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There is climate politics, and there is national climate politics. What we are watching now is the international brand conducted at 20,000 feet — the global confabs of politicians, scientists and environmentalists ahead of the UN COP26 climate change conference to be held in Glasgow. Few pay much attention to what happens at ground level — the gritty local politics that will ultimately decide how much actually gets done to limit global warming.
An optimist would contend that the effort to decarbonise the world will turn out to be the moment when force of dire circumstance obliges humankind to rediscover enlightened self-interest. The US and China will segment their great power rivalry in the cause of saving the planet, the wealthy will subsidise poor nations in the drive to net zero and all will grow richer from the technological leaps that will accompany the “greening” of economies.
We can hope. An alternative path, however, ends in a fresh explosion of political populism as the burden of implementing all those ringing international commitments falls on those least able to afford them — on the anti-globalist left-behinds who backed Donald Trump for the White House, cheered Britain’s flight from the EU and might yet put the hard-right populist Marine Le Pen in France’s Elysée Palace.
To reframe the challenge: whatever agreements leaders reach when they gather at COP26, at some point these promises will have to be turned into national decisions that, in the world’s democracies at least, will require the consent of voters. Governments will have to step down from the clouds. More than that, they will have to ensure that measures to slow the rise in temperatures do not come to be seen as just another elitist project.
The present disjunction between soaring rhetoric on the international stage and policy inaction at home could scarcely be more visible than in the UK. As host for November’s COP26 meeting, you might think Boris Johnson’s government would want to set some sort of an example. Sure enough, the prime minister has assembled platoons of promises, from banning polluting vehicles to heating the nation’s homes with wind and hydrogen. What unites the pledges are the time lag before they must be redeemed and the absence of accompanying route maps.
Detailed commitments to produce practical initiatives, assessments of the economic costs and ideas for green financing mechanisms have fallen by the wayside. The independent Climate Change Committee puts it succinctly: “This defining year for the UK’s climate credentials has been marred by uncertainty and delay to a host of new climate strategies. Those that have emerged have too often missed the mark.”
The other day Allegra Stratton, Johnson’s climate spokesperson, sought to make amends. She came up with some “micro-measures” that would allow everyone to play a part in averting catastrophe. We should think twice, she said, about rinsing off plates before putting them in the dishwasher. As for any leftover bread, why not put it in the freezer rather than throw it away? This, in the wake of searing temperatures that have paralysed much of the west coast of America, unprecedented rainstorms in Europe, deadly floods in China and raging fires across the Siberian permafrost.
Perhaps the ever more frequent weather extremes will give even as indolent a leader as Johnson something of a jolt. The hope must be that, by the time they gather for COP26, other leaders will have realised that time is running out to “do something”. If they are looking for a starting point, they could read the European Commission’s latest climate strategy — the closest that rich countries have got so far to connecting the theory of decarbonisation with the measures that will be needed to make it happen.
The commission makes the vital point that the policies must be demonstrably fair as well as practical. It is easy enough for well-heeled urban elites to swap their gas-guzzling SUVs for electric models. For the great majority, the practical business of decarbonisation — ripping out fossil fuel heating systems, scrapping polluting vehicles and insulating homes and businesses — will be a struggle. For those towards the bottom — the ones that don’t have dishwashers and freezers — it will be impossible. Governments will have to pay.
We will not get anywhere without the targets for eliminating fossil fuels that will be under discussion at COP26. But we will not get beyond discussion unless governments set the strategies and mobilise the resources to make the targets viable. There is not much time. Look at the weather.
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