The problem with COP26

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Posted Oct 31 2021 by Dave Darby of Lowimpact.org

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.