The problem with COP26
The IPCC recently conducted a study into the combined effects of all the agreed targets of the countries taking part in the ongoing COP talks. Tucked away in the report is this: “The available NDCs of all 191 Parties taken together imply a sizable increase in global GHG emissions in 2030 compared to 2010, of about 16%”.
I could end this article here, but I won’t, because that’s not the main problem.
Also, most countries will miss their targets. The UK will miss by a mile. But this isn’t the main problem either.
Has there been any progress in reducing global carbon emissions since Paris in 2015? The graph at the top shows the trajectory of global carbon emissions (and this is without the land-use figures), so no.
But this is still not the main problem.
The main problem is that the solutions generated will assume that no fundamental changes to the economy are required. I wouldn’t be as impolite, of course, as to call what’s coming at COP26 an ‘avalanche of climate bullshit’, but here’s how I would put it.
We can’t solve a problem within the system that caused it.
Attempting to maintain business as usual (which is the only type of solution that will be debated at COP 26) will only make things worse. This reveals an absolute lack of imagination, or worse – a realisation that advocating anything other than a slightly greener ‘business-as-usual’ might be career suicide, which would indicate selfishness and cowardice, rather than a lack of imagination.
It’s too late for maintaining the status quo. Things are going to change. System change is something that we do ourselves, or nature will do it for us. But the corporate sector wants to maintain the system that provides its wealth, and has the power to pressure governments to bend to its will. Although several countries, such as Australia, Saudi Arabia and Japan, are lobbying the UN to reduce pressure on countries to reduce carbon emissions, the real problem is ideological. COP26 will be about maintaining the current destructive system at all costs.
In the phrase ‘build back better’, the problem is with the word ‘back’. Let’s not build the same thing again, but something new. I’ve written about this many times, and will write about it more in the future, as the ‘new economy’ sector develops and provides more resources and ways in.
The ‘business-as-usual’ route can make people feel that they are taking the sensible approach – regulation, new technology and green consumerism can solve the climate change problem, and anyone claiming otherwise should be ignored as a crank. But what we’re facing is not a normal problem – it’s not hyperbole to say that it’s the biggest and most dangerous problem that humanity has ever faced, and (when combined with biodiversity loss), the only one we’ve ever faced with the potential to make us extinct. Tribes and nations have disappeared before, but this time the problem is global, with nowhere else to go (despite what Elon Musk might think).
But it’s not sensible to believe that the solution to a problem is more of what caused the problem in the first place. The Pope recently asked for radical decisions to be made at COP26. But will they? No – decisions will be very superficial. ‘Radical’ means getting to the root of the problem, and the root of the problem is growth.
Perpetual growth is the real problem
Climate change denial has morphed over the years from claiming that the earth wasn’t getting warmer, to denial that human activity is causing it. Now it’s accepted that human activity is the cause – but what does ‘activity’ mean in this context? Going for a walk? Dancing? Conversation? No – it means human economic activity. It’s our economic activity that’s causing climate change and biodiversity loss. But governments want us to believe that we can increase this economic activity, and still be OK. It’s magical thinking.
And it’s not all about carbon emissions. Our economic activity is also the root cause of the release of toxins and nanomaterials, removal of habitat, overharvesting of wild species, the introducing of non-native species, soil erosion, acidification of oceans etc. These things cause negative feedback loops that make all problems worse. For example, there’s been a massive loss of ocean plankton, which forms the base of the ocean food chain, which means fewer whales, fish, seals, polar bears and sharks; but it also means that the ability of the oceans to absorb carbon is reduced. Reducing carbon emissions alone won’t solve this problem, or others like it, as long as we have a perpetually-growing economy.
“More importantly, we can’t leave the sustainability gap and social injustices unaddressed, and we can’t afford to have high growth rates at the expense of the planet’s life support systems. This crisis provides an opportunity to make a paradigmatic shift that opts for prosperity – but without growth.”– C.P. Rajendran is an adjunct professor at the Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru.
I’ve been told by people (with a straight face) that GDP growth can be ‘dematerialised’. Here’s why it can’t. An increase in GDP means an increase in overall spending power (or it wasn’t really GDP growth); and that increase in spending power can’t be ring-fenced so that it’s not spent on material goods. And it will be spent on material goods. Which countries have the highest material consumption per capita? The countries with the largest per capita GDP.
I’ve also been told that it’s China’s fault, not ours. But where does your cooker come from? Your fridge? Your phone? You get the idea. China hasn’t as yet made any pledges, and is busy building lots of coal-fired power stations, to power the factories that make our consumer goods. What does it really mean if the UK achieves ‘net zero’ by 2050, when most of our household and electronic good, clothes and more are made in China and transported here via dirty cargo ships, none of which will count towards our figures?
Renewables, energy saving, reducing our individual carbon footprints, new technologies, planting trees – of course, let’s do all that. But energy saving measures, within a constantly-growing economy, can actually increase overall energy use. It’s growth that’s the killer. And every government that has sent representatives to glasgow, often comically by private jet, is committed to maximising economic growth.
The future needs to be radically different
We’ll soon have a world with 10 billion people, all aspiring to drive and fly; and an advertising industry geared towards persuading us to consume more. Will COP26 address these things? No, it absolutely won’t – they all contribute to growth, which is the ultimate aim of every government in the world. Whatever does come out of COP won’t be enough. It will be one step forward, three back.
There will be talk of maintaining ‘quality of life’ or ‘standard of living’ – and so talk of reducing consumption, including cars or flights, will be off the table. But imagine two communities – one without cars, in which everyone is able to walk to work, shops, leisure facilities and friends’ homes, and one with cars, traffic jams, dual carriageways, paved front gardens and unsafe streets. Which one represents the best ‘quality of life’? The first community can’t possibly be imagined, because it’s bad for growth. We could run the world on renewables if we abandon the suicidal quest for perpetual growth. The argument in favour of nuclear power (for example) blindly accepts the need for material consumption to keep rising. I’m arguing that the attempt to continually increase material consumption is really, really bad for us and we need to stop. And GDP growth means that material consumption will definitely continue.
I’ve been talking about environmental problems since childhood, when no-one took them seriously. Now they do, but what’s not understood – at least in the mainstream – is that we will never, ever solve these problems with a perpetually-growing economy. However, our current economy (I hesitate to call it capitalism, as we have nothing like a free market, and I’ve realised that criticising capitalism will cause a segment of the population to immediately jump to the conclusion that you’re a Stalinist) has to grow – it has a ‘growth imperative’. In other words, investors always want more back than they put in. And if enough people are going to be persuaded to keep investing, this has to be the case for the majority of investors, most of the time, which requires a constantly-growing economy.
We need to replace the current economic system with one that doesn’t need to constantly grow and that doesn’t concentrate wealth. I think this is possible – it’s being built already, and before I die, I hope to see some signs that it will replace the current system before it’s too late. There’s a growing number of people and organisations that are warning of the dangers of chasing perpetual growth, and although I sometimes feel that mine is a voice in the wilderness, I’ve been here before, and the mainstream world caught up. So I’m hopeful.
If COP26 participants want to talk about things that could really help us live in harmony with nature, they could talk about international agreements to stop competing with each other to maximise growth; about winding down the aviation industry; about designing human habitats for walking and cycling and phasing out cars; about cancelling debt, equalising economies, devolving power to municipalities, removing borders and disbanding armies. I haven’t gone mad – these things won’t be discussed at COP26. But when I was a teenager, if I’d predicted global conferences involving the leaders of most countries, to talk about how to live without destroying ecology, I’d have been considered mad then. I feel I can hope that the root cause of the problem will start to take centre stage at some point.
Just to be clear, the problem isn’t being caused by ‘us’, but by the corporate executives, lobbyists, journalists, PR and advertising people, and their allies in governments who are fighting tooth and nail to maintain the status quo, when most ordinary people would be happy to change it.
OK, look, if you twist my arm, I’m prepared to say that it’s a good thing that world leaders are meeting to discuss ways to reduce GHG emissions. But we won’t move from the destructive economy that we have to a world in which humans can live happily without destroying ecology until and unless they start talking about stabilising the economy, which will require system change. The likelihood of them discussing that is zero, and so the best we can hope for is that the COP meetings stimulate enough people to start building (or more accurately, continue building) a decentralised, mutually-owned economy and finance system, with no growth imperative, from within their communities. Governments will follow, not lead. They will initially, I believe, attempt to block these kinds of developments, but if they’re widespread enough (which won’t take a huge percentage of the population to kick-start), they won’t be able to stop them.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1Daniel Scharf October 31st, 2021
It feels like a counsel of despair but the reluctance or refusal of governments and corporations to limit the supply of fossil fuels to anything close to the low and falling levels needed places a huge burden on the consumers to change their habits and aspirations to reduce demand and leave the assets of the fossil fuel industry stranded as would be the investments in them. The behavioral changes would just anticipate, accelerate and represent adaptations to low carbon lifestyles.
2Peter A Sharp October 31st, 2021
Delete the Rich. We don’t need them and we can’t afford them. Most of our problems stem from Rich people having too much power which subverts democracy and prevents changes to combat global warming. Limit incomes and assets to a multiple of the median income. That way, helping the poor benefits the wealthy. The Rich buy immunity from most problems, so they don’t care about those problems (with a few notable exceptions). Use the greatly increased tax revenues to pay for the changes we need to stop global warming. But let those earning more than the maximum use half of that excess to finance not-for-profit (and apolitical) organizations to address problems that government is ignoring. We would have a very different world.
In the meantime, establish Carbony credit cards, basically carbon rations. Every citizen over 16 gets an equal share of the total. That total is set each year by the Department of Global Warming Reduction. The Rich use far more fossil fuels than the poor, so they will need to purchase Carbony on the open market. That will transfer considerable wealth to the poor and to others who minimize their energy use. All products will have a Carbony cost that represents their CO2 emissions. Imported products will be assigned a Carbony cost in proportion to percentage of fossil fuels per person consumed in that country. China, for example, would be handicapped if it continued to produce coal fired power plants. Carbony’s value will rapidly increase because saving it would be an excellent investment, since saving it would drive up its price and reduce the consumption of fossil fuels at the same time. I might become the international standard of value, as gold used to be. Carbony credit cards is not a new idea, but its time has come. Demand it. It will pay you handsomely to do so. And, oh yes, it will also save the world.
The economy CAN continue to grow, but only if our policies require us to DO FAR MORE WITH FAR LESS. That is the general direction of technology, but we need to require by law that all products and services adhere to that principle. An example is cars. Today we pretend that electric cars are an energy conservation measure. That’s false, because the number of cars is rapidly increasing, and that vast increase in energy and materials consumption will make more efficient cars a meaningless gesture. We can’t build alternate energy sources fast enough to meet the demand. So we need a different transportation system that meets most of the needs met by cars, but consumes far less energy and materials, while providing additional benefits. That can be done using Personal Rapid Transit vehicles, both public and private, running on elevated tracks under computer control. The guiding principle should be that no vehicle should weigh more than the load is intended to transport. That can be done. The technology exists. Like cars, every system needs to adapt to the principle of doing far more with far less. That is our guiding principle for the future, if we want to have a future.
3annbeirneanimalwhisperert October 31st, 2021
Yo have got this dead to rights.
4Dave Darby October 31st, 2021
Daniel – all part of a radical future. But we need some big structural changes soon.
Peter – if you understand that democracy has been subverted by concentrated wealth, then how do you see any of those policies being implemented?
And what do you mean by “DO FAR MORE WITH FAR LESS. That is the general direction of technology”? Because back in the real world, we’re not moving in the direction of doing anything ‘with less’. See http://www.materialflows.net/global-trends-of-material-use/
(I know what you’re getting at – technology allows a laptop, say, to be made with fewer material resources, but GDP growth means more laptops, which increases material use overall).
5Steve Gwynne November 1st, 2021
Good piece Dave.
As I understand it, achieving global net zero 2050 in order to limit global warming to 2°C is actually incompatible with long term economic growth, especially if current metrics are correct in that the global per person average carbon footprint needs to be 2 tonneCO2/person.
Currently, the global average is 4.8 tCO2/person and the UK average consumption is 11 tCO2/person (which includes imported emissions)
(Select consumption as emissions type at
In this respect, unless long term alternatives can be found for the majority of the carbon energy sector, then if global net zero and a liveable climate is the priority, then the global economy will need to contract without question.
To some extent this is already happening in real terms as the energy cost of energy increases (or the energy return on energy invested decreases) since the majority of reported growth is on the back of public and private debt and quantitative easing.
There is also the paradox of currently requiring carbon energy to extract, process and fabricate the necessary materials for renewables along with the likely material scarcity for a complete global transition to solar panels, electric vehicles etc (see The Mining of Minerals and the Limits to Growth https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Simon-Michaux-2)
Therefore, the key question, beyond energy thermodynamics and resource scarcity is what is the priority for governments at COP26. Is it achieve global net zero and limit global warming or is it the illusion of perpetual economic growth. Because, it is highly unlikely that any government will be able to achieve both beyond the growth resulting from the huge investment of upfront costs to facilitate the net zero transition.
If maximum growth is pursued at all costs, then global net zero and the reduction of tCO2/person will need to be abandoned in favour of global warming and the continued use of carbon energy since an Assessment of the Extra Capacity Required of Alternative Energy Electrical Power Systems to Completely Replace Fossil Fuels (see link above) in order to maintain business as usual would be virtually impossible as ECoE rises and materials become more scarce.
In this regards, if the UK for example is going to democratically choose net zero and a stable climate over growth and an unstable climate, then the UK will need to implement Daniel’s very interesting and cogent ideas and so we will need many more bright minds like his.
Similarly, we will probably need to categorise economic (energy) activities into low, medium and high impact (carbon footprint).
In this way, low impact can counterbalance high impact and bring the average tCO2/person down.
To begin the real time net zero process will require phasing out high impact discretionary consumption and if this isn’t enough to bring the average tCO2/person down, then medium impact discretionary consumption will have to follow.
This means low impact (consumption) lifestyles will need to be incentivised with a payment for carbon offsetting (like a carbon means tested UBI) since low impacters are essentially providing an ecosystem service.
In this respect, the fact that the carbon trading price is around £50 per tonne is an absolute joke within an ecosystem service payment framework and would need to be realistically around £2k per tonne within the UK in order to expect someone to live a very low impact (off grid) labour intensive lifestyle in order to seriously offset against high impact consumption lifestyles.
Unless there is some radical energy breakthrough and we want to live on a habitable planet, average tCO2/person for the UK needs to decrease from 11 tCO2/person to around 2 tCO2/person. This currently means economic contraction is inevitable, especially as the ECoE continues to rise and material scarcity deepeens.
This means the system needs to change but more importantly individuals need to change their consumption habits which includes individuals changing the system to facilitate global net zero and includes individuals democratically demanding that the system changes to facilitate and reward low impact living.
6Dave Darby November 1st, 2021
Steve – good data trawl, thanks.
“achieving global net zero 2050 in order to limit global warming to 2°C is actually incompatible with long term economic growth”
Exactly. I don’t understand why so many ‘progressives’ struggle to see that. They’re fighting the neoliberals’ battles for them.
“democratically demanding that the system changes” is the tricky bit though. No idea how we achieve that in a corporate-dominated world.
7Dave Darby November 1st, 2021
btw that map is v interesting – http://www.globalcarbonatlas.org/en/CO2-emissions – esp the per capita carbon emissions. We’re about the same as Spain, Italy and France, which is fair enough, and so is the fact that the US is 3 times bigger. But I wonder why Luxembourg is 3 times bigger, Mongolia is 4 times bigger and Curacao is 6 times bigger.
– and yes, you’re right – we need to get from 11 tonnes per person to 2 tonnes per person in the UK. Don’t see the govt. even addressing this, let alone tackling it. Someone asked me how on FB the other day, so I’ll just recycle it here:
imo – it will come from a small percentage of the world – less than 1%, who build non-extractive institutions. The 99% will follow when we can make things cheaper. This is happening already, but what we don’t have is a non-extractive monetary system. Monetary change is happening – everyone knows about crypto now – it takes power away from the banking system, but it’s still extractive (i.e. you can still become a crypto billionaire on the back of other people’s work). The next wave will be mutual credit-based – or at least it should be. It’s happening, it’s growing, and it will mean that the exchange medium can’t be sucked out of communities and deposited in tax havens. This kills the corporate business model. Lowimpact will keep reporting on this here – https://www.lowimpact.org/category/mutual-credit/ – and there will be lots more happening in the near future.
8Jayne Huck November 25th, 2021
Thankyou for your article. It is so good to know that someone else thinks like me!
9Steve Gwynne November 28th, 2021
Sorry, catching up.
My framing at the moment is post growth. I’m finding a lot falls in to place with that framing.
The how to reduce our footprint is energy contraction. It bypasses consumption/demand dilemmas by focusing more on production/supply dilemmas. Net zero is the global political vehicle by which to do that without directly invoking survival anxieties with demands for radical consumption reductions.
The way through this, in my opinion, is through the framing of class. This reveals that the main obstacle to degrowth is the middle class, which explains their reluctance to critically deconstruct class.
No wonder when I empathize with their need to protect their material interests (and status), since radical economic contraction whether through degrowth, systemic entropy or a recession will mean the hollowing out of the middle class.
It is inevitable, one way or the other, despite their protestations despite the current policies of QE, migration led economic growth, low interest rates and controlled inflation, all in order to protect middle class interests which includes avoiding doing working class employment roles.
Surprised me how deeply enmeshed are middle class interests are woven in the framings of mainstream media outlets.
So for me, the question of success depends on the ecological cooperation of the Technocratic Blob which seems to have no real interest in ecological sustainability beyond words and sympathetic platitudes.
Their criticism is all about protecting middle class interests and not understanding that entropy will inevitably come for them first. In large parts, from an ecological perspective, they are an inbetweener/discretionary class. We can do without that class and still function sufficiently with a working class and an upper class.
Three classes has interesting permatations of class alliances, especially when broken down between left, centre, right.
Traditionally, I think one could argue that the role of the upper class is species level thinking. The problem with much of the left middle class is that they struggle with species level decision making and the need for sacrifice for the highest good. The upper class demonstrated that by traditionally leading the charge. This makes them more discretionary than the right middle class who are more than happy to accept death as a sacrifice for the highest good. Otherwise known as the maximum power principle.
Sorry, started rambling in a catch up kind of way.
Anyway, look forward to your next left right blog ?? Take care ?
10Dave Darby November 29th, 2021
Steve – yes, lots of virtue signalling, but no desire for any deeper change that might disturb their comfort or reduce their wealth. I remember a conversation with a middle-class Transition member (is there any other kind?) about mutual credit and use-credit obligations. The first, very quick question was: what happens to my savings? Nothing about getting us off the disastrous path we’re on – just self-interest. (generally speaking – but of course there are exceptions).
I’m from a working-class background, and when I talk to working-class family and friends, they tell me that working-class solidarity doesn’t really exist in the UK – the consensus is that the working-class mostly want to be middle-class.
Not sure about the ‘upper class’ thing – unless selected for wisdom.
I think that the answer – certainly the only one I can think of – is building alternative infrastructure so that people can sidestep the ‘old economy’. As it’s already being designed and built, and it works (state barriers notwithstanding), then this seems like a no-brainer to me.