Observations of an Expat: Saving the world & political incompetence

A perfect storm appears to be gathering over Glasgow to obstruct the COP26 Climate Change Conference which starts on 31 October. Two hundred countries, 100 hundred world leaders and 30,000 participants from politicians to climatologists, to diplomats to businesses and to pressure groups will turn the Scottish city into a logistical nightmare for a fortnight. But that is an insignificant issue and a tiny price to pay if the world’s governments come up with a workable plan to reduce global temperature rises to the target of 1.5 degrees centigrade by 2050 or, hopefully, sooner. Unfortunately, that appears increasingly unlikely for a host of reasons. Top of the list is the world economy. It is in a mess.

The pandemic has left every country staggering under the weight of crippling debts and eaten up money that could otherwise be spent on the green revolution. So far, according to the World Economic Forum, the worldwide Covid bill has come to $11 trillion, and it is still growing. Money is being borrowed. Taxes will rise. And it is difficult to imagine how world leaders can afford to balance paying for the pandemic and the switch to renewable energy while satisfying public demand for improved living standards. It is a problem shared by democracies and autocracies alike. Long-term national and international policies are required but the political horizons of most democracies are tied to the next election.

As for autocratic countries, they need identifiable improvements in living standards to compensate for the lack of political freedom. This could help explain why China’s President for life Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin will be conspicuous by their absence in Glasgow. China has over a thousand filthy carbon-emitting coal-fired power stations and employs 12 million workers to feed them. Almost every climatologist and energy expert reckon that Beijing has zero chance of reaching net zero emissions by its extended target of 2060. China—the world’s workshop—is responsible for 27 percent of global carbon emissions.

Russia generates five percent of global carbon emissions. Reduction has flat lined over the past ten years and there appears to be minimal effort by Moscow to reduce them further. But more importantly is Russia’s role as a fossil fuel producer. It provides EU countries—the world’s largest trading bloc—with a third of its natural gas and—when you add oil—more than 40 percent of its energy needs. Moscow wants to increase rather than decrease that dependency which explains why Putin is dragging his climate change heels.

Next is the US where consumer opposition and Democratic Senator Joe Mancin have combined forces to block President Biden’s key Clean Electricity Programme. Under this plan power stations would be paid by the federal government to switch from fossil fuels to renewable sources at a rate of four percent a year. If they fail to reach this target the electricity utility companies pay the government. But a fly has appeared in this climate change ointment. Senator Mancin has emerged as Congress’s swing vote, and he has decided to use this position to block the programme in order to protect his coal mining constituents in West Virginia. Incidentally, Senator Mancin earns $500,000 a year from coal mining investments.

The problem of consumer opposition was highlighted by Republican Senator Joe Barosso who said recently that the current shortage of energy supplies plus general economic woes have alerted the high-energy consuming American public that legislation to protect the climate will mean major lifestyle changes. The Republican Party slogan is “no oil means no jobs.” And, of course, Donald Trump is the world’s leading climate change denier.

The European Union appears determined to go green. Or at least part of it. This week’s European Council summit was faced with a firm “NIE” from rebellious Poland to reduce its coal production and usage. In fact, Warsaw has threatened to torpedo the EU’s climate change action plan unless it is allowed to continue mining and burning coal. Three quarters of Poland’s energy is generated by its home grown coal.

Then there is the problem of weaning poverty-stricken developing countries off fossil fuels. Led by China and India, they successfully argued at the Paris Climate Change Conference that the carbon emission problem was created by developed countries and so developed countries should help finance the switch to renewable energy in the developing world. A guilt-ridden developed world agreed and pledged to foot the bill for up to $100 billion a year. However, it has fallen short of that target every year since.

President Biden promised at the UN General Assembly to double America’s contribution, but British PM Boris Johnson (who is hosting COP 26) has cast doubt on the West’s ability to pay even the current reduced figure. The role of Boris Johnson highlights another problem—competence. The British leader is disliked throughout the EU because of Brexit and regarded as a political lightweight everywhere else. He has not helped his cause—and that of climate change—by announcing the opening of a coal mine in Cumbria and the sale of new North Sea oil and gas production licenses. A respected and strong host is essential to the success of any international gathering. The issues listed above are only the tip of the iceberg blocking the COP26 Titanic. This Pandora’s Box has a single but important butterfly of hope—the alternative to failure is so much worse.

* Tom Arms is the Foreign Editor of Liberal Democratic Voice. His book “America Made in Britain” has recently been published by Amberley Books. He is also the author of “The Encyclopaedia of the Cold War.”

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13 Comments

  • John Marriott 23rd Oct '21 - 9:29am

    The chief stumbling block to fighting climate change is not governments but rather public opinion, especially in the West and in the US in particular. I’ve several times used a slogan I once saw which read “Everyone wants to go back to nature; but nobody wants to go on foot.

    The climate change crusaders don’t often do themselves any favours either. After the annoying tactics of Insulate Britain possibly briefly adding to pollution in the areas where they were gluing themselves to motorways, we keep being lectured by a Swedish teenager for whom compromise is a forbidden word and whose experience of life is limited by her age. Trump once suggested that she ought to go back to school to finish her studies. Some might say that, on this, he had a point.

    Of course our climate IS warming and our activity has played its part. How much is actually hard to quantify. That we in the West should cut down on our consumption is a no brainer. We clearly cannot go on as we have been doing. The trouble is that democratically elected governments need to get re elected. Others, like China, know that they need an expanding economy based on energy produced largely by burning fossil fuels to keep their people happy (Bread and Circuses with a dose of Karl Marx). I’m not surprised that President Xi isn’t planning an appearance in Glasgow. Mind you, when it comes to signing up to an agreement and then largely ignoring it, he could point to the host’s recent experience with the EU!

    Now that President Biden’s plans appear to be coming apart, what chance of real progress is there if two of the world’s greatest polluters cannot or won’t step up to the plate? Greta will be very annoyed!

  • Brad Barrows 23rd Oct '21 - 9:45am

    John Marriott sums it up nicely – people will not vote to make themselves significantly poorer or to make their lives worse. Politicians may be willing to agree to things that will not occur until the end of their political lives, but they will not choose to make things worse for their voters in advance of an election in which they will hope to be re-elected.

  • You do not have to be ultra right wing to be cautious about throwing the baby out with the bath water. Instead of constant lecturing a degree of compromise and reality would go a long way to ease transition.

  • The European Union appears determined to go green. Or at least part of it.

    Appears being the operative word. Germany opened a new coal-fired power station only last year…

    ‘Controversial German Coal-Fired Power Plant to Start This Week’ [May 2020]:
    https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-05-27/controversial-german-coal-fired-power-plant-to-start-this-week

    The plant is the latest flash point in a fractious debate over Germany’s exit from coal, a fuel that still provides about half the country’s electricity.

    He has not helped his cause—and that of climate change—by announcing the opening of a coal mine in Cumbria and the sale of new North Sea oil and gas production licenses.

    The Cumbria mine is for coking coal to make steel needed to build wind turbines. We’ll also be using oil and gas for decades to come so it makes sense to exploit our own resources rather than import it.

  • Nonconformistradical 23rd Oct '21 - 11:39am

    @Jeff
    “Germany opened a new coal-fired power station only last year…”

    To what extent do you think that Germany’s decision to close nuclear power plants before the end of their useful life could be a factor in continued coal usage there?

    I ask because it seems to me that the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions associated with nuclear power would be in the building of the power stations in the first place because of the use of so much concrete. In which case it seems to me more sensible to run existing stations to the end of their useful life.

    Yes I realise green politics in Germany is a factor…

  • ‘The European Union appears determined to go green. Or at least part of it.’

    Really?

    72 coal fired power stations in Germany compared with two in the UK.

  • Jenny Barnes 23rd Oct '21 - 11:46am

    “The Cumbria mine is for coking coal to make steel ”
    If you must have coal, you can import it from existing mines. However, you can make steel with hydrogen, you don’t need coal at all. https://tinyurl.com/fu7duvru

  • Brad Barrows 23rd Oct '21 - 12:10pm

    @Martin
    Perhaps I should be more precise with my point: people will not knowingly vote to make themselves significantly poorer or to make their lives worse. I think the evidence of the Brexit vote is that people can be tricked into voting to make themselves worse off or their lives worse – I believe the majority of those who voted for Brexit genuinely believed that they would be no worse off but that their lives would be better.

  • Christopher Moore 23rd Oct '21 - 7:06pm

    There’s a generational issue: many of those who are 50+, whether leaders or populace, are philosophical about climate change and cite their wider wisdom and life experience to condescend to urgency.

    But then they’ll not be here to face the consequences of their complacency.

    Once the current generation of teenagers / twenties take over, we will see serious action.

  • Nonconformistradical 23rd Oct '21 - 7:21pm

    “There’s a generational issue: many of those who are 50+, whether leaders or populace, are philosophical about climate change”
    I’m well over 50 and I’ve been worrying about climate change for ages. Doing what I as an individual can on things like house insulation, minimising car travel as far as a rural dweller can etc.

    “Once the current generation of teenagers / twenties take over, we will see serious action.”
    By which time it will only have got a lot worse.

  • Christopher Moore 23rd Oct '21 - 7:39pm

    I am 50+ too. But too many of our age do not get the urgency of the issue.

  • Peter Hirst 28th Oct '21 - 3:31pm

    How bad does the climate emergency have to get before all countries start putting solving it before domestic politics? Are there any leaders who understand that playing politics is going to be meaningless when the world burns? It seems it is only those countries that are in imment danger of disappearing that take the right approach.

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