Here is how modern discourse works… The local council tweets that it has formed a committee to review the condition of public highways; a civic-minded taxpayer responds that having a meeting about it won’t actually fill in any potholes; immediately, this is answered by someone stating that this type of negativity won’t exactly be laying any tarmac down either; someone else decides that the tone of this debate is exactly what is wrong with modern society; the rest of the country joins in with what they think is the problem with modern society; everyone forgets that we still need the council to address the state of the roads, and the well-being of youngsters texting while whizzing about on e-scooters remains in peril…
The 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, more commonly referred to as Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC, or COP27, which begins in Sharm El-Sheikh today, has been described as a ‘fizzy pop talking shop’ and a ‘stage for corporate greenwashing…’. It has received criticism for its choice of sponsors and its lack of ambition, even its very purpose has been questioned. The prevailing perception of this conference is that it will simply summarise the missed targets from the previous one.
Dependent on your viewpoint, you may consider these opinions as valid or unhelpful (of course, they might be both, but current debating etiquette obliges everyone to stand unflinching behind one side of a binary choice or be considered a bit wishy-washy…). So, what are the potential positives of the conference and why should we keep faith with the process?
Firstly, let’s consider the actors involved. Those from whom agreed action is critical to any meaningful effort on climate change include countries and governments who disagree, on a fundamental level, on how economies, external relationships and people should be managed. Therefore, we need to understand the level of realpolitik required for progress in a world where those fundamental disagreements are played out to very serious consequences. Having a forum in which this debate can happen is surely essential. It could also be argued that it gives a focus to those groups who dedicate their lives and careers to the global climate crisis – whatever your view on the value of the talks, no-one can deny the publicity that they bring.
Secondly, as much as we would wish it otherwise, the complexity of climate change negotiations and the annual nature of these meetings necessarily means that some conferences will serve only to prepare the ground for the next. The first global review which takes place next year will look at the implementation of the Paris Agreement. It might be argued that the use of COP27 to provide a framework for the 2023 review might not be time wasted.
Maybe one of the more valuable aspects of these meetings is that they offer to vulnerable countries, suffering the most from climate change and severe weather events, a platform to speak as equals. The forum is not perfect, but the opportunity to explain the human cost from experience is important.
Of course, behind the fine words, lofty ambition and political rhetoric, there lies an uneasy feeling among the world’s largest economies that when the bill for climate change action is added up, it will be very large, punitive and politically difficult to justify. I mentioned recently that the divisions in the modern climate change debate are driven less by whether we should act and more by how much can we bear. The financial burden, and the need to demonstrate fairness in the national contribution are what keep politicians wary of specific commitments. This will be even more in focus at this week’s event as, for the very first time, funding arrangements for loss or damage suffered due to climate change will be on the agenda.
If we accept the premise that cost is key, then this research from the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford may be both timely and encouraging. The research, published in Joule this week, suggests that decarbonising our energy systems by 2050 could, in contrast to the prevailing theory of significant cost and economic disruption, save the world in the region of $12 trillion.
The paper details a scenario in which a transition to nearly 100% clean energy by 2050 results in lower energy system costs than a fossil fuel system. Additionally, the statistics suggest that this outcome would provide more energy to the global economy and expand energy access to more people around the world. The study’s ‘Fast Transition’ scenario outlines a future in which a near fossil-free energy system provides 55% more energy services globally than today. This involves large amounts of wind, solar, batteries, electric vehicles, and clean fuels such as green hydrogen (made from renewable electricity).
No doubt there will already be work going on to challenge the research, and those whose interests are not served by its conclusions are unlikely to remain silent. However, let’s take some consolation from the articulation of the possible, and be grateful that there are people working on credible solutions to complex problems for the greater good.
And, if we are tempted to believe that international talks such as COP 27 have no value, let’s just remember that in the 1970s, the predicted global temperature rise by 2100 was c. 4°C, and while the pace of positive change needs to increase, abandoning the one dedicated global forum we have is unlikely to improve our chances of achieving that.
COP 27 runs from today until 18th November – the latest updates are available on the official UN site - https://unfccc.int/cop27
"The world is facing a simultaneous inflation crisis, national security crisis, and climate crisis, all caused by our dependence on high cost, insecure, polluting, fossil fuels with volatile prices. This study shows that ambitious policies to dramatically accelerate the transition to a clean energy future as quickly as possible are not only urgently needed for climate reasons, but can save the world trillions in future energy costs, giving us a cleaner, cheaper, more energy secure future."