After China and India weakened the Cop26 commitment on coal – objecting to “phase out” in favour of “phase down” – an emotional Alok Sharma apologised to all the delegates, making clear what he thought about the outcome of the negotiations. The anger and disappointment in the plenary were palpable and the reasons obvious: national pledges affirmed in Glasgow put the world on track for 2.4°C of warming, a scenario that carries devastating consequences for life on our planet.
Collectively, countries are far from doing enough to slow climate change, but it may well be that their efforts now take place in isolation and, often, almost covertly. The politics of the general congress are being replaced by the logic of the race.
The same Chinese authorities that were working to limit the ambition of Cop26 are planning to build at least 150 new nuclear power plants in the next 15 years, more than the rest of the world has built in the past 35. The same EU that is ready to include natural gas in its sustainable energy transition is simultaneously preparing to use the Copernicus Earth observation satellite to find new resources of critical raw materials for green energy. And in the US, the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has announced that the country must lead the renewable energy revolution – not to solve the climate crisis but to “win the strategic competition with China”.
We have seen this logic before: the pandemic was a grand rehearsal of the climate emergency. When Covid struck, one may have thought the world would come together against a common threat. Instead, the crisis became an occasion for global competition. Most public discussions about rates of infection and death started to resemble sports commentary – “How your country compares,” as the Financial Times put it. Morbid league tables multiplied.
During the pandemic, many of us have been shocked by countries’ remorselessly egotistical approach to containment. They willingly embraced the logic of a race against other states, and if the race demanded that others must lose, so be it. In the early stages, for example, masks and ventilators were hoarded by those who could afford to do so. China, Turkey, Germany, Russia and others were accused of introducing export controls.
Will the climate crisis follow the same pattern? I see no reason why not. Some countries, with the material resources and political organisation to limit the impact of climate change, may even expect to benefit from the chaos. If one major global port is destroyed by a flood, expect its direct competitors to try to take advantage.
The Covid analogy extends even further. It is helpful to think of adaptation as the climate equivalent of virus containment, and decarbonisation as the equivalent of vaccination. Just as countries will be tempted to prove they are better at adaptation, so too do they stand to benefit from dominating the green technologies of the future. If a country becomes a leader in decarbonisation, it will hardly be confined to the role of good Samaritan. The definitive solution to the climate crisis is technological, so a nation can profit by finding other countries interested in acquiring those technologies and in paying almost any price for them. We saw that in the case of the global market for vaccines. If everyone has to move to sustainable energy, you can corner the market by moving first.
There will be fights for new resources, with demand for the materials in solar panels likely to triple over the next few decades, and the need for battery ingredients, such as cobalt and lithium, growing so fast that countries will be forced to scramble for control over specific geographies. The most important rich metal deposits tend to be in politically and socially unstable places, many in Africa.
Some countries will emerge on top. Consider the view from Beijing. Obsessed with historical patterns as they are, Xi Jinping and his colleagues might be tempted to conclude that the future global power distribution will be decided by the third energy revolution. After all, from the 19th century, Britain rose to world domination through the control and deployment of coal and steam power, and the US did the same by being the first to develop electrical power and oil. The trick is to beat everyone else, not to move together. And the process should be dictated by the logic of technological competition rather than environmental outcomes. China seems reconciled to chaos and the pain of transitioning to green sources of energy.
There is both bad and good news here. On the one hand, our hopes for a collective global process capable of ameliorating the climate crisis seem misplaced. On the other, those about to abandon all hope may turn to a final consolation: countries and governments are destined to become more serious once they understand that a deadly race for power is about to begin.
Expect the climate transition to be directed by the logic of state competition. First, countries will enter a period of prolonged crisis caused by new inhospitable climates. As the crisis permeates every social and economic system, states will realise how much they have to lose or gain. Finally, nations will compete to see who does better against these challenges. Driven by competition, we might start to see dramatic progress. It was ever thus in world politics.
Bruno Maçães, an author and former Portuguese Europe minister, will write fortnightly
[see also: Was Cop26 a failure?]
This article appears in the 17 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Democracy's last stand