COP26: Is hope an option?

Click for  larger version. The graph shows the Mauna Loa record of atmospheric carbon dioxide since 1959 in black. The dotted lines are extrapolations of the trend from each decade, the 1960s, 1970s etc. Also shown are the dates meetings of the COP – the Conference of Parties to the UN framework convention on climate change and the dates of the scientific assessment reports.

Friends, at the end of this year the UK will host ‘COP26’ in Glasgow. And a recent e-mail from a friend in California caused me to ask myself this question:

  • Did I genuinely feel even a scintilla of hope that COP26 would mark a turning point of any kind in our attempts to stop global warming?

After reflection, my answer was – genuinely and sadly – “No”. Please allow me to explain.

Reasons for despair

This reflection was initiated by a particular slide in a presentation (130 Mb pdf available here & Peter Wadhams. TEDX talk here). I have reproduced the essential features in the graph at the top of the page.

It shows the monthly averages of measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration at the Mauna Loa laboratory in Hawaii since 1959 – the so-called ‘Keeling Curve‘. The data shows seasonal wiggles, but also a continuous rising trend.

Every ppm rise corresponds to roughly 7.8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide lingering in the atmosphere.

I have fitted a straight line to the data from each decade – 1960’s 1970’s etc, and then extrapolated these lines to 2040.

These extrapolations make clear that not only has the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere been increasing, but also the rate at which it has been increasing has also increased decade on decade.

  • In the 1960s, carbon dioxide concentrations were increasing at 0.77 ppm/year.
  • By the 2010s, carbon dioxide concentrations were increasing more than three times faster, at 2.37 ppm/year.
  • The only decade in which there was essentially no acceleration in the levels of carbon dioxide over the previous decade was the 1990’s. This was reportedly due to the chaos which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Also shown are the dates of the 25 previous Conferences of the Parties (COPs) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Additionally shown are the dates of the six IPCC Assessment Reports summarising the state of scientific knowledge about Climate Change.

Looking at these data together offers a sobering perspective.

If one were feeling uncharitable, one might argue that the previous 25 COPs appear to have made no difference whatsoever to the growth in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration.

And one might then conclude that a priori, COP26 would be similarly unlikely to make a difference. If one then recalled that the diplomatic wizard Boris Johnson was hosting the event, one’s hopes might fall yet further.

And if you feel despair or anger then I think these are perfectly understandable responses.

But in fact I think the previous COPs have had an effect. But the fact that they have failed to stop further increases in carbon dioxide emissions – is testament to the difficulty and complexity of the challenge we all face.

Reasons for hope

Although I despair that COP26 of the UNFCCC will make any progress, I am not without hope. Progress is being made on many fronts.

  • Electricity generation is being transformed by cheap and abundant renewable solar and wind generation.
  • Transport is being electrified at a rate I would not have imagined possible.
  • Renewable energy technologies for space and water heating both domestically and industrially are available off-the-shelf.
  • Consciousness of the need for changes to what we eat and the concomitant changes in agriculture has never been higher.

Some of these developments are local to the UK, but many are global, involving re-deployment of tens of billions of pounds of capital every year.

I would wish for more and faster, but it seems to me that real change has begun.

However the connection between the years of activity at the UN COPs and action visible on the ground is sometimes not clear – but I think it is there.

  • In the UK, solar and and wind generation were not initially cheaper than gas and coal. The electricity they generated was subsidised for many years, and the justification for this was that we needed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. And our participation in the UNFCCC process was the political backstop that allowed a policy which increased electricity prices.
  • The electrification of road transport is occurring now because of the existence of Elon Musk. Corporations such as GM and Nissan had vastly more resources and time but were corporately unable to give up their profits from ICE vehicles. Once Musk showed that electric cars would be better than ICE cars in every respect, the corporations responded in fear. But despite this striking triumph of free enterprise, government backing for this change has been essential. So-called ‘carbon credits’ from other car companies formed a critical income for the Tesla in its critical early years. And the political framework behind this subsidy was the UNFCCC process.
  • On the ground, almost every dwelling in the UK will require some kind of modification. And the most powerful agents of this change will plumbers and builders who I expect will be thin on the ground at COP26. However the scientists and politicians who will attend COP26, will create policies (such as banning new gas boilers) that will allow manufacturers to invest money to develop new products (such as heat pumps and insulation) that will allow builders and plumbers to effect change on the ground.
  • The consciousness of the need for change is hard to gauge, but I think in the last 20 years it has been enormous. Part of this comes from the scientific work (paid for from public funds) that has made clear the reality of Climate Change and the impact of activities such as farming. This has generated public concern at a level that allows politicians to make unpopular choices – such as raising taxes on particular activities or products.

So despite the unpromising trend in the graph at the head of this article, and despite my very low expectations of COP26. I am still not entirely despairing.

In the end, climate change is a threat to every country on Earth and the UN processes provide a framework – albeit highly imperfect – for humanity to act. Ultimately, a world where COP26 (and 27 and 28…) takes place offers more possibilities for change than a world without those meetings. And this is true even if a particular meeting is disappointing.

My hope

My hope is that before I die I will  look up the data from Mauna Loa and see a reduction in the slope of the curve.

So that when I extrapolate the data from the 2020s, it will be shallower than the slope from the 2010s.

I daren’t hope to see the curve flatten, but I hope my children will live to see that, and then eventually to see it fall.

This would still commit us to a great deal more Climate Change in the coming century, much of it which will be very bad.

But to have collectively and deliberately changed the slope on the Keeling curve would be a sign to all humanity that we have begun to take care of our own planet. And that the age of fossil fuels was ending.


3 Responses to “COP26: Is hope an option?”

  1. Sam Gibbs Says:

    My take….there will be no flattening of the C02 curve until we fully grasp the root causes of environmental destruction. In my mind these can be divided into several categories. 1/ Education. A well educated global population has the fundamental intellectual and technical capacity to understand the problem and begin to deal with it. 2/ Economic growth is in my mind the singular and most dangerous concept we have had shoved down our throats. The idea of economies failing based on lack of economic growth is sold to us as the benchmark of successful societies is wrong on so many levels….yet we dare not question the overriding din created in the media and by the worlds largest polluters that without economic growth we will fail. 3/ Overpopulation Overpopulation Overpopulation….need one say more.
    The sad irony is we as humans are killing the host….the metaphor rings loud as we see the shocking outcomes of the COVID pandemic.

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      Sam. I don’t think I disagree with anything you’ve said. But those three ‘root causes’ are probably harder than reducing CO2 emissions and flattening the curve. I would be hopeful that we could make progress on all of them at the same time rather than waiting for each one to be solved in turn – we really don’t have time.

      Best wishes. Michael

  2. Sustain | Says:

    Yes. It is is… Thank you 🌍

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