Here we are, six months out from COP26, the 26th global meeting of the world’s nations focused on addressing climate breakdown.
As always there is an endless stream of articles telling us its make or break time. But haven’t we been here before, at our last chance to save the world, our 100 months to take action, our tipping point of climate action?
It would seem that 2021 is the year when governments finally get serious. After the debacle of 2019, where the EU, US and China made no new significant pledges to reduce their carbon emissions, this year has seen a spate of dramatic sounding pledges.
The US, China, EU, UK and 97 other countries have now stated that by 2050 their overall emissions of carbon dioxide will be ‘net’ zero.
Renewable energy is cheaper than ever, with fossil fuel corporations seemingly financial bad bets. The talk is of green jobs, electric cars, and financing the transition. You could be forgiven for thinking that after so many decades of failure, action is finally being taken.
That these actions and pledges are happening at all is testament to the actions, campaigns and struggles of so many around the world.
From school strikers to Indigenous anti-pipeline activists; from Extinction Rebellion to grassroots anti-fracking campaigns around the world; from street protests to the efforts of green groups and political parties have forced governments to pledge change.
But what about that 100 months to save the world back in 2012? What about the last chance we had back in 2015? Or even back in 2009? What ever happened to our last chance all those years ago?
To make sense of this year’s COP and what happened to our last chance it’s critical to find a way to cut through the pledges. We need to know what it is we need to actually do to make sure we don’t hit that disastrous 2C mark.
According to the IPCC’s last report – and most mainstream climate reporting – we are still able to keep climate change to below 1.5C. We need to reduce carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050. Hard, but doable. On this level, well, the pledges are underwhelming.
According to the Carbon Tracker, all of these most recent pledges have reduced the gap between current emissions and the reductions needed to stay under 1.5C by 12-14 percent.
This doesn’t take into account the rebound from the unprecedented reductions in emissions last year due to the pandemic: emissions returned last December to pre-pandemic levels, wiping out any ‘pandemic gains’.
Nor does it account for the gap between current pledges and actual government action. While governments talk a good game, their actions often contradict their pledges
That the pledges are so inadequate yet lauded is more an example of the professional optimism of climate campaigners and journalists than it is of actual substantive action on the part of governments. It gets worse.
The UK supposedly has reduced its carbon emissions by 45 percent since 1990. This excludes aviation and shipping, however. It largely consists of the impacts of deindustrialization, the switch from coal to gas, and recession.
It also only includes those emissions produced within the UK’s own territory, and does not include the carbon produced in the making of things consumed in the UK. These consumption emissions account for 46 percent of the UK’s total carbon footprint.
If these are included in the accounting, the UK’s emissions reductions are closer to 10 percent on 1990 levels. That is, the UK has reduced its emissions by 0.5 percent each year. UK consumption emissions peaked just before the 2008 great recession, and have yet to recover.
The reductions then are as much an artefact of the widening gap between the wealthy and poor, the gap between those with assets and those without a real increase in wages over the decade.
Any return to real growth will wipe out the reductions made thus far. So-called decoupling – where growth no longer means rising carbon emissions – is largely an artefact of recession, declining real wages and deindustralisation: in essence, it’s not real.
Globally emissions are not dropping, and the current rounds of investments in fossil fuel infrastructure and commitments to economic growth mean we are going in precisely the wrong direction in terms of emissions.
Emissions in 2021 are set to increase by the second largest amount ever and coal use is approaching its previous 2014 peak. And the EIA expects emissions to rise again in 2022 while fossil fuel companies have begun to report record profits.
Much of this will – and is – being blamed on China’s refusal to immediately cut carbon emissions.
As the world’s single largest source of carbon emissions, this makes some kind of intuitive sense, despite the fact that historically the US and Europe have contributed the vast majority of carbon to the atmosphere, and have used up their ‘fair share’ of the atmospheric commons.
Given that industrialisation has long been the traditional path of development and poverty eradication, and that both China’s per capita and historical emissions are much lower than either the US or Europe, it would seem fair that they delay their emissions reductions.
Yet while just, this assumes that industrialisation is the only way to eradicate poverty and improve the quality of life. It is not. It assumes that climate breakdown cares about fair. It does not.
The pledges are inadequate and not being met. Emissions globally – where it counts – are not dropping. Worse still, the world’s governments are investing in lies rather than change.
Climate models, like the one telling us we need to ‘only’ reduce global emissions by 45 percent by 2030, are almost entirely reliant on technologies that will suck carbon emissions from the atmosphere that do not exist.
Without these magic technologies, there is little to no hope at all of staying below 1.5C, and very little chance to stay below 2C.
And if we hold to even a ‘weak’ commitment to equity – that is, allowing for some countries to maintain or increase their carbon emissions – there is no reasonable chance of staying below 2C.
In the UK this means aiming to reach net zero by 2035, reducing emissions by between 10-20 percent each year starting now. Or, if we delay the net zero date to 2050, then reducing emissions by 24 percent every year for the next three decades.
It’s worth saying that national plans do not get us close to this – and never have done. This is true even in the middle of economic collapses as seen at the end of the USSR or during the current pandemic.
Instead of moving us towards this, what we see governments doing is investing in carbon capture and storage, effectively throwing money at industry – £1bn in the UK alone – in a period of dramatic economic consolidation and overcapacity, and focusing on how to turn carbon into the newest global financial commodity through the creation of carbon markets.
With net zero coming to mean paying someone else to make reductions while we continue to pollute, what we see is a burgeoning industry in carbon offsetting, rather than investments in actual reductions.
If we throw in the money being spent on border control and the securitisation of everyday life, it starts to look a little like governments are more concerned with finding ways to promote profit in a time of breakdown and crisis than they are in solving the problem.
What does all of this mean?
The most important conclusion is that the strongest government actions taken so far – actions taken only after decades of campaigning and lobbying – is no way near enough. So what should we learn from this?
One response to this has been for institutions, local governments and cities to start to find ways to reduce emissions in spite of national governments.
This is a critical step: not only can huge changes be made this way, changes that will bring a range of positive benefits to ordinary lives, it is at a scale people have far more political access to.
Another response is to deinvest ourselves from hoping that governments will, finally, start to take-action based on public pressure.
This wold mean no longer focusing even our most seemingly militant actions on convincing government to act. Mass movements in the global north need to return to their roots and focus on campaigns of disruption and direct action to ‘fill the political gap’ left by any pivot to local government action.
Industry can be forced to reduce emissions. Fossil fuel infrastructure can be shut down or stopped, and that is where our movement’s focus must be.
Finally, it means facing up to the idea that in the end keeping climate change below 1.5C – and possibly 2C – is a fantasy.
We must be focused on reducing emissions and changing the world justly while knowing this just transition will take place within a radically different climate. Our challenge is creating the future we need and want in much more difficult circumstances.
This is not to give in to despair or accept catastrophe as a collective future. The future doesn’t end at 2.2C, or 3C. Life will continue. Governments might have had their last chance. But we have not. What this all means is that their time is up. Ours has just begun.
Dr Nicholas Beuret is a lecturer in management and ecological sustainability at the University of Essex. His research has been published in journals including Antipode, Science and Culture and South Atlantic Quarterly.