There are very few out-and-out climate change deniers amongst the political class, but there are undoubtedly political leaders who are in denial about the urgent need for action. We saw seven of those in Cornwall this weekend.
It was intended to be a G7 where the west would set the decarbonisation agenda for the rest of the world, and especially China, to follow. Instead we have heard nothing new of substance, no sign of leadership and precious little momentum in the build-up to COP26.
The Queen put her finger on it; “Are you supposed to be looking as if you’re enjoying yourself?”. Yup, Her Majesty, that’s about the height of it; global diplomacy reduced to photo ops, elbow bumps and politicians trying to look like they’re having fun, or even like each other. Cornwall looked beautiful, of course, but we already knew that.
It begs a question. If the world’s leaders gather to deal with global issues like the impending catastrophe of runaway climate change, and nothing happens, have those issues gone away or do the leaders just not get it?
To put this into context. The latest atmospheric carbon dioxide figures for May 2021 show a steep rise to 419 parts per million[i], annualised figures will be less, but this is a big jump even after a year of coronavirus. Scientists tell us that when we reach 450 ppm, the 2 degrees global warming threshold will have been breached. The UK Met office is already reporting a strong chance, over 40% probability, that the world will experience a 1.5 degree global warming increase in the next 5 years[ii]. Later this summer the next IPCC update is expected to show that the impact of climate change is accelerating, we are not on track and we have less time to avert a global calamity than reported at the last IPCC report which triggered global climate action demonstrations. The IPCC may even say that the 1.5 degree[iii] increase limit, which was the stretch goal of the Paris COP, is all but beyond us.
To many, these are just numbers; 2 degrees, net zero, 2050, parts per million, probabilities, costs of trillions, broken limits. What it really means is a breakdown of global climate, destruction of our environment, water and food shortages, mass climate migration, wars for remaining resources, death for millions and an uncertain future. It’s never been clearer, both the emergency we face and the urgency to take action.
So what happens when the great leaders come together to deal with these issues? We hoped for some major new actions; a firm commitment to bring forward the date to end the use of coal fired power stations was on the cards. As it turns out even this absolute minimum step was beyond them. Germany is still addicted to the dirtiest coal[iv], with a derisory end date of 2038. Japan won’t even go that far, refusing to go beyond a pitiful reduction to 26% of electricity by 2030. As we argued in our recent COP26 insight paper[v], if the G7 expect developing nations to end their use of coal, they need to demonstrate their own commitment to stop consuming and developing fossil fuel resources.
Boris Johnson set the wrong tone by flying to Cornwall, his focus clearly not on CO2 but on the need for a relentlessly positive summit. Cakes and pasties for all. There was no sense of the host trying to force an agreement, no risk to the show of unity that was the summit’s ultimate purpose. This is a problem for UK diplomacy, if we think a new “global Britain” means being friends with everyone, then we can’t provide leadership on the hard contentious issues. Even in this, Johnson, and his ministers, couldn’t help themselves but return to their natural happy place – Brexit and a spat with the French. A handy displacement activity when the journalists are having a boring weekend with the grown-ups in Cornwall.
And what of Biden? America may be back, diplomatically speaking, and he’s far better than Trump, but I’ve got to admit to being underwhelmed. As is the case with US presidents, Biden seems to be more concerned about the votes of a couple of coal producing mid-west states[vi], and is already thinking about the mid-terms. If domestic politics can prevent Biden making a public commitment to tackle coal, imagine how far he is from tackling the US’s growing trade in shale oil and fracked gas[vii] or the continued addiction to gasoline.
So we are coming out of the G7 with nothing new in terms of firm commitments, although at least there was a general agreement to take further action and, thanks to David Attenborough, a renewed focus on the environment. On now to the G20, another opportunity, and then to COP26 in November. It’s going to require a balance between the positivity of “build back better” and the threat of climate chaos, but somehow, between now and then, we have to persuade global leaders to massively up their game, to take steps to reduce emissions immediately and to tackle climate chaos as a global existential threat.
We hope that happens, if not, then we need to know where we stand: an honest appraisal of the crisis the world faces and what needs to be done. At least then we can elect to change our leaders; the worst COP26 outcome would be another fudge that allows politicians to continue to prevaricate.
This blog follows on from our latest COP26 insight paper which takes a critical look at the actions the G7 must take to demonstrate the sincerity of their climate pledges and secure commitments to end coal from developing nations.
Author: Johnny Gowdy
Johnny Gowdy is a director at Regen. His 30 years of experience working in energy industry has taken him from the oil and gas sector to renewable energy and decarbonisation.
Regen is a not-for-profit centre of energy expertise and market insight whose mission is to transform the UK’s energy system for a net zero carbon future.
[i] NOAA’s Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory https://research.noaa.gov/article/ArtMID/587/ArticleID/2764/Coronavirus-response-barely-slows-rising-carbon-dioxide
[iii] Difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees? https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/our-warming-world-how-much-difference-will-half-degree-really-make
[iv]Germany’s not so green Achilles heel – despite recent falls, coal and lignite still accounts for over 35% of Germany’s electricity generation https://www.cleanenergywire.org/factsheets/coal-germany
[v] Regen https://www.regen.co.uk/publications/cop26-insight-paper/
[vi] Wyoming: 304.2 million short tonnes. …West Virginia: 95.4 million short tonnes. …Pennsylvania: 49.9 million short tonnes. …Illinois: 49.6 million short tonnes. …Kentucky: 39.6 million short tonnes