In the run-up to November’s Cop26 conference, four recent publications illustrate just how difficult it is to tackle climate change.
The technical solutions are well-understood and gaining in maturity all the time. The problem, as it has been since the start, is with the politics.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s eagerly-anticipated new report, released early last month, emphasised the ever-growing confidence in the urgent warnings from climate science. Denmark and Costa Rica announced an alliance, which they hope others will join, to end fossil fuel production.
The head of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol, and Iraqi finance minister Ali Allawi, co-wrote an article in The Guardian on Wednesday arguing that oil-producing states need assistance in decarbonising. Meanwhile, Nigeria's vice president Yemi Osinbajo wrote in Foreign Affairs that the push for immediate divestment from oil and gas is harmful for Africa.
Yet despite all these alarms, global greenhouse gas emissions, which fell 6 per cent during last year’s lockdowns, are expected to rise 3 per cent this year. To be on the path of the Paris Agreement, greenhouse gas releases should be falling 7.6 per cent annually.
The ever-growing frustration of climate scientists, policymakers and activists in the face of clear warnings of growing perils is understandable. We do not have all the solutions for net-zero carbon by 2050, but we have more than enough to make major advances this decade. Yet actual progress in reducing emissions lags far behind what is required.
This situation is entirely political. In the early 1990s during negotiations over the Kyoto Protocol, concerns were that developing countries were not taking on any binding commitments, and conversely, that developed countries were not taking their historical responsibility seriously enough to provide climate finance and technology.
With the rise of China, India and Middle Eastern petroleum exporters as economic powerhouses, that dichotomy has faded. Now international rivalries intervene. Current and potential petroleum producers see their path to prosperity blocked as they are expected to sacrifice for a greater good they may not enjoy.
The problem is that exhortations to action and statements about what countries, corporations and individuals “should” do lack an appreciation of how to bring this about politically.
Even the largest nations can individually only make a small dent in the climate problem, while preserving their own competitiveness. Unilateral action is constrained by a few deliberate spoilers and many more free-riders in the international arena.
Companies’ freedom of action is even more constrained. They are responsible to shareholders and have to be at least minimally profitable to stay in business. Apart from a few pioneers in specific climate-friendly technologies, none can get too far ahead of the pack. Still, this does not excuse individual lobbying and disinformation against climate action.
Individuals are in the hardest position. The rather lame excuses proffered by Extinction Rebellion activists for driving petrol cars or flying to Costa Rica highlight hypocrisy. But they also show how difficult a “normal” and yet low-carbon middle-class lifestyle is.
Much of the climate debate, couched in scientific and economic principles, is actually about power. This is particularly so in a few Western countries where global warming has become just another front in the tediously negative culture wars.
In a sudden conversion away from their supposed pro-market principles, several US states and Australia are trying to rig the game in favour of coal and gas-fired electricity plants whose financial viability is undermined by low-cost renewables.
Conversely, environmental activists reject any part of the climate solution – nuclear power, carbon capture and storage, hydrogen – that does not fit an ideologically-approved narrative. The problem for them is not that fossil fuel companies emit carbon dioxide; it is that they exist.
These internal political quagmires infect international relations too. Several advanced democracies, including the US, cannot persuade large parts of their population to take a free vaccine against a deadly disease.
And while certain countries’ pandemic responses have been well-organised, the overall international response has been shambolic. The same is true of the response to other crises of recent times, such as the Syrian civil war and its refugees. Freer trade, the rare positive-sum game, is in reverse.
The US cannot credibly commit to a course of action from one election to the next, whether over the Paris Agreement, Iran or fighting the Taliban. The UK has squandered much of its diplomatic credibility over Brexit. The EU lacks appreciation of blending hard power with its undeniable regulatory influence. Moscow and Beijing are widely mistrusted.
This is not promising for the response to an ever-intensifying, complex and multifarious challenge, which itself spawns many sub-crises. Yet domestic and international politics are not going to change radically on demand – that is an even longer, harder and less predictable task than fixing the climate.
There are two ways forward. One is to give the three-decade path of negotiation and co-operation sharper teeth. That means climate clubs that reward low-emitters with finance, technology and market access, give oil producers viable non-polluting options and make those on the outside envious with measures such as carbon tariffs.
The other is to harness competition, as the Cold War did for space. The climate, energy and economics strategies of President Biden, the EU’s “Fit for 55” and Xi Jinping’s China all see green technologies as the key. Solar panels and electric cars move from virtuous signs of tree-huggers to matters of national security, patriotism and profit.
These approaches are not tidy or morally satisfying. The Cop26 talks in Glasgow should yield further co-operation. But to achieve anything like the required pace, nations and companies need to harness politics to compel action.
Robin Mills is chief executive of Qamar Energy and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis