Monday, 15 November 2021

Too little too late is still better than nothing


The world has emerged from the COP26 summit in Glasgow with some sort of an agreement, albeit a seriously inadequate one. In an echo of the Brexit process, a deal of any sort is better than no deal at all, however marginally. In another echo of Brexit, the PM has welcomed the deal as “a big step forward”, although even his boosterism hasn’t, so far at least, run to proclaiming its world-beating brilliance. Whether, and to what extent, the failure of the talks can be blamed on the host state and its at best semi-engaged Prime Minister is a matter of opinion, but Glasgow will certainly not go down in history as the new Paris, as he had suggested that it would in advance.

I find myself wondering whether there will be, in the coming weeks and months, even more echoes of Brexit. How long will it be before the PM claims that he only signed the agreement under duress because of time pressures; that he never understood the implications; that he didn’t think that anyone really expected the deal to be implemented; and that it is entirely reasonable for the UK to opt out of any bits it doesn’t like? The difference in this case is that it won’t just be Johnson and the UK discovering ways and excuses for not implementing even the seriously watered-down agreement which emerged.

Whether Glasgow really was the last chance as which it was painted is far from being as certain as many claim. One doesn’t need to be a climate change sceptic to recognise that the relationship between Gigatons of Carbon and degrees Celsius of global warming cannot be as precise as some of the charts (including this one from the BBC) would have us believe. Climate is too complex for even our very best models to identify and give the correct weighting to every possible factor; what we have are merely the best estimates of those who have invested their whole careers in attempting to model the whole system. They could be wrong – but that’s no excuse for inaction. It’s as likely that they are being over-optimistic as that they are being over-pessimistic; the lack of the absolute certainty which some would like to have is no reason for ignoring what the models tell us.

It is hard for less economically advanced states to accept curbs in their own development when the more advanced states which have done so much to create the problems prefer to spout fine words than take the urgent actions required. It’s worse when those richer states refuse to provide the resources required to help them (or in the case of the host state, actually reduce aid in the lead-up to the summit). Given that the two large economies which demanded a last minute watering down of the commitment to phase out coal, India and China, are both nuclear-armed states with advanced space programmes and burgeoning cities, it’s easy to forget that they are also both states where a large proportion of the population is extremely poor, and that both see rapid economic development as a route out of that poverty. For both of them, to say nothing of a large number of smaller countries, a demand that they find a way of combining that economic development with a zero carbon approach, and do so out of their own resources, is a big ask. And it’s an ask coming from places which achieved their own relative wealth without worrying about the environmental impact.

In a crisis which demands immediate collective global action, any agreement which depends on individual states taking action essentially leaves global inequality untouched. Without addressing that issue, progress will continue to be more limited than it could be, and needs to be. One of the simplest yet most effective steps the richest countries in the world could take would be to dramatically increase the amount of aid being provided to the poorest to assist them in reducing their dependence on fossil fuels. Given that the UK, instead of leading the charge as the host state, decided to lead the retreat by reducing aid, the chance of progress being made on the scale required in Glasgow was hopelessly overblown from the outset.

Whether it’s now too late to keep overall warming down to 1.5 degrees is a matter of expert opinion, the balance of which currently looks negative. But either way, it’s still worth doing the too little too late which has been agreed rather than nothing, whilst continuing to press for more.


dafis said...

What makes you think that keeping warming to 1.5 degrees would work anyway ? At our present level of conditions large chunks of the icecaps are coming away North and South. This leads to more frequent and eventual permanent inundations. Small countries like Wales, even the UK, make virtuous gestures cutting out coal and other fossil fuels, eliminate the common form of automotive travel switching to electric (or other non fossil) and investing heavily in more expensive wind, marine, even nuclear power. Yet the Chinese stall, India follows suit and you can count on USA to pay lip service but cheat, lie,and misrepresent their way around these deals. EU and Russia won't be far behind.

What really bugs me is the billions, trillions that will be spend on this empty posturing could be better spent improving technologies that capture emissions, effluents and all sorts of toxins. That would allow emerging nations to buy in to the global deal by using the relatively cheap fuels but capturing the gases and solids for use downstream by re- engineering them into second life products. There again that requires a bit of application and it's too much like hard work when elites can indulge in gestures and let us the common herd pay for their stupidity.

John Dixon said...

"What makes you think that keeping warming to 1.5 degrees would work anyway?" As a precise number, nothing makes me think that. The comments in the original post about the fact that climate is too complex for there to be a predictable and precise relationship between carbon reduction and temperature increase apply equally to our collective inability to precisely predict the level of global warming which would become irreversible due to various tipping points being reached. It might be 1.5 degrees, but it might be 1.6 or 1.4, 1.7 or 1.3; we might have longer than we think, or it might already be too late. 1.5 is just the best consensus estimate of people who are experts in their field, which makes it a reasonable basis for considering what actions are necessary. Other than that, I broadly agree with your first paragraph; it's not just the UK that will sign an agreement and then ignore it.

I'm a lot less certain about your second paragraph, though. It's attractive to believe that we can capture, treat, and re-use emissions etc in ways which allow us to minimise the changes to lifestyles implied by carbon reduction programmes. And I really hope that such technologies can and will be developed on the necessary scale, and that they will operate as well as suggested. There is a danger, though, that putting our faith in what are (at present) largely undeveloped or unproven approaches becomes an excuse for not doing what we know we can do now. The two approaches are not necessarily alternatives.

Spirit of BME said...

I totally agree with your first sentence in the fourth paragraph, it is a massively complex question to try to understand, but the Environment industry to sell this issue have focused on one culprit which we all are responsible for and can feel guilty about when condition to do so. It is CO2 -, although human life would not exist without it- how brilliant is that.
Getting accurate information about the subject is getting more difficult, as a medieval practice of ‘pious fraud’ is at play, an example would be that if you were a hawker of religious relics, you would sell them to the great unwashed in local markets and in a good month you could sell fifty ribs of St Tomas of Cwm Twrch throughout the county. Now, you see the problem here, but the Church of Rome did not correct this as they saw the activity as strengthening the faith of their congregation which in turn secured their power and future income.
In the new religious causes of the Environment or CRT research reports that support the message, the media simply repeat their findings without checking, as they know the findings will strengthen the followers of the cause. The same thing happened to the Eugenics cause in the 20s and 30s, sadly it did not end well.
As for Flop 26, and the other twenty-five, I think Dafis`s comments of the virtue signalling sums it up.

John Dixon said...


The problem with "Getting accurate information about the subject is getting more difficult" as a statement is that precise, accurate information about the impact of warming is only ever going to be available after the event. And waiting until then is too late. Discovering that 1.5 should actually have been 1.7 or 1.3 just after we hit 2.0 isn't exactly helpful.

There is, I fear, a tendency in some quarters to expect that complex issues can be reduced to simplistic mathematical equations which have a single correct answer, and to dismiss any statement which does not conform to that. The fact that it can never be as simple as that when so many variables are in play, not all of which can be accurately measured, and when the relationships between those variables is not accurately known is not a good enough reason to dismiss the findings of the models. It is surely better for our descendants to remember us as having expended a lot of resources on actions which the benefit of hindsight tells them might not have been entirely necessary than for there to be no descendants to remember anything.