A global climate consensus is impossible—and it might not be desirable either

It's time for more action and less dialogue

October 11, 2021
Already here: wildfires in Greece this summer © Xinhua/Alamy Stock Photo
Already here: wildfires in Greece this summer © Xinhua/Alamy Stock Photo

By 13th November, COP26 will be over. Thousands of delegates, officials, protesters and security men will be heading home. Boris Johnson, as host, will have proclaimed the outcome a great success and a triumph for global Britain. One hundred and forty countries or more will have made commitments to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 (or, in the case of China, by 2060). But what happens when the circus leaves town?

For each government, the challenge will be how to make sense of the pledges they have made. Very few have any idea of how to achieve what they are promising, let alone detailed plans. Even Germany, one of the countries where the public and politicians take climate change most seriously, will miss its emissions targets this year. In every country, new grids for the growing electricity market and new infrastructure for hydrogen could bring long-term benefits—eventually lowering prices as well as emissions. But it is not yet clear if consumers—and voters—will be tolerant of the resulting sharp increase in their utility bills.

The second (and closely linked) post-Glasgow development will be ever-sharper attention to what others are doing. Reducing emissions is an admirable objective so long as it does not damage competitiveness. Some countries, especially in Europe, are already doing far more than others. To protect Europe’s remaining industrial base, a set of tariffs related to the carbon content of energy-intensive products is being put in place. The scale and complexity of the proposal is daunting—how do you track the carbon content of products that are assembled through an extensive global supply chain? The risks of retaliation and wider trade conflict are very high. China, India and the United States are not likely to be passive victims of European protectionism.

The third reaction to Glasgow will come from the NGOs and campaigners who have built a powerful lobby around the climate issue, but are at the same time acutely aware that the realities of the issue have not changed. The world is not decarbonising. In the post-pandemic economy, emissions are rising again after the reduction in 2020, led by the coal-fuelled countries of Asia. Low-carbon sources are growing, but they are supplementing rather than replacing hydrocarbons. With a global population which grows by almost a quarter of a million each day, the inexorable pressure of rising demand for energy is still predominantly being met by coal, oil and natural gas. None of this will be changed by any decisions taken in Glasgow.

Many NGOs know that by focusing on setting targets for 2050 they made a profound mistake. Climate change is not about a smooth and gradual linear increase in average temperatures. What really matters for the climate agenda is what happens now. This amended perspective is reinforced by the incidence of extreme weather around the world—from floods in Germany and China to wildfires in Greece and the United States. The risks are immediate.

We can therefore expect to see a much greater campaigning focus on current decisions—the next new runway, the next road development, the next proposal for development of a new oil or gas field. In each case the challenge will come up against entrenched vested interests and against basic consumer choices which many have come to take for granted. At this level, the climate change debate will become much more divisive and bitter.

Finally there is the question of how real change can be brought about. Since the 1990s, the received wisdom has been that a global challenge could only be met by finding a global consensus about how to respond. The unending search for such a holy grail is now delaying the progress which is urgently needed. Even if some lowest common denominator of agreement can be crafted into a final communiqué, COP26 carries too many echoes of the League of Nations—another body designed to solve all conflicts by continuous dialogue. Both are well-intentioned and, in a perfect world, eminently rational. But the world is not perfect, and we cannot wait for some kind of world government to emerge.

Governments and companies will have to work and compete in an imperfect and often unfair world. That is not all bad. There are great prizes to be won for companies—whatever their nationality—if they can find low-cost and low-carbon solutions that can be used not just in the richer developed economies, but also in the mass markets of the developing world. Some will win on a grand scale, but we will all benefit if the net result is a sustained reduction in emissions.

The spread of communications technology over the last 20 years is a prime example of how the global market can open up to low-cost technology. Something similar is needed in the energy business. The solutions will be found by scientists and engineers, not by politicians. The role of governments is to incentivise and clear the way by keeping open the channels of knowledge and trade. If governments did that, COP26 would be the last climate circus. If that is the message from Glasgow, the event really could be declared a success.