Well it's over. Where are we now, now that all the delegates have gone home from Glasgow and COP26 is finished? For the last two or three weeks I have felt as though all the topics covered in my 360 odd podcast episodes have been thrown at me all at once. Now that the big United Nations climate conference is over I still feel overwhelmed.
Billed by some as the last chance saloon, the final opportunity to take action to get the climate emergency under control before it gets out of control, what exactly is the outcome of COP26? That’s the topic of today’s episode.
I’ll start with a review of comments in the press and close with a conversation with a colleague who actually went to Glasgow.
Opinions are mixed.
Only a week into the conference Greta Thunberg was writing it off. “It is not a secret that COP26 is a failure. It should be obvious that we cannot solve the crisis with the same methods that got us into it in the first place,” she said.
The World Socialist Website was equally pessimistic:
“As the global climate summit COP26 drags out to its miserable end this week in Glasgow, Scotland, the major capitalist powers and the banks and corporations that call the shots in national and world politics have largely failed in their efforts to use the summit to provide a semblance of “progress” in resolving the global climate emergency.”
When we reached the end of the week and concluded negotiations on the Saturday, even conference president Alok Sharma apologised that things had not gone far enough. At the last minute China and India had urged an amendment to the text replacing “phasing out” coal with “phasing down" coal. Others saw this as progress of sorts, because coal had never been mentioned in conference documentation before. Sharma said the agreement was weaker than hoped but denied it was a failure and said it was a historic achievement. He said China and India would have to explain themselves to weaker countries.
“Is this what the end of the world looks like?” Asked James Dyke of Exeter University in the i-newspaper.
Weak and Meek
Greenpeace called the agreement weak and meek.
Elsewhere it was generally agreed that the conclusions did not amount to enough to keep temperature rises to 1.5°C - 2.4°C was mentioned - but 1.5°C was still a clear target.
Grounds for Optimism
The Economist saw some grounds for optimism. It was agreed that NDCs - individual countries’ Nationally Determined Contributions to emissions reductions - would be updated by COP27 next year, at least as far as 2030 targets were concerned, rather than 2025. Without this commitment The Economist believed that the 1.5°C target would have been dead.
There were complaints about the promised payments of $100 billion a year to weaker countries to help them adapt to the climate crisis. Promises were fine, but the money was just not coming through. Leaders of these weaker nations urged that this money was not charity, but compensation for the damage caused by centuries of pollution from the developed nations. The Guardian reported that “Pacific representatives and negotiators have condemned the outcome of the COP26 meeting as “watered down” and a “monumental failure” that puts Pacific nations in severe existential danger, with one saying that Australia’s refusal to support funding for loss and damage suffered by Pacific countries was “a deep betrayal” of the region.”
Prime Minister's Speech
In a major speech on the Monday following COP26, PM Johnson was uncharacteristically realistic about the outcome of the conference. Why did so many world leaders come to Glasgow?, he asked.
“They came in those numbers because the scale of the crisis is unlike anything we have ever seen - an existential threat of manmade climate change that promises to destroy our environment as we know it, to rob our children and descendants of beauty and species and habitat at an unprecedented pace and to plunge humanity into a new dark ages, and I’m not joking, with warfare for basic resources such as water and vast and uncontrollable mass movements of people.”
He went on…
“And on Saturday night after years and months of work the nations of the earth came together and they forged the Glasgow Climate Pact. And of course that deal will and must have its critics and detractors from one side of the argument or the other, and we must be honest with our children, and we must confess that this deal this pact won’t do it alone.
“Glasgow won’t stop climate change, Glasgow won’t prevent the heating of the planet that is now baked in, but Glasgow can still help us to slow that warming down.
“What we have in our hands is now a road map: detailed, waymarked with milestone after milestone, and for the first time in history humanity has agreed to move beyond coal…
“We will push for more ambitious goals, stronger plans and better implementation, and so we further narrow that gap to 1.5 degrees.
“…..And you can see how all sorts of things have come together in the minds of the leaders of the world. There is the data about what is actually happening: the storms, the floods, the fires, the swarms of locusts. There is the ever growing clamour from [their] electorates.”
He’s absolutely right that we must push for more ambitious goals, stronger plans and better implementation. Let’s see it happen. And have we really got those detailed, worked-out plans? There may well be a growing clamour from electorates, particularly in those nations which are already being devastated by the effects of the climate crisis. The problem is that governments will generally do what the electorate wants them to do but I can't see those in the developed world calling on governments to prevent them from driving their SUVs, from eating meat or from taking long haul flights on holiday.
The New Statesman reminded us of power politics:
“It is also significant that the United States and China were able to agree a bilateral deal about methane emissions – not just because of the threat both countries’ emissions pose to our climate, but because the more those two nations talk to one another, the more the risk of a dangerous miscalculation, triggering a hot war between the two, is reduced.”
Writing in The Guardian George Monbiot said: “After the failure of Cop26, there’s only one last hope for our survival. It’s too late for incremental change. By mobilising just 25% of people, we can flip social attitudes towards the climate.”
In other words we need urgent and radical change, far more draconian than anything coming out of COP26.
He quoted research published in the journal Science which found that a critical threshold was passed when the size of a committed minority reached roughly 25% of the population. At this point, social conventions suddenly flip. Between 72% and 100% of the people in the experiments swung round, destroying apparently stable social norms. He cites the change in attitudes to respect for women and the unpopularity of smoking.
Does he really believe that we will change our attitudes to the extent that we will give up SUVs, long-haul holidays and eating meat and all the other things which impact the earth? The problem is that the consequences of the climate crisis are remote, at least from many of us in the developed nations. Why would people protect themselves from a threat they cannot see?
“Ten ways to confront the climate crisis without losing hope”.
All very depressing. Before we hear how my friend Richard Lane found COP26, take a moment to read an article in The Guardian by Rebecca Solnit. It’s called “Ten ways to confront the climate crisis without losing hope”.
It’s insightful, it’s logical and I don’t believe it’s over-optimistic. Don’t be pessimistic without knowing the facts, she warns. Don’t overlook the massive progress made in both attitudes and technology in just the last decade.
“The future is not yet written,” she says. “We are writing it now.”
And now here’s a firsthand account of COP26.
COP26 - Eyewitness Report
I really wanted to talk to you because you're somebody who's had a firsthand experience of going to COP26. There's been a lot of comment about everything that went on, there's big headlines like, "25,000 people." But what does it look like when you're there? And first of all, Richard, did you go as a concerned citizen? Did you go as a demonstrator, an activist? Or did you go as a delegate? What took you to COP26?
I think concerned citizen pretty much covers it. So I went along, yes, to protest, but also to participate in the huge sort of civil society fringe that there is always around these conferences. There is a thing called The People's Assembly, which is kind of a counter-conference, a social convergence, where ideas are discussed that are a lot more wide-ranging and a lot more radical, and often a lot more interesting, than the kind of discussions that take place within the official schedule.
But there's also... I mean, I suspect you know, and probably most of your listeners know, that there is a Blue Zone, which is the kind of the authorised area that only sort of certified delegates can get into, heavily policed. There's a Green Zone, which is the sort of official civil society area, where it's a bit like a trade show, there's a lot of stalls from different companies, a lot of talks and so on. And then around that, there's the whole... the wider fringe, which is not run by the conference, but it's run by civil society around it, so lots of campaign groups, trade unions, think tanks and protest groups will all put on events around the conference. So I wasn't Blue Zone-certified, if that's the word, I wasn't accredited, but I was participating in as much of the rest of it as I could.
So in the Green Zone, though, there are some official events, presumably?
Yes, that's right, there's a whole program of talks. So they range from the really very kind of very forward-thinking to some things which are just out-and-out greenwash and just vehicles for the sponsors. So there was Dettol running a hygiene challenge for school children, because one of the sponsors is Unilever. So those kind of things are on the program as well. And you walk into the Green Zone and one of the first things you see is a big old Formula E car, a racing car, sitting out there, and you kind of think: okay, this isn't where radical things are going to happen, this is very much in the mainstream here.
Yeah. Yeah. Well, the key question, of course, is: was it a success? Greta Thunberg was saying it was a failure even before it was halfway through, but we now have the benefit of another week. We've seen the whole thing. On balance, what's your opinion of what happened at COP26?
Well, it's one of those things where you kind of find whatever prejudices you had when you went in being reinforced by it, but I will start with something positive, which is, I think that the unprecedented coverage that it got was really good. So, I mean, it was a very high-profile issue here. It did as much to raise awareness of the climate crisis as XR did in the last year or so. And I think that has the possibility of bringing about a lot of positive change, and certainly in France that happened after COP21, and I was in Paris for that back in 2015, and France enacted some pretty good laws after that and did make some positive changes, they banned all exploration for hydrocarbons in 2017 after COP21.
So I don't want to write it off in that sense, but I think it's very hard to look at the agreement, the pact, the Glasgow Climate Pact, and say, "Well, that's a success, this is the thing we need," and I think actually one of the things that I took most heart from was the fact that Alok Sharma apologised for it at the point when he sort of... When he signed it off, when he closed the negotiations, he was very clearly unhappy with what had actually happened in the last couple of days, I mean, a lot of countries were very unhappy with it, and I think a lot of people claiming it's a success, well, I mean, that, I think, undermines that claim.
The big claims about it: yes, okay, it mentions fossil fuels nowadays, which was absolutely incredible that it hadn't up to now. And I thought: so, okay, that's a good thing, but it's kind of only really just getting it back to where it should have been 10 years ago really, the fact that it should have been identifying the greatest threat to our climate, and the fact that it wasn't, was really an indictment of the whole process.
There's nothing in there on loss or damage as well, that was something that was in an early draft and it got taken out. And that's something that indigenous voices were in Glasgow are very clearly calling for. And that was something I would highlight, as well, as being a sort of a key part of this whole experience that I had, and I think a lot of people had, around this, was that the indigenous voices were very present and very well centred. The People's Summit was very focused on amplifying the voices of the Most Affected People and Areas, MAPA, it was an acronym you heard a lot in that environment.
So as I said, I don't think it really... We know that it doesn't get us to where we want to go, and we know that it's not enough to actually avert catastrophic climate change. We know that the actions that governments have pledged to take, assuming they take them, aren't enough to get us to a position of safety. And I think when you couple that with the actual track record, then I don't see much to celebrate here.
Yes, there was a good article by Adam Ramsay in, I think, openDemocracy, in which he said that Copenhagen demoralised activists, Paris placated them, it's not the word I'd use, he said that Paris placated them, Glasgow radicalised them. So, I mean, the way I look at it is that Copenhagen was an out-and-out failure, it was a disaster. Paris seemed like it was going to... It could have got us back on track. So, okay, people were kind of reasonably happy about it. That's not how I would... Maybe you could say that's placated, but it felt like maybe we were going to get there. Glasgow, it became abundantly clear: no, we haven't made the kind of progress we need to, and really the demands, I think, of the climate justice movement, of the radicals, are sort of getting more and more extreme because the situation is so much more urgent, and we're seeing...
Do you remember the Stern report back in, what was it? 2006? Yes. So making a very kind of compelling argument, within the system, for why we need to make changes and why we need to change the system to avoid the tremendous costs of climate change. And you could have say that, well, if we'd acted on that then, we wouldn't be facing such a sort of a cliff edge now. And now the demands that we face, the kind of... what's required of us is so significant that it does seem to take an increasingly radical change to society. And I think that on one hand you have got this climate justice movement, which is looking at what is happening and saying, "No, this whole system needs to be torn down, the whole economic structure of our society is not fit for purpose." Whereas it could have evolved to something that might have worked, it's a big question, obviously, if we'd have started changing earlier.
But by now you've got radicals saying everything has to change, and the government and business as usual, the government and the oil companies, saying, "No, nothing's going to change. We're just going to buy offsets, we're just going to meet net zero." And this, I think, is another big thing that surprised me in the months running up to the conference, that net zero has emerged as a focus for campaigning against.
Because, well, you may have heard this, people have been saying things like, "We don't want net zero, we want real zero." And the idea of real zero is very hard to unpick, and Greta Thunberg has said this herself as well, but the main thing is that, by saying net zero, it kind of creates... It makes it into an accounting problem, it says, "Okay, well, if we can just keep emitting this, but also we can also come up with negative technologies, offsets and so on, then we can get it to balance out." So it becomes an argument for continued growth, continued growth of the fossil fuel sector, and we know that oil producers are still planning to increase their production by 20%. We know that, and since 2015, we know we are subsidizing fossil fuels more. So net zero is being widely seen as a very dubious goal, and actually, I mean, what we should be doing instead is actually setting targets for emissions reductions, which is what we've taken the focus off, with...
Well, net zero itself is going to be extremely difficult to achieve. Getting any further than that is, well, even more extremely difficult to achieve, isn't it? I mean, is it realistic? And where do we go from here? I mean, I read an article by George Monbiot in the Guardian, who says that there are tipping points. If we can get 25% of people to believe in something, it will cause the whole of society to change its attitudes. Now, I fear that's wishful thinking, because I don't think, even if 25% of the population believe that people shouldn't drive SUVs or take long-haul flights on holiday or eat meat or things like that, I don't think that's going to change public perception, I think people are going to hang onto those things for dear life.
The trouble is it's the invisible enemy. The victims are not ourselves, are they? I mean, it's getting close, I mean, Germany lost 200 people in all those floods, didn't they? But large parts of the developed West are not really seeing anything more than inconvenience. It's the distant parts of the world, which are really suffering. But of course it's the Western developed nations that have the power, and if they're not actually being pinched, are we going to be able to persuade people to change?
Well, I don't really think the emphasis needs to be on persuading people to change. I really... I think that the emphasis needs to be on changing the system, and a system, which is subsidizing fossil fuels to the tune of $11 million every minute, I don't think anyone would defend that, I don't think anyone would say that's the right way to be doing things, but that underpins an awful lot of how we live. And if that were to be suddenly... Not suddenly, but if that were up for discussion, if that were something that we might be able to change, then we might start seeing some real redirection, because there is an awful lot of money being spent propping up the current system, which could be spent on changing it. And if that sort of money was spent on changing it, suddenly a lot of the changes that we would want people to make in their lives might become a lot easier.
So this is another thing, another big idea of course of the moment, now, and certainly one that's featured very strongly in the conference, was that of the Green New Deal. And that's kind of emerged as the alternative to business as usual as the Green New Deal. And that is a fairly ill defined concept, I think, there was a really good article in the Guardian by... I think it was Aditya Chakrabortty, I think, which was saying that, basically: 1) It's ill-defined, it seems to be just a grab bag of everything that progressives want, which I think is a fair accusation; and 2) It is a top-down, sort of large-state solution, which risks people having stuff done to them rather than participating in a change.
And that is certainly a massive issue, and I think that's where what you're talking about, expecting people to change, is really a key concern, because one of my main... one of the big feelings I had coming away from this conference was really one of feeling very demotivated because, as I say, on one hand you've got the climate justice argument, the radicals saying that everything needs to change, and so it's a protest movement, it's a very, very adversarial protest movement: what is going on now is wrong. And on the other hand you've got the kind of the: oh, no, no one wants to change, we just keep going and we just have to buy offsets and we'll just plant more trees. And it's, I mean, an argument, which is obviously wrong, that there was a deforestation...
That was another big outcome was there was this pledge to protect forests came out of it, and so all the COP26 signatories together were going to spend £12 billion, I think it is, £12 billion pounds on... No, it's $12 billion, I beg your pardon, it's $12 billion on forest-related climate finance. Meanwhile, you've got our current government subsidizing Drax to burn biomass, and by the time that that contract runs out, they will have spent £10 billion, which is about the same amount of money, on promoting or supporting deforestation and the reduction of primary forests. So the fact is that they're trying to do everything at once with the hope that it gets to net zero. They're not trying to reduce... Well, we have seen no signs at all that they're interested in rolling back on the airport expansion plans, on the road building plans.
So we know that, as I said earlier, that the fossil fuel companies are planning to increase their production, as well, of fossil fuels. So business as usual, obviously, the kind of solutions we're hearing coming out of government and big business is obviously not going to work. So it feels quite demoralizing for the kind of people like me, and probably like you as well, Anthony, where we want to sort of make changes here and now, we want to sort of work with people to make improvements.
And I'm very involved in community energy and that's kind of... Now it suddenly seems like a very small contribution, a very small difference you can make by coming together as a town or a village and doing something on that scale to decarbonize the electricity supply or to insulate houses. Because of the scale of the problem we face, it now seems totally out of whack. But I also think that the answer to this problem of the Green New Deal being so large, and such a huge amount of work that needs to be done by the state on people, is actually that it needs to be done at community level and built up from there with state support, rather than coordinated as a kind of a top-down, street-by-street, the government will install insulation in your street on this Tuesday in December, and that's it.
Right. Well, where do we go from here? In particular, where do the militant activists go from here?
Yes, well, that's it, isn't it? Because as this middle ground gets eroded away, you get more radicalization on both sides. You'll get an entrenchment, like we're seeing in social media, like we're seeing in society so widely, you're getting an entrenchment around the status quo, people are resisting, which our current government is doing very well, is resisting things like demands to just halt road building and reduce airport expansion and not build coal mines, not open up new oil fields. And on the other hand, then, that means that the radicals are just going to get more radical and more sort of feisty, and we saw today, was it nine Insulate Britain activists were jailed?
And it's hard to see that, given the rhetoric of the climate justice movement and the total absence of any kind of honorable response to that, it's hard to see that it's not just going to get more radicalized, more polarized, and you're going to see a new generation of climate activists taking increasingly radical action. The energy and the clarity coming from the young protestors is... It's inspiring. Unless the state does change, does make radical change, I think that the demands of the climate justice movement are not going to nearly be met.
People are very alive to the injustices that happen in our current system. When you look at what the solutions proposed are, the carbon markets, that Shell is going to be net zero by 2030, this is a big tick apparently, but then you look at what they're saying: well, they want to buy an area of... They want to plant an area of forests three times the size of the Netherlands in order to offset their emissions. And, I mean, there is not an infinite amount of land that you can plant up with trees. So all of these claims, the same with Drax, all of these claims, when you start unpicking them, they don't really hold up. So this is why net zero is such a tricky issue, and we really need to be setting targets on emissions reduction, in my opinion, and not just saying, "Oh, well, so long as it works out at zero as the end, that's fine."
What I've been saying for a long time is that the government ought to have a public information campaign, but the trouble is the government won't have a public information campaign if it's not committed to the sort of things that it ought to have a public information campaign about, so...
True enough, and I would say that the government is well served by a kind of constructive ambiguity around the whole situation. I mean, there will be an awful lot of details and an awful lot of regulations that will be extremely hard to pin down. The things like... I mean, you'll have... The Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions, the kind of regulations that means Drax gets to be called a renewable energy source, even though it's changing large swathes of forest, it's altering the character of the land in different places, but that doesn't turn up here. A more obvious example, perhaps, is incineration. So waste incineration gets branded as a renewable energy source for electricity. So energy from waste is theoretically renewable, so when you look at your carbon emissions and your percentage of renewables on the grid, then it doesn't matter what you're burning, that's the magic of regulation is that you can take a plastic McDonald's Happy Meal figurine made out of oil, but the minute you throw it in the bin and ship it off to an incinerator, suddenly it's renewable.
There are so many aspects to all of this, and I think every solution throws up its own problems, which is so frustrating. But we could talk all night about this, but we haven't got that much time. So before we close, I've got to ask you, are you optimistic?
I probably am no more optimistic than I was going into it, it didn't... There was a little while toward the beginning when you thought, oh, it might be doing something good, with the deforestation pledge came out, the loss and damage, and the mention of fossil fuels all put in there, you thought: okay, it might be a small step forward. But then the detail emerges and it goes through the process and these things get taken out again. So, no, coming out of it I have, like many people I know, I mean, a lot of people I know are feeling very, very low right now, because it doesn't seem like the governments, that the rich and that the powerful of the world are doing what it's going to take to keep us safe.
So what will you do next?
Yes, that's a big question. I mean, I am a member of my local Extinction Rebellion group and so I'm taking action in that sense. I mean, it is the best antidote for climate despair, is climate activism. It doesn't matter what you do, it doesn't matter if you're just handing out leaflets on the street, if you're with a group of like-minded people trying to make some difference, however small, that really is the best remedy for climate anxiety that I, and many other people, have found. Obviously, if anyone's got any other suggestions, then I'd be interested. But that's what I'll be doing, I think. And I'm continuing to support community energy and we're trying to establish a means of... communities-level renewables and house... insulation retrofit and so on here in York. So I'll be carrying on with that, but perhaps with slightly diminished reserves of hope for the short term.
Well, Richard, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts, ideas, and experiences with us, that's covered a great deal, some quite profound ideas there. We're, well, we're going to be talking about this for a long, long time to come. Thanks again.
Thanks to Richard Lane and thanks to you for listening this far. This episode is much longer than I had intended but I thought it was useful to hear what someone who has actually been to COP26 had to tell us about it.
The Sustainable Futures Report aims to be topical so I can't tell you what I shall be talking about next Friday.
I will almost certainly be talking about Insulate Britain. As you heard there, nine activists have now been sent to prison. XR said, “The government would rather lock up pensioners than insulate homes. They would rather lock up young people than implement practical solutions to reducing emissions.”
We are in a crisis. It’s time for warm homes, not warm words.
There will be another interview next Wednesday and this time you’ll hear about Tales from Mother Earth and Green Jumper Day. What's all that about? Well you'll have to listen and find out. In the meantime enjoy your weekend and why not take a moment to sign up and become a patron? I know I mentioned it before but I really value my patrons and I’d love you to become one of them if you aren't already. Just go to patreon.com/SFR and you'll find all the details there.
I'm Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report
Until next time.
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