The world needs the cooperation of the ‘big four’ greenhouse gas emitters – China, the US, India and Russia – to make real progress
Cop26 is almost upon us after weeks of media pump priming, with David Attenborough on TV screens regularly and even the Queen getting in a topical soundbite. Glasgow strikers and Extinction Rebellion demos permitting, the two weeks of hardtalking will start in a couple of weeks.
We are told that “this is the last chance to save the world” eller, som Boris Johnson put it at the United Nations: “A turning point for humanity”. Hyperbole apart, this is an important event involving around 100 heads of government along with corporates and campaigning groups. It will measure the collective seriousness of governments in setting policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to levels compatible with a maximum 1.5 degrees global warming by the end of the century.
What counts as success? And what is failure? Johnson will claim Cop26 as a triumph whatever happens. “We saved the world,” he will say. Greta Thunberg and assorted green groups will pronounce the meeting a failure unless something drastic is agreed. “Too little; for sent,’’ they will say. A communique in impenetrable UN-ese will show both to be right.
Measurement of success is difficult. The discussions will centre on targets – to achieve ambitious emissions reductions by 2030 and to reach net zero emissions globally by 2050. The Cop will have, to hand, national plans – so called NDCs – of varying credibility. But few of today’s participants will be in office, to face the music if they fail. Success will depend on their successors seeing the programmes through.
A key measure of success will be the constructive participation of the four big emitters of greenhouse gases (GHGs): Kina (with around 28 per cent of the global total), the USA (rundt 15 prosent), India (7 prosent) og Russland (mellom 5 og 6 prosent). Between them, they account for almost 60 per cent of the total, though there are substantial contributions from the EU, treated as a whole (8 prosent), og, indirectly, from major exporters of hydrocarbons: Saudi (oil) and Australia (coal and gas).
As China and India forcefully point out, their cumulative contributions, and per capita emissions, are far lower than those of the main developed countries and, hence, their moral obligation less. Men, looking forward, they are crucial.
If the contribution of the “big four” is to be the criterion of success, Cop26 is shaping up to be a serious flop, Of the four, only the heads of government of the United States – and possibly India – have agreed that it is worth their while to turn up.
President Joe Biden and former president Barack Obama will both be there to trumpet American leadership after reversing Donald Trump’s refusal to accept any American responsibility for the climate crisis. They will boast of an ambitious US target of 50 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030 building on progress already made in states like California.
There is a problem, derimot: kongress. The Biden administration’s plans depend on Congressional approval for two Bills whose passage is far from assured. The Democrats’ wafer-thin majority in the Senate has already led to the evisceration of the Clean Energy Performance Programme, with senator Joe Manchin in West Virginia having voiced his opposition. Never mind that Manchin’s state has been shown to be the worst affected by climate crisis-induced flooding. Such is the myopia of US politics.
If both Bills pass, the key measure left will be generous tax credits for renewable power. Critical measures to compel utilities to stop burning oil, coal and gas and instead use solar, wind and nuclear energy will, derimot, be stripped out. The president has also announced generous climate aid for the poorest countries but subject, en gang til, to Congressional approval.
President Vladimir Putin does not have to worry about awkward legislators. Russia has, i teorien, a broad commitment to cut emissions to 70 per cent of current levels by 2030 and to achieve net zero by 2060. But Russia’s overriding concern is that oil and gas are the backbone of the economy. Putin shows no sign of embracing political and economic suicide by abandoning hydrocarbons. Putin is excusing himself from Cop26 because of “Covid risk”.
Covid risk is also one factor behind the expected absence of China’s President Xi Jinping. There are others. China is highly dependent on coal – for around 70 per cent of energy supply. China is struggling to reconcile its environmental undertakings to stop emissions growth by 2030 and reach net zero emissions by 2060, with other objectives. These include sustaining coal-driven economic growth in the face, currently, of power shortages, and maintaining the energy security which coal provides. På plussiden, China has agreed to stop financing overseas coal-based power stations and is introducing carbon pricing at home. But Beijing worries about becoming too green too soon.
Deretter, there is geo-politics: the growing tension between China and the USA and its allies. China will not want to hand a propaganda victory to Britain and the USA in the form of a successful summit. But China has to balance tactical calculations against strategic ambitions to be a global leader on climate change and exporter of electric cars and solar panels. China will probably do enough at Cop26 to avoid being painted as a spoiler while saving serious proposals for a later event at a friendlier venue.
If the China delegation is largely a passive spectator at Glasgow, this will provide cover for other reluctant participants like Saudi Arabia, Australia, Brazil and India. India for example does not consider itself as having a major share of responsibility for emission reduction, as a – still – growing country which depends heavily on coal and is expanding coal power generation. Like the rest of the “awkward squad”, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi will appear for photo opportunities and signing up to platitudes; little more.
If Cop26 flops, it will be with the dull thud of a wet blanket. There will be repercussions in the host country: the UK. Fingers will be pointed: where was Johnson when the arm-twisting diplomacy was required? Where was “det globale Storbritannia” when its aid programme was cut? But the prime minister is unlikely to lose too much sleep at the prospect of a scolding from Ed Miliband and Caroline Lucas. He will still claim to have saved the world, and he probably believes Dominic Cummings’ alleged advice that his “red wall” voters don’t care all that much anyway.
The deeper and more insidious domestic damage is a greater reluctance to take politically unpalatable decisions affecting the long-term shift to a zero-carbon economy. The Treasury’s net-zero review has already provided ammunition to sceptics. Its analysis suggests that the costs of decarbonisation will exceed the economic benefits. Government revenue will take a big hit from the loss of fuel tax, to be replaced by unspecified, unpopular, new taxes. Failures of programmes to decarbonise homes reinforce the sense for some that “it is all too difficult”.
A more optimistic conclusion is that the political ups and downs in a peripheral country accounting for 1 per cent of the world’s population and GHG emissions don’t really matter. And global jamborees are largely irrelevant to the big structural changes which are necessary and are happening. The corporate world is already embarked on a green technological revolution which has real momentum. Financial institutions are giving up on investment in hydrocarbons because it threatens their balance sheets rather than their consciences.
And the two superpowers, for all their differences, are led by people who follow the science. Provided China and the US can accept that the climate crisis transcends geopolitical rivalry, there is still a reasonable prospect of heading off disaster.
Sir Vince Cable is the former leader of the Liberal Democrats and served as secretary of state for business, innovation and skills from 2010 til 2015