• Ian Sutton

COP26 and Blah, Blah, Blah


Greta Thunberg at COP26

Recent posts at this site have argued that national governments have failed to provide the leadership needed to address the climate crisis. We see this failure in the following chart. It shows that the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) has moved steadily and inexorably upward for the last 60 years. In that time there have been 26 COPs (Conferences of the Parties). Each COP has ended with resolutions and commitments to address the climate crisis. It is possible that they have had some effect but they have certainly not “bent the curve”.

Atmospheric concentration of CO2 since the year 1960

Failing to Deliver

The COP26 conference which just ended featured inspiring speeches and calls to action. But the upshot has been the same as it was for previous conferences: a mixture of good and bad news.

  • Rousing commitments and pledges have been made.

  • These commitments are important and can help reduce the impact of climate change and/or the speed with which changes are taking place.

  • However, they are not enough to stop global temperatures from rising.

  • Moreover, there is always a gap between what is promised and what is actually delivered. Moreover, that reported emissions are often much less than actual emissions — often be a large amount.)

Talk of achieving Net Zero by the year 2050 seems increasingly unrealistic. And talk of halving emissions by the year 2030 — well, let’s just say that barring some radical change in attitude and action, such talk is irresponsible.


The reality is that our leaders have not actually been leaders. Specifically, they have not been willing to ask their people to sacrifice for the common good. They have expressed intent and concern, but they have not acted. We know by now that conferences such as COP26 are not going to stop climate change; at best they will slow down the rate of change.


Does this mean that we should stop holding such conferences? No, of course not. COP26 has had its achievements and successes. The problem is that the nations of the world are moving much too slowly. A different type of leadership is called for.


Ennui

Compared to previous conferences COP26 seemed to lack energy. It certainly lacked optimism. A commenter on Reddit said,

Each leader in turn seemed to give ever greater doom-laden speeches, as if they were trying to one up each other as to who could be the darkest and most existential.
But so devoid of optimism were those speeches, and when matched with the grand promises of complete inaction by our world leaders, you would think that it all would've been met with panic and frenzy all over the world. But it wasn't. It was mostly met with a deafening silence.

This commenter has a point. For example, the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, said,

. . . our fragile planet is hanging by a thread

and

We are still knocking on the door of climate catastrophe. It is time to go into emergency mode — or our chance of reaching net zero will itself be zero.

Yet few people at the conference seemed to be acting as if in emergency mode.


Secretary Guterres is not the only leader with a message of doom. We noted in the post An Existential Threat that President Biden said prior to the summit,

The existential threat to humanity is climate change . . . if we reach beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius increase in temperature, we’re gone. Not a joke. Not a joke.

And Prime Minister Boris Johnson went so far as to stand in front of the Roman Coliseum and remind us that “civilization can go backwards”.


Boris Johnson at the Roman Coliseum talking about civilization going backwards

As usual, Hamlet sums up the conference best,

Words, words, words

It almost seems as if these leaders have lost interest in even bothering to relate actions to words. It’s as if they don’t care any more.


Activists

Activist protestor at COP26

The government leaders were not the only ones at the conference. "Activists” held rallies and demonstrations on the streets outside the meeting itself. The most famous of these activists, Greta Thunberg, said,

"The COP26 is over," she tweeted. "Here's a brief summary: Blah, blah, blah."

Like the leaders inside the hall, the activists recognize the serious of the situation, and they understand that urgent action is needed. But the activists also understand that we cannot afford to wait for lengthy deliberations which may result in fine words, but no corresponding action. However . . .


Responses such as that from Thunberg may allow for emotional venting. But that’s all. In the end, their response is no more satisfactory than that of the official attendees. Thunberg started her activist life as an innocent, rather naïve teenager. But she now has world experience; she herself talks about what she has learned from meeting world leaders. She is now an adult — it is reasonable to expect her to provide constructive comments. She has built up an extraordinary number of followers and has immense influence. She should be using that influence to help come up with solutions.


Specifically, the activists need to address the question: how do we achieve a stable climate without wrecking the world’s economies? They must know that, if we drastically cut our use of fossil fuels to meet the ambitious targets that she and her colleagues are calling for, then society as we know it will cease to function. Fossil fuels provided the energy needed to increase the world’s population from under 1 billion in pre-industrial times to around 7.5 billion now. The consequences of a sudden cutback in the use of those fuels would have unthinkable consequences. Simply criticizing the world leaders is not enough.


Business and Industry

The people inside and outside the halls at Glasgow may have differed on many issues, but they did agree that business and industry — particularly the fossil fuel industry — were at least partly to blame for the our current conundrum. For example, much of the discussion toward the end of the conference was to do with whether the coal industry should be “phased out” or “phased down”. (In the meantime, China has ramped up coal production to the highest level in recent years in order to address power shortages, so maybe their commitment is indeed just “blah, blah, blah”.)


But a theme of these posts is that realistic leadership — a leadership that is not just talk — may have to come from those disparaged businesses. Their motives are not to “do good”, but to be commercially successful in a new and rather scary world. Success will depend on resilience and adaptability. How they can organize and implement such leadership is discussed at posts such as Resilience and COP26, and will be a theme of future posts.

Nuclear fusion — sunlight in a bottle — represents the fresh leadership that can be provided by industry