COP26: Likely to save the planet?

Now, I’m not the sort of person that resorts to hyperbole for a dramatic opening sentence but, in case you hadn’t noticed, the future of the planet is hanging in the balance. This is not the statement of a wild-haired fanatic, living with badgers and chanting cross-legged in the woods but a widely acknowledged scientific fact. For the last few years a growing list of eminently respectable people have been warning us that urgent action is required: Sir David Attenborough does it, HRH Prince Charles regularly does it, António Guterres, the ninth Secretary-General of the United Nations definitely does it, even peers of the realm do it. Given irrefutable scientific evidence and the reverberating voices of powerful and respected people, then surely, you would think, something is going to change. We know the causes of climate change. We know what action needs to be taken. So, what is stopping us?

Maybe some of those in power still fail to understand the evidence. Maybe, there are vested interests that seek to protect the status quo. Maybe we, as individuals, prefer to believe that, with a bit of luck, everything will be all right.

The political response to climate change has been depressingly slow. We need to understand and address the reasons for this woeful lack of action. In addition, we need to identify the capabilities that our political and economic institutions will require if they are to manage radical social and economic change. As the Climate Change Conference in Glasgow approaches, I feel a heavy sense of apprehension that little will change. Perhaps there will be some well-meant gestures to help poorer nations deal with the impending crisis. Inevitably, there will be promises to reduce carbon emissions. But will we really address the fundamental problem, namely, that our current global economic model is unsustainable. I have to confess, I’m not excessively hopeful.

Richard Joy is the author of: Unsustainable, The Urgent Need to Transform Society and Reverse Climate Change.   https://bristoluniversitypress.co.uk/unsustainable

* Richard Joy is a member of Green Liberal Democrats

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32 Comments

  • Brad Barrows 20th Sep '21 - 9:30am

    I agree – the radical changes to lifestyles that may be required to reduce harmful emissions are politically unacceptable so no party that wants to be re-elected will ever inflict them on their population. People are willing to recycle more, perhaps switch to alternative sources of heat for their homes, but try to tax flying so heavily that they can no longer afford to fly abroad for a holiday and voters will push back.

  • Jenny Barnes 20th Sep '21 - 1:56pm

    Many people cannot afford to fly abroad for a holiday. Many people can’t afford any sort of holiday.
    See https://fullfact.org/economy/do-15-people-take-70-flights/
    70% of all flights taken by 15% of the population; 52% of the population took none. So is it reasonable for the 52% to suffer catastrophic climate change to indulge the 15% of frequent flyers? I think not.

    The news about skyrocketing gas (and therefore electricity) prices in this context is interesting. Anecdotally I heard of someone quoted +£900 a year to switch from their current deal. Why is this happening now, when the world economy, while recovering is nowhere near where it was 2 years ago? My theory goes like this:
    Covid causes big drop in economic activity & oil usage
    Energy being in inelastic supply and demand needs hug price moves to balance.
    Oil price drops ( a few recent oil futures contracts were negative – no storage)
    US shale producers stop drilling – they need to keep drilling to keep their supply going, and no point to sell at a loss.
    US shale oil production drops
    Associated US gas production drops (by product of oil production)
    World economy starts to rebound, oil price stays low, lots in storage, ME producers need money.
    US gas production drops while world and US gas demand rises.
    US starts to import gas pushing the world price up.

    Ofc the domestic energy price cap in the UK does not help; price caps only seem to work when they aren’t doing anything. Once they bite, no-one will sell to you at a loss if they can help it.

  • Brad Barrows 20th Sep '21 - 2:08pm

    @Jenny Barnes
    So 33% of the population fly infrequently. (48%-15%). These will be the people who only fly for a well earned holiday or to visit some close relative they have not seen in person for some time. I’m sure that most of those people will be pretty unhappy if they see that the government is deliberately raising taxes on their few flights to make the costs unaffordable for them so as to force them to not be able to fly to a well earned holiday or visit their close relatives. The only power they have to show their displeasure will be to vote – and I’m sure they will do so against whatever party were responsible for that policy.

  • Nonconformistradical 20th Sep '21 - 2:56pm

    @Brad Barrows
    “So 33% of the population fly infrequently. (48%-15%). These will be the people who only fly for a well earned holiday or to visit some close relative they have not seen in person for some time.”

    If the destination is somewhere in Europe then there are alternative means of making the journey such as trains. One might even get to see some interesting scenery during the journey.

    If the close relative is in Australia – no other reasonable means of getting there in a reasonable time other than flying, but that doesn’t mean avoiding taking responsibility for one’s impact on the climate does it?

    Situations like that might be a factor in favouring taxing frequent flyers more. One round trip/year to Australia is one thing but several such trips is a different matter.

  • Brad Barrows 20th Sep '21 - 3:35pm

    @Nonconformistradical
    I disagree with using taxes to deliberately make flying unaffordable for ordinary people while allowing the rich to carry on as before. The only fair way is for each individual to have an annual non-transferable ration of air-miles (for lack of a better phrase) which they must spend along with the ticket price to buy a ticket, with no exceptions for business travellers – and private ownership and use of any airplane that use fossil fuels has to be ended to prevented super-rich individuals or companies merely buying and flying their own aircraft to get round the rules.

  • John Marriott 20th Sep '21 - 3:53pm

    When it comes to flying, especially long distances, unless you want to take the Amy Johnson approach, say, to get to Australia in various stages, you surely still have to rely on jet propulsion, which is one of the significant causes of global warming, or at least that’s what I’m led to believe. Electric planes might work around Europe or anywhere where you only require to travel relatively short distances.

    Mind you, there’s always the boat. After all that’s how cricket and rugby teams used to travel down under until the early 1950s, but nobody today has got the time to take “a slow boat to China”. So, what DO you do, if you want to reduce air pollution other than reduce the amount of times that planes are up there?

    This idea of increasing taxes to nudge people in a certain direction always confuses me. Take the congestion charge in London. Is it there to get motorists to think twice about using their cars, or is it actually a means of raising more cash? It seems to me that, when lush comes to shove, people just pay up and look happy. That’s likely to be what the air travelling holidaymakers of the future will do as well.

  • William Francis 20th Sep '21 - 9:15pm

    @Brad Barrows.

    I disagree. Just because people don’t want to see their living standards fall doesn’t mean they don’t want action.

    The countries with the most democratic systems are the ones making the biggest emissions reductions with the most ambitious targets. The Germans have seen their consumption-adjusted emissions decline by 28% (by 2019) since 1990, Denmark 16% (2018), Netherlands 24% (by 2018), Sweden 17% (2018).

    Voter opposition isn’t the enemy.

  • Nonconformistradical – “Situations like that might be a factor in favouring taxing frequent flyers more. One round trip/year to Australia is one thing but several such trips is a different matter.”
    Frequent fliers are already taxed more – simply by taking more flights they pay more taxes and duties which are levied per flight.

    The real problem is that in a few short decades we’ve become used to cheap and plentiful flights. So, on the one hand, we have members of the public wanting to jet off to wherever for a bit of sun and on the other, we have the travel industry that doesn’t really care about climate change or its pivotal role in the CoViD pandemic, because their self-interest is far more important.

  • Chris Platts 21st Sep '21 - 7:23am

    What are the ordinary people supposed to do,most have no money to replace boilers, change cars and insulate homes. We live in an old house with thick walls in the country side,there are no buses so are dependent on a car. Our house cannot be insulated because it is so old,we are dependent on solid fuel for heating .
    We need financial support from the government to change.

  • Peter Davies 21st Sep '21 - 8:26am

    Taxes raise revenue. If you raise taxes on infrequent flyers, you can cut taxes on things they do frequently leaving them no worse off. The frequent fliers will be worse off and the non-flyers better off.

  • Nonconformistradical 21st Sep '21 - 8:44am

    @Chris Platts
    “Our house cannot be insulated because it is so old”

    Are you saying it has solid walls rather than cavity walls so the usual method of wall insulation isn’t available to you?

    If so what prevents you from adding insulation on the inside? OK you’d lose a bit of room space but if I’ve understood the problem correctly might it be worth it?

    The other point about insulating on the inside of the house is that it needn’t all be done in one go. If you could establish which room(s) lose the most heat you could start there. Might be worth hiring a thermal imaging camera so you can see from outside the house where losses are greatest……?

    What about the windows? Double-glazed already or might you be able to do the job in stages (one room at a time)?

    I assume you’ve dealth with draft problems…?

    But do make sure the house remains breathable to avoid condensation problems.

  • If we are to deal with the problems which we see on our planet we must recognise the reality of the present situation. I heard the prime minister on the television this morning. He is in the USA at present. He pointed out that the problems of climate change had been caused by the rich nations not the poor ones. Therefore he said it is for the rich nations to pay for the changes needed.
    This of course is the reality. I am glad that he has publicly recognised it.
    We have an economic system which has clearly failed. We do not really have a political system on our planet.
    We have passed the point of no return. We must find a way of managing of planet. Having failed to do so up to now I am pessimistic.
    Perhaps we could start by taking the vote and the right to occupy any public office from those of us over 70, and look at involving younger people more?

  • John Marriott 21st Sep '21 - 9:29am

    Why not develop hydrogen, which can apparently be pumped through existing gas pipes? OK, you eco warriors, make sure that you produce it by wind power; but don’t rule it out completely. Also, JCB is developing an internal combustion engine fuelled by hydrogen and then there’s the hydrogen fuel cell. That might possibly be the answer for the future of jet propulsion as well. What’s not to like? Don’t just base your views on what happened at Lakehurst, NJ, in 1937! As Basil Brush used to say when he thought he had a good idea; ”Boom, boom!”

  • Jenny Barnes 21st Sep '21 - 9:55am

    You can get a second hand nissan leaf for under £7k. You don’t have to buy brand new.
    There’s a cost to putting in a home charger , a few hundred, but after that it’s cheap motoring. Ok, range on a mk1 leaf is quite limited, but it will do all your local journeys.

  • Jenny Barnes 21st Sep '21 - 10:06am

    Numbers are helpful. Round trip London to sydney is 6 tonnes co2, London barcelona is 0.5 tonnes. There are trains, or for a family an electric car trip could replace the journey to spain. Australia..even one flight in 10 years is probably too much. However, hydrogen could replace kerosene for jet fuel longer term. Must be green hydrogen, though.

  • @Jenny Barnes – Must be green hydrogen, though.
    One of the nice things about the massive rise in gas prices is that it seems to have brought to a temporary stop the commercial production of fertilizer from natural gas and its associated emission of carbon dioxide via the food processing industry; by making it uneconomic…

  • In answer to the question, no it won’t ,neither will any other international meeting, grouping or agreement, as a species we are too selfish to self absorbed and too self destructive…major drag.
    Tom Harney, I prefer the Logan’s Run solution, population governed by A.I. no tedious elections and broken promises, a life of complete hedonism up to 30 years old, followed by enforced euthanasia on your 30th birthday. Climate change solved, problem of those pesky 70 year olds, they are just wasting resources that could be better used by the young aren’t they? Solved.

  • My response to Justin. I have no idea what Hollywood films have to do with anything.
    My points were in fact very serious. Climate change is only one of the problems facing us as humans. There are also the pollution of all of our ecosystems. Our atmosphere is poisoned, our land, seas and rivers are polluted. We, as humans, have been responsible for this over a period of thousands of years. However there has been an acceleration of all of these in the last few hundred years. And this acceleration has come from the rich nations of the earth.
    We have political systems which cannot deliver the changes we need. My own view is that we need to find ways of accepting that we all have a responsibility, and therefore the system of elected dictatorship that we have cannot work. Part of that is the culture we have where we pat ourselves on the backs for having a political system which is clearly not working.
    I have not suggested we murder old people. But let us examine carefully the figures for life expectancy in different countries, and for life expectancy in different income levels in our own country.
    A final point on issues about electric cars. We need an approach which looks at the manufacture of these and all other machines. We need to look at what is required for making of them, using them, and disposing of them. One little example is the use of rare earths in electronics. They are called rare not because they are rare, but because there are no high concentrations of them. That means we must have large mines to get supplies. And of course energy is used in the refinement process. These elements are used in all of our mobile phones.
    I think I may be forgiven for thinking that at 80 I might not have the same time horizon as when I was 20. I do not think I am in favour of someone deciding to kill me. I certainly am strongly opposed to the idea that we can create machines which can somehow decide what sort of society we need. Calling this AI does not change things. Humans design them, in spite of the Hollywood films.

  • More seriously then, whilst all the time ecological information you post above is true and has been known for decades. I find your suggestion that any particular group of people be actively disenfranchised (with the and debatable exception of those in prison, those lacking capacity and those under the legal age to vote) to be something which I find wholly unacceptable, and struggle to see how such a view could align with any liberal values that I understand, or how imlementing it would have any positive impact on climate change. If you don’t want to vote or hold office then don’t, but why withdraw that right from others, to what end?
    In all honesty for a liberal site I have seen some quiet astoundingly illiberal ideas posted here, it’s not something I see on other sites including Conservative Home, Labour List or Even the Spectator.
    Young people should, of course be, encouraged to vote and take part in civic society but I don’t see a clear link between that and removing the vote and right to hold public office from people who are 70 years old and above .
    I think sometimes we pile too much expectation on the shoulders of young people; they do not have any specific or unique insight into climate change or it’s solution, any more than my generation did at their age, or the one before that, and I doubt that for the most part their carbon footprint is much smaller, if at all than, the previous group of 18 – 30 year olds. My own kids while t rightly concerned struggle to find anything they really want to give up or stop but can come up.with loads of things that other people should do, which from conversations at the school gate is par for the course.
    FYI A.I.’ s are now designing new A.I.’s

  • Kyle Harrison 21st Sep '21 - 1:41pm

    The Lib Dems are a broadly pro capitalist, pro globalisation party. So if you want a completely radical change to the global economy I don’t think being a Lib Dem is a good way to start. It always interests me how some Lib Dems seem to think of the Lib Dems as being some kind of radical, left wing party. When it so obviously isn’t and never has been.

    I would argue there will never be such radical changes, the type I imagine this author wants, because it is totally impractical and would be met with strong resistance by electorates across the world. You need to embrace technological change, set the right framework to encourage more renewables, electric cars etc… Yes, some lifestyle change is possible, and many rich humans (the West) does eat too much meat for what’s good for us or the planet so it’s not unreasonable for govt to try and encourage as to eat less meat. Encouraging us to use less plastic etc… But we need to innovate our way into developing a more sustainable planet. There really isn’t a viable alternative. Mass lifestyle change is unlikely to ever happen. And good luck getting China or India to do that.

  • It is a strange circular argument to say that I know what Liberalism is, I am a Liberal, I do not agree with something, therefore the something is illiberal. I believe that at the present time we have to abandon “isms” and find ways of enabling people to make decisions together. This would involve ensuring full access information needed, and of course a change in people’s expectations. I wonder what would have happened if the attempted coup in the US had succeeded.
    The fact is that we do not have a means of making decisions and planning for the whole planet. Will this happen? I think not. So when are we going to at least try by ensuring that the evidence is available to all, and some means found of accepting that we need to achieve this. This can be easiest achieved by starting locally. And start by examining he ways decisions are made within our party.
    Oh and I do know that computers are used in designing circuits. Doing it on paper would be impossible. Call that AI designing AI if you like. The greatest power at the moment is held by multinational companies, and their directors might be more concerned with their share price than taking over the world. Taking over the world was simply a byproduct.

  • It is as you say a strange circular argument, and not one that I am using, I am looking your statement re taking the vote and right to occupy public office from ‘those of us who are over 70’ and seeing if it aligns with Liberal values as defined by their own definition of them.
    I may be wrong but if I had to bet, I would bet that most if not all Liberals and liberals would struggle to accept such an idea as aligning with their value base. I’m not a Liberal, but if I am wrong on this point, I truly have completely failed understand the whole point of the party and the philosophy.

  • Robert Hale 21st Sep '21 - 3:51pm

    Surely we should stop talking about saving the planet? This is really about saving the human species. Dinosaurs were wiped out by an exceptional event but the planet carried on. Whatever life was left behind evolved into what we have today which includes US! If one actually thinks about the negative effects against any positives effects we might have on the planet we would probably do it a favour by just disappearing!

  • Nonconformistradical 21st Sep '21 - 4:26pm

    @Robert Haie
    You’re right – the planet will survive.

    But it certainlyh isn’t only humans in trouble – a lot of other life forms on Planet Earth are in trouble too.

  • Sad to say, I agree with you, the planet and life on the planet will continue, the human species may be facing extinction, but all things considered it would be no great loss. If there was another species on the planet that behaved like us we would probably do all.we could to erradicate it, in fact we may have done so in the past.

  • Peter Davies: “Taxes raise revenue. If you raise taxes on infrequent flyers, you can cut taxes on things they do frequently leaving them no worse off. The frequent fliers will be worse off and the non-flyers better off.”

    Exactly. While I have sympathy for those with close friends and family in far-away places (my oldest friend lives abroad), the idea that everyone is entitled to a ‘well earned’ holiday somewhere you can only get to by flying is a modern construct, and not true for people currently on lower incomes, regardless of environmental taxes. And as has been said already, the environmental damage from flights to visit friends is the same as the environmental damage from flights to a meeting that could have been done on Zoom.

    If your loved ones live in a low lying country, or one already suffering the consequences of extreme weather, then you have an added incentive to reduce air travel.

    Too many people imagine their holidays according to their bragging rights. Going somewhere new, far-flung and ‘exotic’ is best for showing off on social media. But quality of life doesn’t hinge on being able to show off. The last year and a half has helped a lot of people shift their focus onto quality of life, and what that really means. We need to keep people thinking along those lines and not be distracted by what the adverts in glossy magazines tell us it is.

    Agreed Nonconformistradical. When I talk of the future of the planet, I’m thinking of it as a habitable place for all of life, and not just for humans. The climate emergency and biodiversity emergencies are linked and real. Our species would survive much longer than most.

  • Aviation is something of a side issue. It accounts for 2.5% of global CO2 emissions. The Secretary-General’s remarks to the media following the Informal Leaders Roundtable on Climate Action made the priorities clear https://www.un.org/sg/en/node/259178
    “I want to mention one specific challenge – energy. Governments must shift subsidies away from fossil fuels and progressively phase out coal use. If all planned coal power plants become operational, we will not only be clearly above 1.5 degrees – we will be well above 2 degrees. The Paris targets would go up in smoke. OECD nations need to end coal use by 2030.
    Developing nations need to follow suit by 2040. We need coalitions of solidarity – between countries that still depend heavily on coal and countries that have the financial and technical resources to support transitions, because it is essential that no more coal power plants are built.
    On finance, developed nations need to implement their promise to mobilize $100 billion dollars a year for climate action in the developing world from 2021 to 2025. We failed in 2019 and 2020. OECD calculations say we are about 20 billion dollars short. Failure to fulfil this pledge would be a major source of the erosion of trust between developed and developing countries. Developed nations need to bridge this gap. And I was encouraged by what I heard today.
    Increased support from international financial institutions is also crucial. So is the mobilization of assistance from the private sector – both financial and technological. Many asset owners and managers and other financial institutions are now shifting their investments toward a decarbonized, sustainable and resilient economy. But these private finance flows will not cover the immediate needs of the many countries that need support now, or who cannot borrow money because of their debt burden. Again, developed nations need to step up. Finally, on adaptation, we are seeing indeed that all countries are increasingly vulnerable to climate disruption. But the developing world is the least able to adapt and build resilience. As I mentioned, it is very important to reach 50 percent of climate finance in adaptation. And I have been asking all donors and financers to commit to that allocation.
    Overall, my message this morning, and to the Conference of Parties in November, is that we need decisive action now to avert climate catastrophe.”

  • Robert Hale 21st Sep '21 - 7:54pm

    Yes, it’s true other species are indeed in trouble. However it’s us, generally, who are the source of those troubles. So it’s a choice on the one hand of taking the fairly drastic action to reduce the human species’ impact on those others we share the planet with, or hanging on as long as we can before something comes along, perhaps a zoonotic virus, to take us out of the equation. We have been warned!

  • Peter Martin 21st Sep '21 - 8:56pm

    @ Joe,

    “Aviation is something of a side issue. It accounts for 2.5% of global CO2 emissions.”

    Not quite so minor as your 2.5% figure might suggest.

    There are other GH gases emitted from aircraft besides CO2. Also aircraft will emit other pollutants, plus contrails, high in the atmosphere where they will have more effect on the climate. Estimates for the contribution to global warming from aviation vary from 3.5% to 5%.

    https://www.newscientist.com/article/2207886-it-turns-out-planes-are-even-worse-for-the-climate-than-we-thought/

  • Matt Wardman 21st Sep '21 - 9:24pm

    @Chris Platts

    I hope that most ordinary people have taken advantage of the various free (for basic measures such as loft insulation) or subsidised /means tested (for more complex measures such as replacement boilers) which have been available at most times since about 2013. I think the current one is called ECO3.

    And have accessed the free helpines to help signpost the schemes.

    The free lost insulation tends to require less than 100mm to exist. If you have 100mm take it out, put it the shed, and use it to insulate some of your solid walls with drylininging, or under your suspended floors.

    Personally I have been able to access about 4 or 5 sets of loft insulation, and a couple of boilers, for tenants.

    For myself, the car charge point was installed when they were being done free a few years ago. Partial or perhaps full grants are still available when you get a new or secondhand electric car. The last time I looked £350 grants were available.

    MW

  • @Jenny Barnes. The EU provided electricity to us at 4.5p per kilowatt. The rest was put on by UK. We are now out of the EU single energy market. We will be fleeced even more. I am paying already 25p per kilowatt on a prepayment meter the landlord won’t change!!

  • Should have said – this is England.

    Scotland is iirc more generous wrt electric charger grants.

    @siv

    If you are a t in England you have a legal right to swap your prepayment electric meter to a normal one or I think a Smart Meter without reference to your LL using a supplier of your choosing, unless there are unusual circs which apply. I would expect that the other nations are the same.

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