Yes, I know other people will have used the same title, but it’s too apt not to.
The COP24 meeting in Katowice finally lurched to something of a conclusion, perhaps best described as an agreement to have an agreement, rather than an agreement in itself. The can was kicked down the road for another 12 months as national fossil fuel interests again held back climate progress. This wasn’t all that surprising, as 4 countries (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Russia and, most disappointingly, the USA) had already prevented the conference formally adopting the fairly apocalyptic IPCC report commissioned as one of the major outputs of COP21 in Paris, a meeting which seemed so positive at the time. All this as atmospheric concentrations of CO2 continue to rise.
But it’s not all bad news, even though the silver lining is thin and weak, and the cloud is black and stormy. Some private fossil fuel interests are more progressive, including Shell, which had already called for the UK’s ban on combustion engines to be brought forward and announced plans to reduce the carbon impact of its operations including by reducing methane emissions. Added to this is a scheme of a sort which isn’t all that common even outside the fossil fuel sector. Senior executives at the company will have their reward packages linked to the company’s progress against these aims and performance will be independently audited. Of course, fossil fuel has been the biggest contributor to the current mess, and the likelihood of future carbon taxes is a powerful incentive for change in companies like Shell, but we won’t be able to solve our current problems without them changing and so such engagement should be supported.
There are positives in the UK as well, despite the huge governmental resources being expended on ‘Brexit’. The UK and other countries are looking to go further and in October the Scottish, Welsh and Westminster governments jointly approached the independent Committee on Climate Change for advice on how it should set about achieving full decarbonisation. The CCC’s response is due by the end of March 2019 and it will be instructive to see how any recommendations fit alongside events in the EU, which is targeting a net-zero economy by 2050. Business is playing a part here too, with individual business leaders calling on politicians to move faster, and investment organisations incorporating climate considerations in their lending and investment decisions. In the grocery sector, Tesco has announced a partnership with WWF with the very ambitious goal of halving the environmental impact of their customers’ shopping basket. It remains to be seen how this will be measured and evidenced, but it is a step in the right direction.
Regular readers of this blog will recall that at this time last year I mentioned a book called Drawdown which sets out a series of actions which could be taken globally to manage the climate challenge. The agri-food system features strongly, with meat consumption and land-use change among the most significant contributors. Independently of the call for advice mentioned above, the CCC has also recommended a reduction in red meat consumption of between 20 and 50%. Ruminants produce methane in their digestive tract (contrary to the urban myth, it is actually emitted through their mouths), which is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and are very inefficient converters of the nutrition in the plants they eat into nutrition in meat. If course, not all nutrients are available from plants and many people rely on livestock farming for their livelihoods, so large-scale change must be handled with care. As the Macron government has just found out, leaving people behind in these big decisions can have disastrous impacts which can set back the overall goal as well as individual actions within it.
As private citizens, it is ultimately our actions which will make the difference. Responsible consumption is the key, and our purchasing decisions will drive the actions of primary production, processing and retail. Omnivores can cut down on their consumption of meat, especially red meat. Vegetarians can cut down on their consumption of dairy products (dairy cattle burp methane too, after all). People in business can make more use of conference-call technology in place of physical travel and we can all drive less. We can offset the emissions from flights when we go on holiday, and if we have gardens big enough, we can plant our own trees. We can reward businesses that do the right thing by giving them more of our custom. If you’re the type of person who makes New Year resolutions, maybe these are things you’ve already thought of doing. If you want to know more about the carbon impact of consumption you could do worse than take a look at a book called ‘How Bad Are Bananas?’ by Mike Berners-Lee which explains it in a very accessible fashion. I don’t have any association with the authors or publishers of either of these books, by the way, they just provide a great way in to the subject.