67. Blah Blah Blah

Peter Burke
Oxford For Europe

17 November 2021

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Was COP26 an opportunity lost? Was it always destined to be? Could there be a link to Brexit? What do you think?!

We have kept 1.5° alive but its pulse is weak.
Alok Sharma

So, as perhaps we could have foreseen, COP26 has come to an end, perhaps less with a bang than with a whimper. What we might not have foreseen was that the whimper was Alok Sharma’s. The delegates have followed their heads of state home, no doubt many in their private jets after having talked enough about Net Zero. Glasgow is once again transforming from the focus of world attention to the city of Rangers and Celtic. Over the past few weeks a great deal has been written about what was achieved in Glasgow (here is a BBC summary) and I am reluctant to add to it. There was always going to be a mixture of hyperbole and disappointment.

One hand tied behind his back
A tired and frustrated Alok Sharma with Andrew Marr

Alok Sharma before the conference gave himself the moniker “shepherd-in-chief” . I am not sure whether he meant “shepherd” or “Shepherd”, but if the latter I can only read it as a mark of his Messianic fervour. In retrospect, Messianic or not, he had an almost impossible job, and the world’s press awarded him an alpha for effort if only a beta for results. Perhaps the hardest blow was on Saturday when it looks as if defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory on the matter of coal. At the instigation of China and India use of coal would be “phased down” instead of “phased out”. Perhaps the latter was always too optimistic given the forces at work. The Prime Minister claimed not to understand the difference between the two, but without a doubt that says more about him than it does about the agreement. Phasing out is a quantitative term, it implies reducing by 100%. Phasing down – if there is even such an expression – need only involve minimal reduction. And if you have done everything you can, as in the case of China, to establish a high baseline, then phasing down is not a very ambitious target.

Do as I say, don’t do as I do

So Alok Sharma was contending with very powerful forces from around the world. The fact that the fossil fuel industry had better representation in Glasgow than any one country speaks for itself. Yet perhaps an even greater obstacle to progress came from closer to home. He was representing a government which could have been leading by example, but most certainly was not. He was working for a Prime Minister who occasionally made the right noises – if only by chance – but whose flippant public remarks about bunny hugging and Kermit the frog showed up his shallowness and inability to be a serious player. His heart was never in it, and that should not surprise us. Some speculate, though we will never know, that had Johnson spent more time in Glasgow (and indeed not confused it with Edinburgh), the outcome might have been better. I’m not so sure, he has a gift by his presence to undermine the work of others. If you doubt this, listen to his erstwhile no. 2, Alan Duncan. At the international press conference where he denied that the UK was corrupt, many will have taken this as an affirmation precisely that it was. All the less reason to see it as an example to follow.

And if you want living proof that this is a government with pure contempt for evidence-based decision making, you need look only to Brexit.

However many wind farms this country builds, there remains a lack of serious joined up thinking over the environment. As I have pointed out before, Brexit has been environmentally catastrophic. For every empty supermarket shelf there is food rotting in the ground or pigs unable to go to market and waiting to be incinerated. For every trade deal with countries on the far side of the world, there are more more unnecessary and wasteful sea miles. And we are learning that these trading partners are not being held to the same environmental standards we would expect at home (we do not of course learn this from the UK government, which has been remarkably shy on the subject, rather from the gloating Australians and New Zealanders). This same government has now passed an Environment Act which – despite promises –  fails to contain the safeguards which are needed against the dumping of raw sewage in our rivers. Again the weasel words ‘reduce’ rather than ‘eliminate’.

How much longer? (Unsplash, Chris LeBoutillier)

Even on something as simple and measurable as planting trees, promise and achievement are wide apart. With a slogan of ‘coal, cash, cars and trees’, the PM had set a UK target of 30 million trees a year by 2025. In the last year the figure was 4.2 million, and falling. Definitely a beta minus there.

Slow on trees, but quick to promote new fossil fuel initiatives. The government claims it has no power to overrule local authorities on the digging of a new coal mine near Whitehaven. Which seems odd – it had no such compunction when it came to the South Oxfordshire local plan. And it has failed to halt development of new North Sea Oilfields. The current chancellor, in a 7,800 word budget speech, used the work environment only once – and that was to refer to ‘drinking environments’. Furthermore he reduced passenger duty specifically for shorthaul flights, i.e. those where there is a much more environmentally friendly overland alternative. What kind of incentive is that? And, more importantly, what message does it send out?

A Fair Cop?

If expectations of COP26 were high, that was probably never realistic. It may be that, on the promises made, it would be possible with hard work and a following wind (literally) to hold global warming to a little above 2°, but 1.5° now looks more than ever like a pipedream. Better than the apocalyptic projections of 4° of a few years ago, but if we had to write a report card on this, the best we could say would be “fair”

Are we now destined to forget the Paris Accord?

So at the end of the day has the 40,000 person circus of Glasgow turned out to be another massive wasted opportunity? Has it poured cold water on the optimism of the Paris Accord of 2015? Is Greta Thunberg right when she says “they’ve had 30 years of blah blah blah” and there are years more of the same to come while the world burns? Perhaps. Certainly we may feel sympathy with George Monbiot when he says that the time for incremental change is gone and something more radical is needed.

And above all, what we need right now is an ability and willingness to work with other countries, perhaps foremost with our nearest neighbours. At a time of increasing terrorist threat and the Channel migrant crisis, the environment is only one of many reasons for close collaboration. A government which drags out petty arguments over fishing and the rule of the ECJ because it sees them as politically in its own interest, has no place in a world like this. When will it learn?

Please also keep an eye out for our regular series of meetings featuring brilliant speakers, most recently Andrew Adonis. Details here.

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