COP26, the United Nations climate change global summit assembling in the Scottish city of Glasgow next week, could determine a solution to what is generally agreed to be the greatest threat to the planet Earth. Such an outcomes appears unlikely.
Despite the efforts of a handful of vocal climate change deniers, we have known for some time that the world is heating up, that the polar icecaps are melting, that sea levels are rising, and that we need to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And we know how to do it. We must move away from fossil fuels and towards renewables. That process is already underway in Europe, parts of Asia, and South Australia.
The International Energy Agency endorses this affordable solution to dealing with climate change, but much of the world, including the leading polluters, are only half listening, or not listening at all. It is clear from the IEA Outlook that the world will need a huge surge in the generation of clean electricity, bearing in mind that the greatest demand for energy comes from the developing world, where an estimated 770 million people still have no access to electric power.
But here is the difficult part. Investment in clean electricity generation, including nuclear, biofuels, and evolving technologies like hydrogen, is far below what it needs to be to achieve the modest targets that many countries, including Australia, China, and many others, have set to achieve by 2050. There is an urgent need for capital investment in both the public and private sectors. The hundreds of billions of dollars which are needed will not be committed at COP26.
There are some promising signs. The US$710 billion sovereign wealth fund of Abu Dhabi is investing heavily in renewable energy in Africa and Europe, as is its counterpart in Singapore. But its efforts and and those of others fall far short of the $100 billion a year the UN says is needed to allow emerging and developing countries to leapfrog into the new energy economy.
The Ford Motor Company and its partner SK Innovation have announced that they plan to invest $11 billion in new electric vehicle assembly and battery plants on a greenfield site near Memphis, Tennessee, hitherto used to grow soya beans. They will also build two further battery plants in neighbouring Kentucky. The carmaker is moving far south from its traditional home in Michigan, attracted by cheaper land, labour, and electricity. Other global carmakers seem likely to follow suit. Electricity is a significant cost in the manufacture of batteries, and the US energy information administration tells us that the cost of electricity for industry in Tennessee and Kentucky averages 5.3 cents per kilowatt hour compared with 7.2 cents in Michigan, a significant difference in a highly competitive market.
Unfortunately, some major economies are going the other way. The most prominent is China, which continues to build new coal-fired generators after a recent review showed that energy shortages might limit economic growth. Some of the new generators are designed to replace older and less efficient facilities, but it is clear that China will be dependent on coal for some time to come. Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, has been criticised for supporting new gas generators and will come under fire in Glasgow for continuing to subsidise oil and gas developments.
The probable shortfall in funding makes full implementation impossible, so delegates are likely to opt for an agreement to speed up the timetable to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, a move that will require solid reductions in carbon. These could be achieved through a carbon tax, such as the one the Gillard Labor government failed to implement, or other penalties and restrictions, such as those being implemented in the European Union. The pre-COP26 scientific consensus is that if the goal to limit the planet’s warming to within 1.5°C by 2050 is to be achieved, global emissions must by cut by 40 percent by 2030.
Many of the 25,000 delegates who show up in Glasgow next week are saying there is a clear path towards achieving the required reduction in the pace of global warming, and that COP26 represents the last chance of saving the planet. The problem is that taking that path requires a significant change in human behaviour.
Getting rid of carbon means getting rid of fossil fuels in the home, in industry, and at leisure. In the short term, costs will go up as we pay for new technology to replace gas fired boilers, diesel and petrol vehicles, installation of electric charging points, better home insulation, and higher building standards. In some societies, the move will be politically unpopular, and for this reason COP26 may fail. Some world leaders have declined to attend, to the disappointment of 95-year-old Queen Elizabeth II, who will be there with her son Prince Charles, and grandson Prince William.
The Queen has been overheard expressing exasperation at the number of heads of state who have failed to respond to her invitation to a private party. Notable absentees include presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia, Xi Jin Ping of China (who may make a short statement on video), Jair Bolsanaro of Brazil, Andres Obrador of Mexico, and Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa. There had been doubts about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Morrison, but both have now decided to attend. US president Joe Biden will bring a big team, but his actions are limited by the Democrat’s narrow majority in the Senate and Republican opposition to climate change action.
With less than a week to go, most of these leaders have not published their countries’ detailed proposals on how they intend to meet the Paris Accord obligations, let alone achieve net-zero by 2030 or even 2050. So it is unlikely, for political reasons, that any of them will give serious support to the aims of COP26. Ringing in their ears will be a typical comment I heard from an Australian friend: “We can’t afford to see a fall in our standard of living.” That sentiment is as alive and well in Moscow, Mumbai, Manchester, and Minneapolis as it is in Melbourne.
Britain, the host country, after much chiding from the media, announced its own proposals in the last few days. They included £450 million over three years to replace household gas boilers with heat pumps; a commitment to build a large nuclear power plant by 2024; £620 million in grants for people switching to electric vehicles; a £2 billion scheme to provide for half of all journeys in towns and cities to be via bicycle lanes or walking tracks; and an additional £625 million provision for tree-planting. While the scheme was generally welcomed, climate change activists complained that it did not go far enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
A further weakness facing COP26 is the host, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. As we know, he is an effervescent character well capable of conducting a lively meeting with an interesting turn of phrase. He raised a cheer amongst Tory supporters in the House of Commons last week by coining – and adapting – a phrase from the film Wall Street: no longer “Greed is Good” but “Green is Good.”
However, sponsors, including Microsoft, have complained about the lack of preparation and organisation in recent weeks. Johnson’s known strengths do not include geopolitics, economics, or diplomacy. Some doubt his commitment to the cause of fighting climate change, remembering an occasion when he described wind power as “being too feeble to knock the skin off a rice pudding.” He has not been helped by Britain’s Treasury, whose watchful officials have reined in his wilder spending plans in an attempt to manage the budget.
Moreover, Johnson is also not trusted by Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, after his move to renege on the Brexit treaty he negotiated, and the entente cordiale with president Emmanuel Macron of France is at an all time low. Still, Johnson is a feisty operator who thrives on optimism, and he will work hard to snatch success from the jaws of potential failure.
Next week’s over-hyped event will fall far short of hopes and expectations, leaving a myriad of missed opportunities and potentially unachievable target. The solutions will require much more drastic action by a new generation of leaders. It did not have to be like this.
Colin Chapman is a writer, broadcaster, and public speaker, who specialises in geopolitics, international economics, and global media issues. He is a former president of AIIA NSW and was appointed a fellow of the AIIA in 2017.
This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.