Analysis of COP26 by West Berkshire residents and experts

So, COP26 is over, producing reactions ranging from qualified optimism to outright despair. The final communiqué was bedevilled by eleventh-hour disagreements, mainly about coal, led by China and India (which, according to Statistica, between them accounted for two out of every three tonnes of coal consumed worldwide in 2020). Most of the invitees, with some notable exceptions, did at least turn up.

The main and unsurprising problem seems to be that countries still see their own interests as trumping those of the world as a whole. The level of co-operation required has never been attempted before although the Mia Mottley the Prime Minister of Barbados compared it to the creation of the UN in 1945. If Covid hadn’t happened, the national self-interest might have been even stronger. Both Covid and climate change have showed governments that there are some threats that razor wire, national firewalls and oceans can’t keep out.

Countless words have already been written about the event and many more will follow. We all have our theories. Rather than indulge in  these, I thought it worth soliciting opinions from our district. I’ve had opinions from seven people – West Berkshire Council’s (WBC’s) environment portfolio holder; WBC’s shadow portfolio holders for the Lib Dems and the Greens; a climate-change scientist; a town councillor who is also involved in a local action group (though speaking in a personal capacity); the MD of a local company that seeks to encourage the wider use of hydrogen as a fuel; and a university student (also one of my sons) who attended the event.

What was agreed?

Before we kick off, it’s worth reflecting on what was actually agreed by the end of COP26.

This article in iNews summarised them as:

  • cutting emissions (though not by as much as many hoped);
  • reducing coal and fossil-fuel usage (including the commitment to “accelerate efforts towards the phase down of unabated [plants which don’t have carbon capture and storage] coal power,” a phrase which is open to several interpretations);
  • climate-change contributions from the richer countries (£100bn – less than 0.1% of the world’s GDP – is the long-standing target but this hasn’t been met);
  • adaption funding (to help countries become more resilient); compensation from richer countries to poorer ones which have suffered (which hasn’t so far been agreed);
  • emissions reporting (which iNews describes as “the hidden victory of Glasgow”);and
  • agreeing rules for carbon trading (which some feel is a complex way by which polluters can carry on as before).

A mixed bag, then.

Issues, urgency and expectations

“If nothing else,” WBC’s Lib Dem spokesperson Adrian Abbs observed, “COP26 has given us two weeks of focus on what the issues actually are.” He ‘s right that there were many issues but, in the opinion of Dr Mike Morecroft, Principal Specialist for Climate Change at Natural England, there are only two ways actual results can be measured: “if the rise in greenhouse gas emissions has been halted and if the risks to people and nature have been reduced. Did COP take us forward towards those objectives? Yes, it did. Did it take us forward far enough and fast enough, if we are to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees? No, it didn’t.”

WBC’s environment portfolio holder Steve Ardagh-Walter broadly agreed, talking about “encouraging elements (including agreements on methane, deforestation and green finance) and disappointing ones (including non-attendance of key leaders, limited progress away from coal, and the increasing risk that global temperatures will rise by more than 1.5 degrees.” WBC’s Green Party spokesperson Steve Masters took a more pessimistic view. “What we got,” he said, “was crocodile tears and mealy-mouthed platitudes from politicians from the global north saying how well they had done. They fool themselves, and try to fool the world, into believing that COP has delivered any hope of keeping things under control.”

John Downe (a Hungerford Town Councillor and member of the Hungerford Environmental Action Team (HEAT), but talking to us solely in a personal capacity) expressed similar sentiments. “It’s hard to feel,” he suggested, “that the world has really got anywhere close to achieving what the climate scientists and others are convinced we need to do as a matter of extreme urgency.” Adam Quinn, a 20-year-old film student in Bristol, attended the event, along with a large number of young people, because he was “fed up with the lack of action from our leaders.”

On balance, were his fears proved right? Expectations were high, perhaps “unreasonably so” Steve Masters suggested. But surely there were some good things that emerged? It seemed that there were, though few of those I spoke to felt that governments could on their own be relied upon to implement them. As mentioned above, governments are by their nature both representative of merely their own populations and likely to be antagonistic towards each other: total co-operation on all matters would undermine their raison d’être. There are, however, other forces at work which – like Covid and climate change – do not respect national frontiers. Some of these, though often demonised, may prove beneficial here.

Six ways out

One is technology. Steve Ardagh-Walter suggested that this kind of change “can and hopefully will enable a progressively cleaner world which allows more space for nature to recover and flourish.” New approaches and solutions are constantly required, one of which might involve the element that makes up nearly three-quarters of the observable universe (so, no immediate danger of running out of it). “It was great to see so much hydrogen-based technology on show,” said Tom Chicken, Technical Director at Hungerford-based Fuel Cell Systems. “We hope that the demonstration of such proven technologies will encourage the government to follow through on its proposals and invest in the necessary infrastructure.”

Which leads us to our second global and trans-national aspect, finance. Steve Ardagh-Walter said he hoped that “massive levels of investment” would help provide solutions: certainly, if manufacturing a cleaner and greener product becomes profitable, this is what people will do. Steve Masters argues that a more fundamental change is needed: “we need to reshape our economy, move away from infinite growth on a finite planet and reduce our consumption globally as well as individually.”

A third is consumer choice. “China’s current strength is mainly based on having weaponised capitalism,” Adrian Abbs observed. “It has been using that against the rest of the world for decades now. Its weakness, therefore, is that it needs the rest of the world to consume what it produces and it should consequently be open to influence on how it does so.” Steve Ardagh-Walter agreed that change “can be driven by market forces.”

A fourth is the work being done by NGOs, local councils, community groups and individuals. Mike Morecroft spoke of the “energy these are putting in to finding a solution.” John Downe suggested that local councils and pressure groups could do a lot of “nudging” and also says that he sees “personal travel and home energy use as the main areas where we as individuals can make most difference.” Individuals will be motivated by many things, including in Adam Quinn’s experience, “anxiety.” Their reaction will take many forms, ranging from doing nothing and hoping, as Steve Masters put it, “that we can relax as COP26 has ridden to the rescue,” to following John Downe’s advice of “persuading or influencing others in our immediate circle” to do what they can, to lobbying the government to introduce ideas such as the one mentioned by Adrian Abbs, “a labelling scheme where we can tell, at a glance, how sustainably what we are consuming has been created” and to direct action and activism of the kind which is most dramatically exampled by the likes of XR. These tactics have been decried by some. However, it’s worth reflecting that identical tactics were used by the suffragettes just over a century ago in pursuit of an objective with which no rational person would disagree with. Desperate situations call for desperate measures.

The fifth influencer which by-passes the compromised and arguable irrelevant preoccupations of national governments are these action groups. There are many in West Berkshire, including HEAT. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have been with us globally for a long time. XR has recently muscled its way to the front of the crowd. There are others. Adam Quinn was hosted in Glasgow by a grassroots organisation called Green New Deal Rising. His experience of it was meeting and engaging with “a beautifully surprising group of around two hundred incredible people from all over the country.” The organisation itself is “actively campaigning for a Green New Deal Bill. This is a very ambitious economic bill that proposes not only measures to eliminate emissions and secure a sustainable future for this country and the world, but also to secure green jobs for the UK population and to set up publicly owned services for the benefit of our communities.”

Finally, there’s the question of legacy, something which tests large with politicians. “Do we want,” Steve Masters asked, “our grandchildren to ask us why we didn’t do something when we had the chance? Why did you let that chance slip through your fingers?” John Downe hoped that he would like to be able to say to his own grandchildren that “maybe later in life than I should have, I came to understand the need to change my and everyone’s ways, and then made the effort to do so as much as I could.”

The event

What of the COP26 itself? Mike Morecroft, most of whose career has been spent as a climate-change scientist and who is presumably no stranger to such events, spent a week at the heart of the event but admitted that his first impression was of “huge numbers of people of different nationalities, most of them apparently walking at high speed between meeting rooms.” Blah-blah-blah, perhaps. Not that bad, he suggested. “Personally I think it is inspiring and encouraging to see the nations of the world getting together to tackle a common threat to us all; the alternatives to international cooperation and negotiation are extremely bleak.”

Steve Masters, however, pointed out that “there were more delegates from the fossil fuel industry than indigenous peoples, more car manufacturers in the plenary than walking, cycling and even public transport NGOs.” Steve Ardagh-Walter agreed that there was “a huge amount of lobbying” but suggested that “real global progress can’t happen without a process like this: lobbying is an essential part of the process of hammering out compromise.” He added that “it is infinitely better to have an agreement including India and China which refers to a reduction in coal use, rather than a stronger set of words which these two major players had not signed up to.”

Mike Morecroft was grateful at least that COP26 had “thrust climate change into the public and political spotlight, which will be essential to making meaningful progress quickly, following two years in which, understandably, attention of political leaders has been focused elsewhere.” But how long will this attention last? Most politicians can’t concentrate on any one thing for very long. John Downe feared that “it may take even more widespread and more disastrous natural events to occur than we have seen to date” before serious action is taken.

Like all such events, this has been subject to the normal compromises between the nation states which dominate our way of viewing the world. As suggested above, though, there are other forces at work – ranging from personal responsibility to the power of the free market – which can yet prove more powerful. The inherent insularity and mutual antipathy of nation states make them incapable of reacting to a global existential threat. With Covid, science and technology, local and community organisations, pressure groups and personal responsibility played a far more effective role. These need to step forward very quickly now to deal with this bigger and even more serious challenge.

The elephant in the room

There’s one thing I haven’t touched on, and which none of my panel did either: the internet and social media. As in so many cases, its manifest advantages and disadvantages pretty much cancel out. It enables good science, responsible opinions and reasonable propositions to be spread immediately. It also does just the same with what I’m going to call the crazy stuff which includes climate-change deniers. The notorious hacking and selective leaking of documents from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit in 2009 showed how malicious use of the internet (and a sensation-seeking press) can undermine years of work and trash reputations. Climate-change science took years to recover from this. The same kind of thing could happen again. Most of use use the web even more than we did then so we’re even more vulnerable to the lies that it can spread.

It’s too much to expect that the owners of the digital media platforms – who can be numbered on on the fingers of one hand – will be either willing or able to control the vast amount of information, misinformation and disinformation they distribute. However, at least it gives everyone a way of getting involved in something that goes beyond our immediate circle – and if anything qualifies for this then it’s surely climate change. This was impossible even twenty-five years ago. To what use we put such information and influence is down to us.

Adapting a slogan

So: what happens next? If we take this problem seriously, as increasingly we do, we can’t wait for governments to change their preoccupations. We need to re-invent our own attitudes. This conclusion was something that all the people to whom I spoke shared. All are in their political, scientific, municipal, commercial or activist roles because they believe – with varying degrees of optimism – that a solution can be found. Steve Masters is right in saying that a lot of individual effort is diminished “when nothing changes from the top.” Steve Ardagh-Walter effectively agreed when he pointed to “the actions and decisions that governments, businesses and individuals” will need to be different as a result of COP26. So too did Adrian Abbs when he hoped that “a lot of countries would follow through on their verbal commitments. It gives me some hope.” Governments remain important but we can’t rely soley on their decisions and legislation.

It’s appropriate that the last word should come from the youngest contributor to this as it’s his generation that will feel the results of what action we take or decide not to take over the next few years. “There were things I learned from my visit to COP26,” Adam Quinn said. “The first is that connecting with like-minded people is a good thing. The second is that you don’t need to be an activist to get involved in activism. The third is that we should all do as much as we think we can. As our Amazon-burning friends at Tesco say, ‘every little helps.'”

 

Brian Quinn

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Covering: Hungerford, Marlborough, Wantage,   Lambourn, Newbury, Thatcham & Theale