And so the much-trumpeted COP26 is over, delegates jetting back home having failed yet again to deliver the wholesale change which humanity and all of the other species on the planet so desperately need. The reported statistic that the largest ‘delegation’ at the event comprised lobbyists for the fossil fuel sector perhaps tells us all we need to know about what didn’t happen. Even the rhetoric from the supposedly progressive nations of the West was undermined by an unholy alliance in which major polluters seek to continue on their current path so as not to economically disadvantage their citizens (or at least the elites) and developed economies (the US and Europe) seek to limit the bill for the impacts of their early industrialisation. Whatever we end up with as the global temperature rise above pre-industrial levels, the rise we’ve seen so far, itself perilously close to 1.5oC, is a consequence primarily of the activities of a small number of nations and most significantly benefited a very small proportion of the inhabitants of even those. According to a recent report published by the Institute for European Environmental Policy, Oxfam and the Stockholm Environmental Institute, taking into account the then current pledges from the world’s nations, the difference in environmental impact per person based on their individual wealth is stark. The world’s top 10% (which equates to an income from around double the UK median, so hardly the preserve of Tech Billionaire playboys) have emissions at nine times the level consistent with limiting the rise to 1.5oC, with the poorest 50% well below the target carbon threshold. This most recent failure to deliver real change on emissions echoes the disappointment of past meetings all too faithfully. I would have used the title COP Out for this post, except that I had already used it after COP24 similarly failed to get to grips with the burning elephant in the room.
The tears nearly shed by Alok Sharma, COP26 President, at the close of the conference seem to have been the genuine response of a man frustrated by the limited progress of the event, rather than those of a politician concerned about his reputation. Contrast that with the Prime Minister travelling to and from Glasgow on a private jet to see the contradictions within the world of politics. Of course, emissions from an individual flight between London and Glasgow are not material even in the context of the travel of thousands of delegates and lobbyists to attend the conference, let alone in the broader impact of industrialised nations day-to-day, but it illustrates that the actions taken by politicians are contingent and they usually have an eye on their key stakeholders as much as does any commercial enterprise. The ‘disappointment’ expressed by the Prime Minister that COP26 didn’t deliver what it could have done and needed to do might yet lead to a political re-organisation which puts climate change more explicitly back into the brief of a government department. If so, then perhaps Mr Sharma will get a second chance to make good change for the UK and influence other nations. So, if COP26 wasn’t a success (billed as it was as our “last, best chance” of limiting global heating to 1.5oC and so avoiding the worst of the unfolding climate catastrophe), was it a complete failure? The answer is no, of course. The can has, once again, been kicked down the road as vested interests, corporate and political, ensure that they mitigate the economic impact on their own activities. Some positive signs of change have emerged, though, but much weaker, slower and later than needed, and the tensions between developed and emerging economies have a long way still to play out.
And what of us as private citizens? It is one-dimensional to blame the impacts of consumerism on businesses which promote consumption and absolve individuals of any responsibility for their actions. At the very least we can choose to boycott organisations with the most egregious environmental and social misconduct and use our own voices to press for change economically and politically. As I type this, I am in an hotel near London about to start a course on principles and requirements for validation and verification (of environmental impacts), which is part of the means by which organisations can be held to account. Having travelled here in my fully electric car, I was forced to re-charge it in the car park of a nearby supermarket (well done Lidl) as the hotel offers no EV charging facilities. The receptionist was unaware of why this is the case, and it seems that I am far from the first person to ask. Whilst eating breakfast, the background (actually at a quite unavoidable decibel level) radio bombarded guests with seemingly endless adverts for Black Friday Deals. Leaving aside the commercial realities of such ‘deals’, they are yet another reminder of the normalised nature of consumption in the lives of the wealthy few across the planet, and a clear aspiration for those in less privileged circumstances. In polls, the overwhelming majority of UK consumers agree with targeting net-zero by 2050 or earlier, but the basis on which this is to be achieved is rarely made clear. Driving less, eating less red meat and some other modest lifestyle changes are accepted, but the reality will be far more demanding in terms of change. On top of that, there will be unintended consequences of changes to the global economic system, and we need to keep focus on a just transition for all. A global win will require local sacrifices, and those who have the most (us in the developed West and wealthy elites around the world) will be the ones who need to make the most sacrifice.