The root of the problem
John Kerry, President Biden’s climate envoy has declared that countries aren’t doing enough to tackle climate change. It is in many ways a very welcome admission, and it is a very welcome fact that the US is back in the game. But one wonders how Kerry came to the conclusion that not enough was being done to cut carbon emissions and put us on track to achieve net carbon zero by 2050? When it comes to the politics of climate change, it is a recurrent narrative that whilst fabulous future targets are set, new commitments to meet them are often scaled back, overwhelmed by hostile lobbying, demoted to political backwaters and drowned in greenwash. At the root of the problem is the strong possibility that politicians have never quite understood what a global carbon budget looks like nor what it means for them. In other words, they seem to be oblivious to any metric as to how to equitably share out that rapidly diminishing carbon budget.
In the case of the developed world, whose historic carbon emissions have had the greatest impact on climate change, it is easy to see why they fear a fair distribution of emission ‘rights’ whilst poorer countries which made the least historic contribution to climate change justifiably demand to be treated with the greatest fairness. So when Kerry says ‘no country or continent is getting the job done’ is he assessing Africa’s role as fairly as he might his own country? In that context it is more likely than not that he will merely sow the seeds of yet another post-colonial injustice, which will not be forgotten by African COP26 delegates.
Unfortunately the present global struggle against climate change is configured to fail. The Paris Agreement allows countries to set their own targets, and these do not add up to the sum of what is globally necessary. In those countries which are aggressively pursuing industrialisation as the route out of poverty, targets are necessarily lower, and given that there are no sanctions in this regime, there is no penalty for failure. The developed world’s targets too are more honoured in the breach. For example, between 2005 and 2018 Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions fell by a mere 0.1% - from 730 to 729 Mt CO2 equivalent. Canada signed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, pledging to reduce emissions by around 5% against 1990 levels by 2012. In 1990, Canada’s emissions were at 603 Mt CO2. Ironically, Canada’s position may now improve thanks to President Biden cancelling the Keystone XL oil pipeline. However, Prime Minister Trudeau is controversially pumping CA$2billion into the Trans Mountain pipeline, so keen is his government to get more Albertan oil sands fossil fuel into the world’s economy. Local, national and regional imperatives always seem to complicate the path to lower carbon emissions. Sometimes something good happens, and that will be touted as a great leap forward; when something bad (or indeed, nothing) happens it’s merely unremarkable ‘business as usual.’
The path to the solution for climate change is littered with failure, and an inability to learn from our mistakes. That inability is rooted in the political denial culture which pervades international climate talks. It’s as if the rapidly diminishing carbon budget (determined by the goal of seeking to contain an average temperature increase to 2⁰C) is not a hard reality. Instead most contributions seem to be based on different targets based on what can only be described as a series of nationally introspective judgements which pay heed to considerations which have little to do with tackling the global problem.
The UK’s Climate Change Act 2008 did seek to address this issue, insofar as the then government sought to determine what the UK’s CO2 reduction target should be based on. If the global climate change solution is to reach zero carbon emissions by a given date, then that goal will by definition be the culmination of the complete contraction of emissions and complete convergence of per capita carbon emissions. As Lord (Adair) Turner told the Environmental Audit Select Committee in 2009 “When we proceed from the global target to the UK target, we are suggesting something that is reasonably pragmatic close to ‘contract and converge’. And I think it is important to realise that actually, although people get very worked up about precise methodologies – contract & converge, triptych etc –it is very difficult to imagine a long-term path for the world which isn’t somewhat related to a contract & converge type approach.’
After Paris it is at least the case that the date for ‘contraction and convergence’ is 2050 - although not quite since China wants another ten years. So at least we think we know when the problem is meant to be solved. Sadly, that still doesn’t tell us how the problem is to be solved. For one thing, if China says 2060 will do, how many other countries will follow suit? Another issue is the measurability question – how much self-reporting will there be? How honest or comprehensive will measurements be? And the big ‘what if’ in this anthropocentric nightmare is what impact will feedback mechanisms have on our calculations, and how will that affect national targets? Ocean acidification, methane releases from permafrost, the albedo effect – take your pick as to which may be the tipping point beyond no return. Some climate change effects, widely recognised now in the science, such as increased storm intensity or sea level rise will divert attention from mitigation to adaptation. Witnessing the latest flooding in the UK, I suspect adaptation will demand more from under-pressure public spending than mitigation. In politics, the present is always the more demanding suitor than the future. And, given that Covid-19 has provided some slight and temporary relief from rising CO2 emissions, we could see that providing a little political cover for a re-ordering of priorities. It cannot be allowed to happen. The government needs to refresh its commitments to the framework on which the UK Climate Act is based and keep COP26 focussed on that disciplined approach.
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