Alok Sharma receives news at COP26

Changes Must be made, but Not by us

If every single promise made at COP26 is kept and fully implemented on time then the world will still breach the +2C temperature ceiling that COP21 in Paris determined was the upper threshold for a world anywhere close to resembling the one we’re currently living in. It is well above the +1.5C ceiling that represents a world where the damage we’ve caused to the planet is anything like bearable. By that measure alone, COP26 in Glasgow was a failure. No matter that it is an “improvement” over what came before. No matter that this was pretty much the first time discussions were had seriously about issues like coal or funding from the Global North to the Global South to mitigate and repair damage. In the race against climate disaster, doing “better than before” isn’t much help when neither what we were doing before nor what we’re doing now is “enough”.

But the largest failure of COP wasn’t the weakness of the agreement but the way that it was scuttled by countries who think that doing “enough” should be a job for everyone but themselves.

The title of this article riffs off of Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson’s excellent book “Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)” which details a very human failure to accept blame and personal responsibility when things go wrong unless there is no possible alternative (and sometimes even when there is one). If blame can’t be pinned directly on someone else, then we often revert to the passive voice. “Mistakes were made”, not “I made mistakes”.

We saw a very similar story play out at COP26 in the debacle over the talks on coal. To hear much of the commentary in the west, China and India scuttled the talks by progressively watering down the demand to “phase out” the burning of coal and to end subsidies to the industry. Over the course of a few days the language in the agreement changed to “phase out unabated coal” (i.e. coal that doesn’t involve carbon capture schemes) and to remove “inefficient” subsidies (as with mistakes, everyone believes that their own subsidies are efficient and warranted industry protections and everyone else’s subsidies are inefficient market distortions just one step short of a trade war).

And then at the very final plenary, the language shifted again to the entirely meaningless “phase down unabated coal”. No targets or thresholds were agreed on the amount that coal should be “phased down”. One lump or two?

But were China and India – two of the largest coal users in the world and therefore the most deeply affected by the proposed phase out – really the villains here?

Criticism is not entirely unwarranted but there is a massive missing piece of the puzzle which can be explained by looking at the host nation of COP itself. How would Scotland have been affected by a mandatory ban on burning coal for power?

The simple answer is that we wouldn’t. Our last coal power station closed in 2016. In fact, had the COP agreement passed in its original form, I can entirely believe that at least a few Scottish politicians would have clapped themselves on the back and happily declared that we had “already met our target”.

Early discussions about that section of the agreement weren’t just about coal though. They were about the mandatory phase out of all fossil fuels. Something that must be done and something that would have affected all countries – including Scotland. The discussion takes on a very different shade when we have to make the changes rather than just telling someone else that they have to.

Even though Scotland wasn’t directly at the negotiating table, we can see how our government would have reacted if the agreement had included phasing out oil and gas. In a side event, several countries and regions joined the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA), which seeks to develop pathways to total decarbonisation. The Scottish Government is dithering about joining and has hinted that it might do so only at the outermost fringes of the alliance (the UK has refused to join at all). They are evidently weighing up the political cost of not joining with the political cost of perhaps having to actually do something about reducing and Justly Transitioning Scotland’s oil and gas sector. Contrast that reaction with Wales who, without hesitation, signed up as a Core Member, saying that they wished to be an example to others. This is the correct thing to do and I hope Scotland follows that example, although it can’t escape notice that Wales’ oil and gas sector is significantly smaller than Scotland’s. They aren’t immune to that insidious passive voice either.

So Western and Global Northern hypocrisy is a root cause of COP’s failure, but I did say that China and India weren’t entirely blameless. Yes, they quite rightly demand their fair share of economic development as the world transitions (especially as we who are already in the top wealth brackets have both hoarded that wealth and been largely the cause of the climate emergency).

But it’s clear that the timescales for decarbonising the global economy cannot mean that every country takes the same pathway. There is neither the time nor the remaining carbon budget for China, India and every country in the Global South to go through the same kind of industrialisation that Europe and America went through and only then to move to a Green New Deal.

Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economy model is useful in explaining why this is the case. It measures every country along an axis of “sustainability” (how much or little damage the country is doing to the planet) and “sufficiency” (how able it is to provide a comfortable living to all of its citizens). Right now, no country in the world meets both goals of sustainability and sufficiency simultaneously.

In her words, “we’re all developing countries now” in that we all have to move to that top left quadrant where we can live comfortably on a finite planet. But we must do so by moving as directly towards that target as we can. If everyone tries to slide up that curve towards Germany, the USA and others and only THEN try to move to the “Sweet Spot” then we’ll fail to achieve either goal.

What this means is that while global effort is needed, every country is likely going to have to build its own bespoke Green New Deal that suits their particular needs and starting points. They will likely have to join alliances of neighbouring countries or those who share similar circumstances so that they can learn from each other. BOGA is a good example of this as is the Wellbeing Economy Government’s alliance that Scotland joined (though has yet to fully embrace). Critically though, we all have our part to play in this. Blaming someone else for not meeting their goals rings hollow when we aren’t meeting ours even when it is entirely within our power to do so. We don’t need to wait for another multilateral agreement only to blame someone else when it derails. Changes must indeed be made. Including by us.

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