There were times when Cop26 looked more like a corporate-political class jamboree than a serious policy deliberation about an impending global nightmare. The young activists protesting outside against what they saw as a pretend show of action had a point. The front line of climate politics is in Asia, but both Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi were absent. Joe Biden attended, but he did so without having passed his own legislative climate agenda through the US Congress. Meanwhile, the emissions generated simply by holding an international conference for almost 40,000 delegates – not least the private jets flying to and from Glasgow – suggest that some participants believe the emergency they purport to address isn’t real.
Cop26 also failed to realise the biggest hope attached to it. Boris Johnson wanted this to be the conference that “consigned coal to history”. But the end of coal is far from sight. More than 40 countries signed a “Global Coal to Clean Power Transition” statement, promising that the “major economies” would phase out coal in the 2030s and the others would follow in the 2040s. But five of the big six coal producers – China, India, the US, Australia, and Russia – did not endorse the statement, and the sixth, Indonesia, exempted itself from any definitive commitment to terminate coal during the 2040s. Biden’s climate legislation in the Senate has been blocked by the Democratic Senator for the coal-producing state of West Virginia, Joe Manchin. Without an American commitment to action at home, the US was in no position to push its Indo-Pacific allies to sign the agreement. Since China consumes and produces around half of the world’s coal, its eschewal alone renders the agreement peripheral to the global coal predicament.
But Cop26 did boast some apparent successes. The Global Methane Pledge, signed by more than 90 countries, aims to cut methane emissions by 30 per cent by 2030. More than 100 countries – home to around 85 per of the world’s forests – have committed to end deforestation and start reforestation by 2030. These are medium-term pledges that are quite possibly achievable, since they mostly don’t depend on the invention of new technologies.
The problem is that success on methane and deforestation will not be enough to alter decisively the present rate of emissions. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to keep global warming to 1.5°C over pre-industrial temperatures requires a reduction in total greenhouse gas emissions of 8 per cent every year until 2030. This is far less than the 6.4 per cent reduction in emissions that followed the global lockdown of 2020. Current technologies make it impossible over the short term to replace fossil fuel energy in transportation, or develop sufficient battery storage to compensate adequately for the constraints of weather-dependent renewable electricity. As a result, carbon dioxide emissions cannot fall by the necessary amount by 2030 without reducing energy consumption.
At Cop26, the former central banker-turned-UN-climate-envoy, Mark Carney, hailed a new era of green finance as banks and asset managers representing 40 per cent of the world’s financial assets pledged $130trn towards helping economies achieve net zero. Such a huge injection of investment capital could accelerate the decarbonisation of electricity without a loss of energy capacity in the latter part of the decade. But it might well not. To assume that it will is a low probability bet. To act as if significant energy transition could happen within the next couple of years is absurdly optimistic.
The Chinese leadership has implicitly recognised the problem that present energy consumption poses to the climate and is rationing its electricity supply to industrial firms. But this imperative is not one Western governments wish to face. It entails asking voters to make sacrifices, and it opens up class conflict about whose energy consumption must fall when it is a source and consequence of inequality: to be poor is to be energy poor. The trepidation on the part of Western governments to limit energy consumption is also generated by the energy transition itself. The investment required in the electric vehicle industry, for example, is dependent on there being abundant future energy demand. While China, an authoritarian state, can force companies to invest, governments in the West cannot.
But the impasse must be faced. Energy consumption is higher than the climate can bear. Consequently, it actually does matter how much energy politicians used in travelling to and from Glasgow. This is more than an issue of simple political hypocrisy. It is a question of whether politicians mean anything they say about climate change. If, as Johnson declared on 29 October, the stakes are the future of civilisation, and if the only way emissions could fall is for energy consumption to fall, words and actions must appear aligned.
Stuck on the question of how to navigate the decade, politicians may find themselves grateful for rising fossil fuel energy prices. China has cut electricity supplies not only to reduce emissions but because the country has faced a spike in prices caused by a shortage of coal. Rising oil prices will destroy oil demand and reduce growth, which will then reduce demand for other energy sources. This dynamic will not reduce emissions enough to slow climate change. But it will force some hard lessons about the realities of energy upon us all.
This article appears in the 10 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the Masks