remain habitable. The implication of that is where we seem to get stuck, and where political leaders fail in their leadership.
Affluent populations cannot expect to transition smoothly from our present climate-damaging lifestyles to a sustainable alternative within the timeframe we have available to prevent irreversible climate breakdown. The longer we delay, the more traumatic the transition will have to be, assuming of course we are truly committed to avoiding our own destruction. The danger is that we settle into a feeling of hopeless impotence, even though we claim to care. The danger is that we will only take decisive action once it’s too late.
Politicians must stop obsessing about value for money
For too long, the response by politicians has concerned itself with ‘value’, amounting to an attitude that says ‘we’ll agree to save the planet for future generations as long as its economically viable to do so’. They make preventing global suicide seem as if it ought to be conditional only upon the recommendations of rational economic analysis.
This ‘if it’s worth it’ analysis is rooted in short-sighted, business-like notions of what represents value, ignoring the long-term sustainability of that value for either business or society. How else can we explain the mollusc-like progress we are making towards reducing carbon emissions as we creep towards climate disaster?
We’re told businesses are finally waking up to the fact that a business without environmental sustainability at the heart of its strategy is not a sustainable business. Any that ignore this reality will bring about their own demise as consumers vote with their wallets, raw materials become gradually too expense or disappear altogether, or financiers stop lending to unsustainable businesses.
A popular political maxim seems to be ‘never admit to the voting population that they are facing an existential threat’. A politician’s first duty is the safety of citizens, so any such admission would reflect badly on them. There is also a patronising view in Britain that citizens will unduly panic if their illusion of cosy equilibrium is disturbed.
Meanwhile, climate change activists are described by politicians in the UK as “selfish”, their campaigns outlawed as extreme and their methods considered unacceptable because they disrupt people from going about their daily lives. Try explaining to the displaced people of Pakistan, where one third of the country was covered by flood waters during 2022, that throwing soup over a protected painting or bringing traffic to a halt is extreme disruption.
Trapped by a futile search for ‘fairness’
Whether the public choose to make sacrifices for a common cause typically depends on a perception of fairness in how the sacrifices are shared. Ideally, these sacrifices need to be shared fairly between countries and between individuals. This is not a straightforward task given their unequal responsibility for global CO2 emissions.
So is COP in its present form the best process by which to meet the goal of restricting global warming to 1.5C? The measures taken so far are making that objective look out of reach unless we make huge inroads into recovering lost ground in the immediate years ahead.
Have COP meetings become part of the problem?
COP meetings can become an obstacle to urgent climate action in several ways.
The meetings themselves can dictate the pace at which action is taken rather than enabling rapid progress. Negotiations can become preoccupied with fairness whereby waiting for more research data, considering more dimensions to the problem, and organising more rounds of consultation become more important than making progress on CO2 reductions. Finally, an insistence on ever more precise analyses creates the danger of being ‘dead right’ – perhaps we will eventually reach certainty about our plan, agreements and the fairness of it all, but too late to save the planet.
It is true that those who contribute most to carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions must make some big sacrifices, certainly in the short term. Any pretence to the contrary is an exercise in mass delusion. But the fossil fuel industry appears to have too much sway and the politicians too much fear to see meaningful policies enacted, policies that we have known are necessary for years. Vested interests are outstandingly successful in slowing down or blocking progress: at COP 27, there were over 600 representatives of the fossil fuel industry.
However, also untenable is the request that some developing nations to be excused from tough emission limits so that they can catch up on two centuries of carbon emissions under a misguided notion of social equality or moral entitlement. The natural environment makes no moral distinction between historic and current emissions in its response to CO2 accumulations in the atmosphere.
The way forward
We have to avoid an obsessive, protracted debate over what sacrifices are fair and reasonable when it comes to tackling this problem at the international and sub-national levels. If countries and individuals act only when they’re sure they’re not doing more than anyone else, that represents a moral failure.
Perfectly demonstrable fairness is unrealistic to define and impossible to achieve given the complexity of CO2 emissions across the world since the start of the industrial revolution. Doing as much as we can, not as little as we can get away with, has to be the principle that national leaders live by. How governments and individuals can act will be tackled in the final articles in this series.
Addendum: BP announcement
As this article was in the final stages of preparation, energy giant BP made an announcement that they were back tracking on their targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 because they now intend to increase their output of oil and gas up to 2030.
As recently as 8 February 2022 BP were promoting their strategy to reduce emissions from their operations by 50% by 2030 and to become a net zero business across all energy related business activities by 2050.
BP talks about matching the investment in increasing gas and oil outputs with investments in sustainable projects. This does not equate to placing a neutral greenhouse gas burden on the environment up to 2030. It seems certain that over the next seven years, at least, additional greenhouse gas emissions will be produced by BP that they will not offset over the same period by emission reduction measures.
BP will contribute to irrevocable increase in average global temperatures and undermine the goal of keeping global warming as close as possible to 1.5C.
The precise implications on global warming of BP’s announcement still needs to be assessed in detail. This becomes even more alarming if other oil producers follow BP’s retrograde lead.
Significantly, BP have just announced record profits; the highest in the firm’s 115 year history.
The next in this series of articles is available here.