Talking the Talk But Not Walking the Walk on Climate Change
Are you holding your government to account?
Climate change remains a political football that wins votes, appeases the growing voices demanding strong responses and is seldom out of the news. You could almost think national governments and political blocks, such as the European Union, are getting their act together to stop this global catastrophe.
Have you ever questioned what your government is doing? No?
You should be worried — and here’s why.
Every element with a stake in global environmental politics has got their eye on 1 November this year and the start of the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties, or COP26.
The recent glut of commitments and rhetoric supporting global climate action has the feel of students rushing to cram in their revision before the exam starts, knowing they’ve left it too late to give a decent performance. There’s plenty of “talking the talk” but how much actual “walking the walk” to tackle the climate catastrophe is taking place?
What is your country promising?
The biggest recent marker in the sand of climate change is the Paris Climate Agreement, described as a:
“Legally binding international treaty on climate change. It was adopted by 196 Parties at COP 21 in Paris, on 12 December 2015 and entered into force on 4 November 2016.”
The chances are your country is one of the signatories, but the questions being asked about the global responses to this “legally binding” treaty are on the rise.
The 2021 Climate Change Performance Index, tracking how countries are tackling the climate crisis, stated last December:
“This year, through our different indicators, we see that no country is yet on track to avoid dangerous climate change.”
Further, UN Climate Change published a synthesis of the climate change ambitions based on “new or updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs)” submitted to the UNCC. Their assessment is:
“Nations must redouble their climate efforts if they are to reach the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global temperature rise by 2C — ideally 1.5C — by the end of the century.”
Let’s look a look at a few examples of these stated ambitions.
- India’s commitment is to lower emissions by 33–35% by 2030
- The UK vows “to outdo other economies” with a 68% emissions reduction compared to those in 1990
- The USA will cut their emissions by 50–52% compared to its 2005 output
- The EU will cut global carbon emissions by 55% compared to 1990 levels
This is all sounds positive and proactive, doesn’t it? So why should we worry?
Only talking the talk
We need to go a little deeper and beyond the rhetoric of these commitments and examine the domestic activities sitting alongside efforts to decarbonize.
Despite India’s ambitious carbon reduction and renewable energy targets, recent years have seen a surge of fossil fuel corporations targeting this lucrative market. Companies including Shell, Vedanta, Rosneft, Aramco-ADNOC and Novatek are all staking a claim to India’s energy economy.
Not only is this a profitable enterprise for these companies, but is helping India bolster its pandemic-hit economy with hefty taxation on fossil fuels. Perhaps the intention is to deter fossil fuel investment in favour of renewable energies, but government officials confirm: “The excise duty rates have been calibrated to generate resources for infrastructure and other developmental items of expenditure keeping in view the present fiscal position.”
This position will only push India further away from its climate pledges.
COP26 is taking place in Glasgow in November and being chaired by the UK’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who last month called for world leaders to “get serious” and bring ambitious plans to the summit. Mr Johnson has also been talking up his government’s “green leadership” in tackling climate challenges.
Perhaps then, he can explain how his government did not first oppose the plans for opening a new coal mine in Cumbria. The relevant Minister deciding the “mine did not conflict with national policy and was a local matter.” Only following considerable public pressure and criticism was a public enquiry called.
Dr Simon Carr from the University of Cumbria says the opening of a new coal mine is “completely incompatible with the UK’s climate pledges. If this goes ahead, each job that will be created has been estimated to result in 18,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year.”
My prediction is this won’t take place or conclude until after COP26, at which point they will be permitted to continue. We will see.
Then we can add:
- Infrastructure — including a £27bn roads programme
- Peat emissions — the UK’s largest store of carbon — “country landowners” (i.e. Conservative Party voters) are protesting against reduction policies and slowing down government action
- Environmental Bill — no sign of this “flagship legislation” yet
The list goes on. Do you consider this “green leadership”?
President Biden is turning the clock back on Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, but can the new administration meet its stated aims?
The US has two major problems to overcome.
- Making up for the four years lost under the Trump administration and its climate change denial position.
- In 2018, the revenue of the US oil and gas industry was about $181bn. That’s a lot of jobs, wealthy corporations and voters with a financial and emotional investment in the fossil fuel industry to convince.
Biden’s £2tn infrastructure plan looks impressive and surpasses any previous commitments to address environmental issues. Yet, progressive critics such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez argue this is still too short of what’s needed for a significant impact on global warming.
The European Union
EU Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, launched the block’s European Green Deal — a €1tn plan over 10-years. Commentators have been keen to pick holes in this plan. Not least that a report commissioned by the EU itself estimated €260bn per year needed to meet its climate targets.
The same critics also question the EU’s motives and whether green action sits anywhere near the top of its priorities. Following the financial crash of 2008 and subsequent destabilization across Europe, the EU bailed out financial institutions to the tune of €4.2tn. Whereas, the value of a global climate emergency and impending catastrophe is worth just €1tn. Interesting.
Environmental groups such as Greenpeace also highlight funds are likely to go to countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic that are not committing to EU climate action agreements or timescales for reducing and stopping fossil fuel use.
There is also an irony that extends beyond the EU. The very companies contributing so much to the crisis we all face are now positioning themselves as the solution. Within the union, the €750bn post-pandemic recovery fund is seeing corporations such as Shell, BP and Total taking this stance.
This feels like a pub having an Alcoholics Anonymous booth sat in one corner!
We know the risks, so what’s the holdup?
Different countries have their cultural reasons not to address the global crisis. America has built its economy on the oil industry. The Indian government is more concerned with growing its economy than the welfare of its citizens. And the EU is safeguarding its major financial institutions.
As a UK resident, we have other factors to weigh up.
- The oil industry has received £2.3bn in tax breaks since 2015 — despite the billions they make in profits — to incentivise them not to move out of the UK economy and threaten job losses
- The gas industry is very effective at lobbying the government and influencing policy, with previous politicians now working within some of these companies
- The Conservative Party continues to receive party donations from fossil fuel companies. Estimates put 94% of party donations over almost 20 years as from companies lobbying against climate change.
Is it any wonder with so many conflicts of interest across most states or geographic blocks we see the continual sidelining of real climate action and commitments?
I predict the stated ambitions and rhetoric will ramp up the closer we get to COP26. And it won’t just be the UK looking to “outdo other economies”. Expect lots of smiles, pats on the back and bold words in November.
But pay close attention to what happens when the doors close on the summit and remember this. Countries are scrambling to meet the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warning on not exceeding global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.
If we do limit climate rise to this level by 2030, we can still enjoy extreme droughts, storms, wildfires and deadly heatwaves. If this isn’t the future you want, speak up and let your government know what you think of their plans.