King coal is dead, long live king coal! That might be a fitting epitaph for COP26, which mercifully ended last Friday. It culminated with an agreement, which had not so much been watered down as to have virtually evaporated. Fossil fuels, it seems, are here for the foreseeable.
What went wrong? That’s a question the ‘deeply frustrated’ COP26 president Alok Sharma might well be asking himself. He appeared to be close to tears at the denouement of the negotiations, pushed to emotional extremis by the last-minute wrangling over a single word: should we commit ourselves to phase out our use of coal, or phase- down our use of coal.
To the distress of ‘no drama’ Sharma, it was phase down that won the day, thanks to hardball negotiating from India, China, South Africa and Iran. All anyone will now have to do, it seems, in order to fulfil the commitment they signed up to in Glasgow, is to promise to use slightly less coal in the future.
We shouldn’t perhaps be surprised by this outcome. It is hard not to be cynical about a conference that claimed to be saving the earth but ended up just costing the earth. So inconsequential is the final deal that the whole event is more likely to be remembered for its comic elements: of which there were many.
We had Joe Biden falling asleep, Prince Charles’ stumbling, and Greta Thunberg, oddly, joining a chorus of climate sceptics for a rousing singalong. We had Barack Obama believing he was somewhere called the ’Emerald Isles’ and CNN believing the conference was taking place in Edinburgh. Then, to cap it all there was an alleged minor emissions leak (Biden again) in the Kelvingrove museum in the presence of a royal personage.
COP26 combined a Versailles level of decadence, with a Soviet Union level of self-serving hypocrisy. The global elite jetted in, kept well clear of the hoi polio, delivered speeches indistinguishable in content, only in fervour; then flew out again, leaving vapour trails of noxious gases in their wake. The expense, both financially and in terms of emissions was extraordinary. According to the Daily Record, the private jets alone spewed out more Co2 than 1,600 Scots produce in a year.
Where can the intergovernmental environmental movement go from here? The simple answer is to Sharm El-Sheik for COP27; but in the light of the failings of the Glasgow event, which will likely become only more apparent in the months ahead, what form will the event in Egypt take, and in what spirit will it be held?
Perhaps COP27 will be different, with COP26 marking a tipping point in our response to the issue of anthropogenic climate change. Perhaps the Glasgow event will be seen in the future in much the same light as the Shah of Iran’s celebration of the 1000th anniversary of the state of Persia – an insanely decadent self-indulgence of an out of touch global elite – and the end of an era.
Maybe we will move away from (or ‘phase down’) the extravagant big name power politics stagecraft, the overheated apocalyptic rhetoric, the ‘do as we say or else tone’, all of which now seems decidedly passe. None of it worked to cajole or intimidate the world’s worst emitters, who had justifiable cause – the need to bring their own people out of poverty – to resist the threats and the scare tactics. That approach seems all played out now. After all, where do you go after threatening people with ‘one minute to midnight’, and failing? As Great Thunberg rightly said, it really was all: ‘blah, blah, blah’.
Future gatherings, if they are in fact needed, should be smaller, leaner, and both more exclusive and more inclusive.
Exclusive in the sense that only people with a genuine contribution to make, or the power to effect change, should be included. That means no royalty, of the real, celebrity, or pseudo variety. Those with no specific role, and no specialist knowledge – such as Scotland’s first Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who behaved at COP26 like a star struck groupie who’d bagged a backstage pass at Glastonbury – should stay away.
Inclusive in terms of the scientific community: what kind of conference is it that invites only people with one viewpoint? It may be a lost cause to expect invites for distinguished sceptics, such as Ivar Giaever, or William Happer, or Patrick Moore, but surely those with more alternate views, and more positive ideas about the way forward, such as Bjorn Lomberg, or Michael Shellenberger are worth a platform?
COP26 had lofty aims. It wanted to make history, in order to avoid tragedy, but what it ended up producing was more like low comedy. Or even farce. If there are to be more such conferences a radical change of perspective is needed. More honesty, humility, and an openness to different viewpoints and global realities needs to be put firmly on the agenda.
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