A massive opportunity was missed in Glasgow, says Tim Harris, Leyton and Wanstead CLP.
Hundreds of millions were looking to COP26 to agree the drastic programme needed to rapidly cut CO2 and methane emissions. That action is vital if global temperatures are to be limited to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels – and so avoid the worst impacts of climate chaos. Like me, those people will now be angrily disappointed.
Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, did not mince her words: “People will see this as a historically shameful dereliction of duty.” Ed Milliband’s more sober but still damning response was that “There is a chasm now between where we need to be – and where we are.”
The failure of Glasgow represents a betrayal of the Global South, a betrayal of the world’s poor – north and south – and a betrayal of the young and future generations.
In 2009, rich nations promised that by 2020 they would provide $100bn a year to poor and vulnerable countries to help mitigate the effects of climate change and to decarbonise. Even this inadequate commitment wasn’t achieved, with the figure reaching $80bn by 2019 and talk now of finally hitting the target in 2022 or 2023. Incidentally, this is mostly loans, not grants. And to put the figure in context, the personal wealth of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos is $500bn.
In the past 20 years, extreme weather events have killed more than half a million people. So, where’s the urgency? One can forgive the Global South for feeling that they’ve been abandoned. The COP26 ‘Glasgow Pact’ agreed a ‘phase-down’ of unabated (ie. without carbon capture) emissions from coal and the phasing out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.
There are so many holes in this as to render it meaningless. How much will be phased out, and by when? What does phase down even mean? And how will any of this be enforced? About 40 countries agreed to phase out coal, but absentees from that list are responsible for 70% of global emissions.
Forests are vital for natural carbon capture and for biodiversity. More than 100 countries – representing 85% of the world’s forests – have agreed to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030, welcome indeed. Brazil’s Bolsonaro promised to end illegal deforestation by 2030, but what about the legal destruction of the Amazon rainforest? And what’s to stop an acceleration of slash and burn before the moratorium is introduced?
Of course, it’s good to hear about pledges to reduce methane emissions by 30% by 2030, introduce zero-emission maritime routes, and agree to more investment in renewables. But will these pledges be honoured? More than 30 countries committed to stopping the sale of non-electric vehicles by at least 2040. But the US, Germany, and China were not on the list – three of the top four manufacturers. And while banks are apparently committing large sums of money to aid a sustainable transition, they are also making billion-dollar loans to the fossil fuels industry.
The 2015 Paris Agreement was heralded as a breakthrough. It agreed the 1.5C target, and it agreed in principle that the wealthy nations should provide finance and technology to help the poor and vulnerable.
Yet the reality is that both CO2 emissions and the concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases were greater in 2019 than they were in 2015 – and Earth’s atmosphere continued to warm. Vague commitments and general principles are always trumped by ‘national interests’ and profits.
A global crisis demands global solutions. Getting world leaders to agree a mealy-mouthed deal doesn’t come close. The barriers of the nation-state (economic and political rivalries between countries) and private ownership (just 100 private and a few state-owned companies are responsible for 70% of global emissions) have proved to be enormous obstacles for finding sustainable solutions. The Climate Action Tracker (a coalition of climate analysts) estimates that Earth is on course for an increase of at least 2.4C. This would be catastrophic for humanity.
Socialists can’t divorce environmental issues from class, poverty, and justice. A just transition is crucial at two levels. Workers in those heavy industries highly dependent on carbon – power, steel, cement, and chemicals, for example – will only come on board if they know they won’t lose their livelihoods, so they need a guarantee of retraining and properly paid jobs after any technology transformation. The unions must be involved at every stage in this.
Otherwise, workers will look at what happened to coalfield communities after the closure of the pits. As TUC Deputy General Secretary Paul Nowak said: “World leaders need a plan to take home that working people can get behind. A plan that protects jobs, livelihoods and rights every step of the way to net zero. That’s the key to unlocking the public support across the world needed for rapid progress.”
A just transition is also important for the millions of us who depend on fossil fuels to heat our homes – because without subsidies we won’t be able to afford the costs of retrofitting and insulation. With the recent energy price cap increase, more than 4.1 million UK households are in fuel poverty. This problem can be resolved with a combination of retrofitting and price-capping. To facilitate this, the big energy companies should be taken into public ownership.
There is good news. A recent poll showed that 72% of UK adults believe climate change is due to human activity, twice the figure in 2011. Internationally, huge numbers of young people have engaged in the movement for sustainable change, from Nigeria to Mexico, Kenya to Germany. A genuine global movement has built from the ground up. And the unions are contributing more than ever.
The technology to provide more clean and renewable energy is advancing all the time. With more investment – in such things as green hydrogen, geothermal and tidal energy, and grid connectivity – much of the energy gap could be filled very quickly.
But there needs to be the political will to make this investment. Where political parties don’t have the desire or the courage to campaign, unions and social movements will take the lead.
One final positive is that the Labour Party has excellent policy, passed at this year’s conference. But our leaders can’t afford to pretend it doesn’t exist – on the basis it’s unpopular with the energy companies or that focus groups say it puts off voters. If sold in the right way, as a package that will create hundreds of thousands of good skilled jobs, as well as cleaning and decarbonising the UK, it would be a massive vote winner and expose Tory greenwashing for what it is.