COP26 in Glasgow has ended in the manner largely predicted at the outset: with an ambiguously worded ‘Glasgow Pact’ containing little of substance. Being a pact and not a treaty it avoids any need for ratification by the US Senate which would end in a rejection humiliating for President Biden (the Senate requires a two-thirds for ratification of a treaty and had voted 95-0 in a resolution indicating it would not ratify a treaty, like Kyoto, unless it imposed binding commitments on developing countries).
The International Energy Agency considered that the Nationally Determined Contributions agreed would probably limit post-industrial revolution increases to 1.8°C but these claims rely on models that have proven to be inaccurate, and do not engender great faith that they will be any more accurate in future.
Australia’s current target, submitted as part of the Paris Agreement, is for a 26-28 per cent reduction on 2005 emission levels by 2030, but the government’s projections show a reduction of up to 35 per cent will be reached and it has also specified some low emissions technology ‘stretch targets’. Nevertheless we are constantly excoriated as climate laggards, and were again in Glasgow, being given the ‘Colossal Fossil’ award in one of the many stunts pulled by those who seem to be stuck in a kind of undergraduate student politics. (They also deflated the tyres of about 40 SUVs in Glasgow, though it is unsure how they thought this might help consensus).
There were numerous undertakings given that more commitments will be made at COP27 at Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt and COP28 in the United Arab Emirates which, perhaps ironically, are considerably warmer venues than Glasgow. The ‘last chance’ at Glasgow was the first last chance since the last last chance was not taken, despite the presence of the numerous business leaders and celebrities who flew into Glasgow in 400 private jets. So on to the next last chance, and the one after that.
The presence of the Great and the Good, including Prince Charles, may well have hindered rather than helped progress, as the sight of the extremely affluent preaching to the poorest nations that they must forego the development that made them wealthy was hardly a good message. As Dan Hodges put it in the Daily Mail, ‘A quick photo with Leonardo DiCaprio and the global elite vanished into the Glaswegian night.’ Michael Shellenberger labelled it ‘neo-feudalism’.
As expected, developing countries, led by China and India, gutted attempts by the UK and EU, which have largely exhausted their cheap coal resources, to impose the same disadvantage on them. Their group of 22 ‘Like-Minded Developing Countries’ at one stage even demanded the removal of the whole section on ‘mitigation’ (efforts to slow climate change).
So we are left with something of a ‘Potemkin’ accord that will deliver very little of consequence – which is not a bad thing for Australia, which was able to hide its national interests behind those of China and India, which were joined by Iran and others. Australia actually waved through the penultimate text that called for a ‘phase out’ of ‘unabated’ coal-fired generation, and it was left to India and China to insist that the text be changed to ‘phase down’. Australia was silent during the final plenary.
One of Boris Johnson’s ambitions was ‘Keeping 1.5°C Alive’, which sounds too much the catchphrase of the robot in the 1986 movie ‘Short Circuit’ (‘Number Five is Alive’). This could – at a stretch – be claimed to have been achieved, but nothing actually had changed from Paris after China had insisted on 2.0°C being retained, pointing out that to remove it and shift to a single 1.5°C target would break the existing consensus. The relevant agreed Articles read that the COP:
20. Reaffirms the Paris Agreement temperature goal of holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels;
21. Recognizes that the impacts of climate change will be much lower at the temperature increase of 1.5 °C compared with 2 °C and resolves to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C;
22. Recognizes that limiting global warming to 1.5 °C requires rapid, deep and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, including reducing global carbon dioxide emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 relative to the 2010 level and to net zero around mid- century, as well as deep reductions in other greenhouse gases.
The EU negotiators were reportedly furious at the last minute changes forced by China, India, and the group of Like-Minded Developing Countries and COP President Alok Sharma teared up when the ‘vulnerable’ developing countries expressed their disappointment at the outcome. But said disappointments reflected less worries about climate impacts than it did the weak commitments by the developed countries to provide financial assistance for mitigation and adaptation, critical context missed by most of the mainstream media. Not only were there no specific commitments in the Pact for future funding, but the whole negotiation took place against the backdrop of the failure of the developing to honour past commitments to provide up US$ 100 billion annually.
The developing countries could hardly be expected to commit to language limiting their sovereignty when the developed countries would not commit to future funding, and had not delivered on past commitments.
The implicit deal of ‘show us the money’ and we’ll give you more was recorded in the text, with the COP recognising ‘that enhanced support for developing country Parties will allow for higher ambition in their actions.’ The compelling nature of the developed world’s case was not helped by US President Biden imploring OPEC to pump more oil to correct for the impact of his own domestic policies to restrict production, nor by the UK having to fire up coal-fired power stations to keep the lights on during the COP with the wind not blowing sufficiently and gas in short supply.
A key here is what is meant by ‘unabated’. Much of the discussion in the past few weeks, including at the OECD, where Australia allowed a similar restriction on export credit finance in October, has assumed that ‘unabated’ means using carbon capture and storage. The dictionary meaning of ‘unabated’ however, is ‘without any reduction in intensity or strength.’
It is not difficult to imagine that China and India will take a liberal interpretation of ‘unabated’ without using CCS technology, which continues to be problematic, and employs technology that ‘reduces the intensity’ of emissions. After all, in December 2020 it commissioned the first Advanced Ultrasupercritical (AUSC) power plant (1350MW Pingshan phase two, pictured constructed by GE.
Would Australia be bold enough to include AUSC in its mix along with renewables and eventually nuclear, especially Small Modular Reactors? If, as seems to be the case, we fear the lack of finance, we should try GE Energy Financial Services.
Pingshan has achieved an efficiency of 49.1%, compared with the average for the existing global coal fleet of 34%. For every 1% improvement in thermal efficiency, there is a reduction of 2-3% in CO2 emissions, so there is a 30-45% mitigation result on offer with this form of mitigation (less with more recent plant). GE has also produced a digital power plant data platform called Predix which allows plant to ramp up and down more readily with variable renewables in the system.
Not only do the climate activists simply ignore China in all this, but they give Europe a free pass. Under Paris, the EU accepted a target of a 40% reduction – but based on the 1990 base year that advantages them because of the collapse of Communism. Like the UK, the EU and has benefited from closing uneconomic coal mines, and the loss of industrial capacity, and took to Glasgow reduction of at least 55% in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to 1990. The trick is in the base year.
Australia has avoided any further major harm, but the COP has been a disaster for Boris Johnson. Before it commenced, there were reports of a rift between him and COP President Alok Sharma (a member of Johnson’s Cabinet), with Sharma reportedly warning Boris to curb his optimism. Boris has now fallen six per cent behind Labour in the opinion polls, with a sleaze scandal admittedly adding to dissatisfaction with the costs of his Net Zero policies (and the perceived hypocrisy of his returning to London by private jet for a reunion dinner with his former journalistic colleagues).
Boris is not the only loser. Prince Charles’s authority has surely been weakened, especially in Australia, after his foray into climate politics – conduct unbecoming the future holder of the Crown in a constitutional monarchy.
But perhaps the biggest loser has been science, which has been debased in the mistaken belief that the more frightening the scientific discourse, the more likely extreme policy measures will be agreed to. The worst example is probably the insertion into the Summary for Policy Makers released in time for the COP of a new hockey stick, attempting to suggest that human factors are the only source of climate change. (as discussed by IPA Senior Fellow, John Abbot, read here).
But it is not the only example. Evidence that the risk of death from extreme weather events over the past century has declined by 99%, or the finding that coral atolls are growing rather than drowning are but two further examples.
Let me conclude by again citing Mary Douglas, who I quoted in my Bulletin on 10 November: ‘When science is used to arbitrate in these conditions, it eventually loses its independent status, and like other high priests who mix politics with ritual, finally disqualifies itself.’
Aynsley Kellow is Professor Emeritus of Government, University of Tasmania, and was a Special Correspondent for the Institute of Public Affairs during COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021. This is his contribution to the IPA’s daily COP26 Bulletin. You can subscribe to further climate updates from the IPA here.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.