Week one of COP26: some reflections

To be honest, I didn’t expect to see a Formula One racing car on display in the Blue Zone. But there it was, all shiny black, signalling that thanks to EV technology nothing is going to change: global warming will not ruin your Sunday afternoons sitting on the sofa watching the Grand Prix. But let’s not talk about the sacrifices you’re willing to make for climate change – it will just make James Murray very, very angry. Instead, let’s reflect for a moment on the week that was Week One of COP26 in Glasgow.

I travelled up to Glasgow with my kids (who would later become media stars, appearing on the front page of the Scottish Herald) on Saturday, staying with the wonderful Allan in a free home share in Cumbernauld. On Sunday, we joined the Lantern Festival along the bank of the canal in Cowcaddens. There’s a poignant sign on the walkway beside the canal, between the A804 and Craighill Road, that charts the historical development of the area. For me, it set the tone for the week.

The sign is ostensibly telling the public about the history of the area, but it’s also clearly making a not-too-subtle point: “ignore the traffic (if you can!) and imagine children’s chatter skipping through the air”. There’s a bitterness being expressed here that you rarely detect in a public service announcement. The sign is saying: ‘this was once an urban oasis, but it’s not now’.

We cannot grow our way out of the climate crisis

Why hasn’t anyone been talking about degrowth this week? As far as I can tell, the only metrics of progress that underpin the promises of the pledge-givers at COP this week are GDP (Gross Domestic Product) and GNP (Gross National Product). There are fundamental problems with these measures of progress as has been pointed out repeatedly by degrowth scholars over the years. You will recall that GDP and GNP attach value to all the wrong things. As John F. Kennedy pointed out way back in the 1960s, GNP “counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage” but “does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play”. In fact, he goes on to say, “it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile”. To return to the Cowcaddens sign, the construction of the motorway that obliterated the once green space counts towards GDP; the ‘children’s chatter’ does not.

The back story of Kennedy’s critique is described in the opening chapter of Tim Jackson’s book Post Growth: Life After Capitalism. Jackson refers to the work of Hermann Daly, whose 1968 article On Economics as a Life Science was the first to ask the question: how can a global economy continue to grow on a planet with finite resources? His answer: it can’t. A ‘steady state’ economy was required, in which a constant stock of capital and population would not exceed what we now know as ‘planetary boundaries’. Today, the global population continues to grow, albeit at a reduced rate, and according to Steffen et al, four of nine boundaries (including two ‘core boundaries’ – climate change and biosphere integrity) are at ‘increasing’ or ‘high’ levels of risk. And yet, the notion of a steady state economy is simply absent from the negotiations.

“We are trapped in the iron cage of consumerism. But the cage is of our own making. We are locked in the myth of growth. But the key was forged in our own minds. There are physical, material limits to our existence. But there is creativity in our souls that can free us to live meaningfully and thrive together”.

Tim Jackson, Post Growth: Life After Capitalism, p14

The belief that we can grow our way out of the climate crisis is pretty crazy when you stop to think about it. I know that that is the opposite message coming out of COP26 and is precisely what we are currently trying to do, but the fact of the matter is that we can’t without betting heavily on future tech innovation or far more stringent policies than we have at present. The UK government’s argument that it has achieved growth while reducing its emissions is not especially convincing, not least because the UK’s transition from a manufacturing to a services economy means that it imports a lot of emissions-heavy material that doesn’t appear on the accounts. And if it looks beyond its shores to the wider world (I know that’s difficult for some Brits), absolute decoupling faces an obvious structural challenge:

An important reason for this is the continued reliance on manufacturing in many countries, which is carbon intensive. When the UK was heavily reliant on the manufacturing sector following the Industrial Revolution, a similar coupling between GDP per head and CO2 emissions occurred. At a global level, a structural change such as the one witnessed in the UK is unlikely because of the global demand for manufactured goods. Therefore, any potential global decoupling must be achieved through other factors such as technological change or environmental policies.

ONS 2019, The decoupling of economic growth from carbon emissions: UK evidence, p18

A growing global economy will make it harder-bordering-on-impossible to reduce emissions by the necessary amount at the necessary rate – a bit like choosing to walk up a ‘down’ escalator instead of taking the stairs. Which brings me to my next reflection.

Emissions are still going up at a steady rate when they need to be coming down

At the end of the day, emissions have to peak, decline and reach net zero by 2050 (CO2) and 2070 (all GHGs). We need to see a reduction of 45% from 2010 levels by 2030. We know by how much emissions need to reduce year-on-year in order for the planet to keep below 1.5C of warming. The 2019 UNEP ’emissions gap’ report estimated 7.6% annually over the following decade. Two years on, it’s going to be more than that. In 2020, global CO2 emissions dropped by 5.4% in 2020 but are expected to increase by 4.9% this year.

Following revised estimates in emissions from land use change, the Global Carbon Project has revised down global CO2 emissions, the result indicating a ‘flatting’ of global CO2 emissions (37.6GtCO2 in 2010; 38GtCO2 in 2020). While good news of sorts, it wouldn’t take much for emissions to rise again, as Glen Peters recently tweeted.

Put simply, emissions are currently increasing at the same rate each year (i.e. they aren’t accelerating) when they need to be coming down. What is required (but what we won’t/can’t get from COP26) is a near-term plan for emissions reductions, preferably with yearly benchmarks against which we can hold our governments to account. From each country a commitment that from this year on, emissions will reduce by x amount until net zero is achieved. What we don’t want (but have got) is paper promises from countries that have failed to meet their commitments to meet them at some arbitrary year 40 or 50 years hence.

The COP

Only on planet Earth would you devise a decision-making process as fucked-up as the COP. Seriously, this is how we attempt to resolve a global emergency of such magnitude? Alarm bells should be ringing when you hear ex-DFID civil servants asking us to ‘spare a thought for the negotiators’:

Is it some kind of medieval torture? I’ve never understood the self-imposed constraints on this kind of international negotiation (it’s the same with the World Health Assembly). Why two weeks? Why in such an uncomfortable, pressured environment? More importantly, why have ‘negotiations’ predicated on state diplomacy rather than, say, a deliberative, inclusive and citizen-based assembly? The future of our species hangs in the balance and we’re subjecting a homogenous bunch of yes-men and women to a time-constrained, boiler room event with crappy coffee and sandwiches. Quite literally madness.

It’s a circus, only much less fun and more clowns. As is the case with such events, there’s a lot of insincere hand-gladding from self-important delegates surrounded by minions (why do they always walk around like a phalanx of Roman centurions) literally running backwards while frantically taking photos like their jobs depended on it (which they probably do). And way too much humble bragging attendees tweeting their not-so-subtle ‘look at mees’. Please, please stop doing it, it’s unnecessary and unedifying.

Twitter – all the time

I had a RINGO pass which got me into all the zones minus the interesting ones (i.e. just zone D and the pavilion ‘enclosure’ but not E or F). What a dispiriting place – all sterile, bright and high-tech. Imagine any airport departure lounge and you’re there. The only thing going for the pavilions is that it wasn’t this ↓. I’m not sure why all the female discussants were off camera? Were they even there?

Going to the COP has been instructive in as much as it has taught me that I never want to go to a COP again, ever. I averaged about an hour each day inside the event on Monday and Tuesday (not including the two hours of queuing) before leaving, depressed. I don’t want to be mean or overly negative but I don’t see the pavilions moving us even one step further forward in resolving the climate crisis. Sure, it’s good for networking and some people get to meet other people they wouldn’t otherwise meet (i.e. the usual justifications for all the time, energy and money spent setting up the stalls). But in terms of moving the response to climate crisis forward? Total failure. Of course, it does provide the entertainment. And that’s necessary to justify so many people being in one place for two weeks. COP is a money spinner – catering, transport, accommodation, event management, security, hospitality, marketing, advertising, finance, fashion (what, you mean you didn’t buy a new suit?). If COP were just those windowless rooms full of stressed out negotiators, no-one else would go or need to go. So it has to be more than that.

Is COP succeeding? In one respect, yes-ish. Most of the countries that have signed up to Paris are attending (though some notables aren’t). If getting negotiators round a table is a basic measure of success, then, yes, COP26 is succeeding. That’s a low bar. More than that, does it keep the ‘well below 2c’ aim alive? Perhaps, but thus far we have had a series of carefully staged announcements that – conveniently – get us to 1.8C if this or that happens in the future. The detail of how that happens will, I guess, materialise in the coming days, with success measured against the negotiators’ key priorities. For a much better account of what success might mean in the context of COP26, see Tamsin Edwards’ blog post.

Ultimately, it comes down to trust. Do you trust what you hear from the people telling you that we’re on the right track? Are you comforted by the clean, crisp numbers (1.5, 1.8, 2.0 by 2030, 60, 70) even though you know there is a wide range of uncertainty and so, so many contingencies (if this and if that, then there’s a 50%, 66% chance that this will happen). Personally, I’m not. In my opinion, governments will quite happily lead us by the hand to the cliff edge pledging not to throw us over, and then throw us over. The last thing we’ll hear is them pledging to catch us before we hit the ground. The trick is not to hold their hand. Perhaps that’s why I struggled with COP, and why I felt much more at home outside with the demonstrators and activists – out in the cold, out on the street, fighting for the future with my children.

Bring on week two.

Andrew

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