Tokyo dawn,photo by Juha Uitto
COP26 is about to start in Scotland and thousands of government and civil society representatives, international organization and private sector types, scientists, journalists, and hangers-on are descending upon the city of Glasgow while the pandemic is still ongoing. In fact, the accommodations in town and its surroundings are already so overbooked that many participants have to stay in Edinburgh, some 40 minutes’ train ride away.
The gathering is the 26th Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the hopes are high that, finally, the world leaders will take decisive action to halt global warming. Under President Joe Biden, the Americans are back with a vengeance and UK as the host nation is talking up the game. China, which has surpassed the US as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases (although on per capita basis it is still at a much lower level) has announced ambitious plans that fossil fuels will constitute less than 20% of its energy mix by 2060.
Climate change is real and its impacts are already being felt by the majority of the planet’s population, not least in small islands and places like Bangladesh with low-lying coasts. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) latest assessment gives humanity a dire warning: we have until the end of the decade to mend our ways, lest runaway climate change wreaks havoc on the planet and its inhabitants. Source.
Mind you, the havoc is not anymore in the distant future. In the past couple of years we’ve seen devastating wildfires in Australia, Siberia and the US West Coast. Some of the wealthiest parts of the planet are running out of water, threatening California’s famed citrus groves and forcing cities to ration water. Unprecedented floods took Germany and much of Central Europe by surprise this summer and also caused huge damages in China. Heatwaves are killing people and storms are destroying infrastructure and causing frequent power outages even in places like Texas.
So, surely our leaders see the writing on the wall and will take decisive action. Well, don’t bet your money on it. The hopes were equally high at another climate meeting in Copenhagen twelve years ago where the rich nations promised to deliver US$100 billion a year to combat climate change but little came out of it. Source.
How is it possible, you are asking? Citizens are increasingly concerned and young people are getting literally sick with climate anxiety. Source. Don’t our democratically elected leaders know? Or don’t they care? They know, for sure, and some may even care but there are forces too strong to resist. Of course, big businesses, not least the fossil fuel industry but others as well, continue to spend tremendous amounts of money to spread misinformation and sow the seeds of doubt — and to lobby and provide campaign contributions to politicians without which, at least in the United States, a politician doesn’t stand a chance to get elected or re-elected (in most European countries, such contributions would fall squarely into the category of criminal corruption).
The political decisionmakers in capital cities, as important as they are, can’t do everything. We need action on multiple fronts. The subsidies that governments give to environmentally destructive activities, notably fossil fuels and industrial-scale agriculture that leads to massive deforestation, are magnitudes larger than the moneys they promise (let alone deliver) to fight climate change. The IMF estimates that the global fossil fuel subsidies were US$5.9 trillion in 2020 (about 6.8% of global GDP) and expected to rise to 7.4% of GDP in 2025. Source.
Removing these subsidies and ensuring policy coherence so that environmental policy wouldn’t be there just to patch up the damage done by other sectors would be most important.
Very importantly, we also need to invest in technological solutions to mitigate climate change. These technologies include, obviously, renewable energy and energy efficiency-related ones, but there are many more possible avenues to explore. Many environmentalists tend to emphasize the risks associated with such new technologies, but can we really afford not to include them in the mix?
But it’s also all of us: the citizens — or more accurately, consumers. In the summer of 2020 when the pandemic was still new — oh, how long ago that feels now — there was a growing feeling that maybe this calamity could teach us something. Something about our values, about what is important in life. We realized that our priorities had been misplaced. Getting those new clothes or going on that vacation wasn’t the meaning of life. Sheltering in place, concerned about the health and wellbeing of our loved ones and ourselves, worried about our job security, we missed our friends and families and recognized some inner emptiness.
But that was a lifetime ago. The pandemic lasted too long (actually, it isn’t over yet, as much as we pretend it is) and we got bored. The malls and restaurants opened again. Airplanes started to take off again. Some of us didn’t lose our jobs, after all, or figured out a way to survive without a regular pay-check. So it’s party time — and shopping time! In the US, consumer spending increased by 12% in the second quarter of 2021. Our greatest worry now is not a virus, but bottlenecks in supply chains that prevent us from having everything we want as quickly and cheaply as we want it. After all, we deserve it, after the terrible lockdown.
We are told that to combat climate change, we have to make sacrifices. Many environmental activists urge us to stop driving and flying, stop consuming meat because industrial-scale cattle ranching is a leading cause of tropical deforestation (alongside soybeans and palm oil, the latter of which is ubiquitous in our daily lives). This doesn’t of course apply only to everyone in London and Los Angeles, Helsinki and Hamburg. It would be equally important for the people in Chengdu and Chongqing who have just recently become rich enough to add meat to their poor diets. And in Ulaanbaatar where they, in their harsh climate, have for generations fed themselves with meat from the yak, horses, sheep. If you take that away, it’s pretty much potatoes that’s left for them.
Let’s get real. The truth is, even if everyone on the planet suddenly — and highly improbably — turned vegan, it won’t stop climate change. We’re not going to stop flying either, as witnessed by the case of the thousands who are flying to Glasgow for the climate meetings. Then there are all the poor people in the world, both in the global South and the North, who cannot reasonably be expected to make any sacrifices. Putting the onus on individuals to stop climate change and environmental degradation is both ineffective and unfair. To quote the MacArthur Fellow Saul Griffith, “People want to see themselves in the solution, but not at the expense of sacrificing the things they love and the conveniences of modern life.” Source. The importance lies in changing the mindsets, so that people demand change in the system.
We should, of course, fly less than we used to. In 2019, before the pandemic, there were 3 billion airline passengers in the world (naturally, many of them frequent fliers). That is an obscene number. The only way we can reduce it is by raising prices, to reflect the real costs, of unsubsidized fuel and internalized environmental costs. But then flying would again become the privilege of the wealthy, like it used to be. But it seems that it has become a human right for anyone that can scrape together a few dollars or euro for a discount ticket to crowd to an airport and fight over an ever-shrinking seat in a pressurized tube hurtling through the skies for a weekend of fun. A human right, just like the 4-dollar t-shirt and 12-dollar jeans produced by a brown woman near-blind by the age of 25 from bad lighting and toxic fumes.
Which brings me to environmental justice. Climate impacts — just like the impacts of the pandemic — hit first and hardest the least privileged among us. Those living in the developing countries with fewest resources and opportunities. The same people who crowd at the US southern border with Mexico or who try to find a passage to Europe from Africa and the Middle East. In the rich countries, too, the ones at the bottom of the social and economic pyramid are the hardest hit. There is no doubt that climate change and environmental degradation have a social justice dimension.
But addressing the environmental justice issue is not going to stop the climate from changing, like some activists would have us believe. Even if we taxed the rich heavily, as we should (in a globalized world, this would require global coordination and concerted action by every country), there are still more than 2 billion people living in abject poverty in the world. Their number may have increased by as many as 150 million because of the pandemic. Lifting their incomes so that they can consume adequately for a dignified life must be a priority.
Kate Raworth has put forth the attractive model of doughnut economics, which places all humanity within an acceptable range in terms of standard of living. Source. No-one is left in the doughnut hole, while no-one should be allowed to consume beyond the outer layer of the ring. But with 8 billion people, and counting, on the planet, this still puts huge strains on the environment, especially at current technological levels.
Of course, we must measure wealth differently. Gross Domestic Product, GDP, is most outdated and most destructive a meter, given that it doesn’t give any value to the natural environment, except as raw material even if it is depleted, and hardly any to social capital. The Dasgupta Review published by the UK Government earlier this year makes this fundamental failure in economic thinking clear and calls for integrating nature into the economic calculus. Source. Irrespective of how we measure wealth, however, a dignified human life requires resources and energy, for food, for shelter, for mobility, for stimulation.
Energy is a critical factor. It is needed for all human endeavors: for construction, transportation, heating, cooling, manufacturing. The Internet uses extraordinary amounts of energy, as do all appliances that we have at home and in our pockets. Cryptocurrencies are extremely destructive in their energy use, to the point that China banned their mining. Source. There have been decades of promises of how solar and wind energy will provide abundant cheap and clean energy, but despite sinking costs this has not yet taken off at adequate scale. Partly it is due to continued fossil fuel subsidies, but not entirely. Still the advances in renewable energies have been remarkable. Much more technological advances will be needed in heating and cooling.
Any old way I look at it, there is always something missing in the equation. We have to hope that our leaders, whether democratically elected or not, have the wisdom and courage to take some real steps in Glasgow, which they will follow up with concrete actions afterwards. The best they could do, I believe, would be to agree to remove public subsidies to actions that harm the environment, including fossil fuels and industrial agriculture. This would more than offset the missing finance to climate action.
We all should think twice about our own consumption, minimize waste and act responsibly as citizens. But we can’t leave stopping climate change to individuals. That’s neither possible nor fair, when the system is stacked against us. Furthermore, we can’t expect poor people around the world to stop aspiring to a better life (even if some may consider such aspirations misguided) just because we in the North have overshot our own share of the common good.
And don’t count on a global revolution. It’s not going to happen anytime soon. And if it does, it’s not going to be pretty. It may only happen because of too many people dying of climatic hazards and conflicts. Anyway, where revolutions have taken place in the past, the results have been at best mixed. Russia and China today are among the most polluted countries in the world. China at least is actively trying to do something about it and may have a decent chance, not least because it can mobilize its resources behind a unified cause under state leadership.
The only way out of this mess is, I believe, through mobilizing all means towards mitigating climate change, adapting to it, and enhancing society’s and people’s resilience against its impacts.
Which brings me back to technology. Many environmentalists are inherently skeptical about technological solutions, whether they be carbon capture or geoengineering or, of course, nuclear energy. It is true that there are risks involved and some of the risks may be severe. These have to be studied carefully and any technologies have to be deployed judiciously. Concerns about the risks are entirely legitimate but at the same time we know the risks of not addressing climate change and environmental degradation.
Some of the objections are more of an ethical nature, as if taking technological solutions to climate change somehow absolved humanity from its sins. As if having a good life and consuming energy in themselves were a moral hazard, even if they didn’t result in environmental damage. Are we better people if we wash our hair with cold water? This type of logic appeals to the converted but risks pushing away many others.
Morals aside, the bottom line is that behavior change even if it were to happen globally and immediately (which is not likely) will not save the planet. Nor will the Nationally Determined Voluntary Contributions towards the Paris Agreement goals, even if all countries lived up to their promises (which they are unlike to do). Source.
To give us the best chance to a decent future we need advanced technologies in the mix. And we urgently need investments in research and development. Such investments will require public-private partnerships and financing through tax revenues from both corporations and individuals. Those are the kinds of sacrifices we need to make for our common future. It’s too late to rely on one set of strategies alone.
Note: This article was originally posted on Medium on October 25, 2021. The author gave persmission to Earth-Eval to repost.