I hope this column turns out to be a load of tosh. I want to get everything wrong and wind up a laughing stock.
I wouldn’t bet on it, though, and here’s why. This week’s COP26 climate conference in Glasgow will be the letdown predicted by many. The lifestyle adjustments – nay, revolutionary changes – required of people like us in developed nations to cut carbon emissions from burning coal, oil and gas won’t be forthcoming with the climate-saving urgency scientists insist is required. I hate to be fatalistic but we have a long way to go to stop floods, wildfires, mudslides and storms becoming commonplace.
Yet when the conference ends on 12 November the news will herald some sort of success for COP26. But it will be a cobbled-together, face-saving agenda for cutting our fossil fuel usage that kicks the can down the road and avoids immediate pain.
We have already seen tough action openly resisted by two of the biggest carbon emitters, China and India, while leaked documents show that delays are secretly being sought by Saudia Arabia, Japan, Australia and others. But I doubt we’ll get a whiff of this from Boris Johnson, who as COP26 host will play a prominent part in the closing press conference. His boosterish claptrap makes that most sunny of fictional personalities, Pollyanna, seem morose. Incredibly, millions of people in the UK still drink up this nonsense, keeping him high in the opinion polls, but on the international stage what will they make of a world-beating, climate-change-bashing Boris?
I agree with the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg’s prediction a few weeks ago that what will come out of the conference is some creative accounting and a raft of symbolic actions that fall far short of what’s necessary to avert full-scale climate breakdown in the second half of the century.
What is needed is an expedited programme of carbon emission cutbacks. Last week the UN Environment Programme reported that even modest pledges made by governments to keep the global temperature rise under 1.5C this century are doomed to failure and that the world was on course to warm by 2.7C with hugely destructive consequences. To stop that happening would be like watching a film about the last 50 years of industrialisation on fast rewind.
One eminent climate scientist told me last month that there is now “no hiding place” on global warming. So it’s hands up time. All of us in developed nations have to take responsibility for what is happening to the climate. We benefited from economic growth, bought inexpensive manufactured products, hopped on budget flights, drove round the corner to buy milk, enjoyed the good times without worrying about the consequences. So the objective of keeping the rise in global temperatures to
1.5 degrees cannot now happen without a huge amount of economic and lifestyle pain.
It is already clear that we have left it too late. We should have had Glasgow 20 years ago. But here we are, relying at the very least on the biggest fossil fuel burner of all, China, which accounts for almost 30 per cent of carbon emissions, drastically scaling back its industrial revolution. Will China cancel the 43 new coal-fired power stations it plans to build in the next year? Will we stop buying cheap Chinese goods? Not a chance.
Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe
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