Larry Speight brings us his monthly column –

Understanding Cop26

By the time you read this Cop26 will be well under way and even if you had minimal interest in it, perhaps out of a mixture of despair and cynicism, you will nevertheless likely be aware that it is happening. As the outcome of the proceedings will profoundly affect every person and every generation until the end of humankind’s tenure on Earth, not to mention every species in the biosphere, there are some things it is important to know. Among these are its two cardinal aims.

The primary one is for the 196 countries who signed the 2015 Paris Agreement to pledge the amount of global warming emissions they will reduce by 2030 and each subsequent five years until they reach net-zero emissions by 2050. These pledges are known as ‘nationally determined contributions’. If the reduction pledges are less that what is required the average global temperature is expected to reach 2.7 degree Celsius by the end of the century. A temperature that will mean the end of civilization as we know it involving an unimaginable amount of suffering, hardship and the loss of much of humankind’s cultural heritage. The scientific consensus is that the rise in temperature can be kept below 1.5 degrees, as per the pre-industrial level, if significant reductions are made by the major economies. The global average temperature is 1.2 C while that of the Arctic is an alarming 3.5 C. These climate disrupting temperatures mean that the age of a lax regard to greenhouse gas emissions is over.

As a target is an aspiration unless based on a step-by-step procedure as to how it will be realized the signatures to the Paris Agreement have to submit a detailed plan as to how their emission reduction targets will be achieved. This involves intense political bargaining within each country as to what part of the economy has to make what greenhouse gas emission cuts. In Ireland, north and south, the sector over which much haggling is taking place is the beef and dairy sector. In the Republic the sector accounts for 37 per cent of emissions.

Another aim of Cop26 is for the wealthy countries to agree their individual share of the $100 billion annual transfer to the low-income countries to help them put in place technologies that have zero greenhouse gas emissions as well as help them mitigate and cope with the ecological catastrophes that will increasingly result from climate breakdown. The $100 billion is a fraction of the £2 trillion the International Energy Agency say is needed. The transfer pledge was made in 2009 and supposed to have been fully implemented in 2020.

Even if Cop26 goes as well as can be expected with ecstatic cheers all round there are a number of seemingly insurmountable hurdles countries have to overcome in meeting their pledges. These include dismantling and repurposing much of the physical infrastructure and financial arrangements that underpin our global economy as well as reconfiguring the dominant mindset which evolved in concurrence with them. Given the invested interests of powerful corporations and individuals making these changes within a short period of time will, even with the best of efforts, be no easy matter. The opposition of Senator Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, to President Biden’s clean electricity program is an illustrative example. His refusal to vote in favour of the legislation has caused major setbacks. Readers may not be surprised to learn that he earns considerable financial dividends from his investments in the fossil fuel industry and represents a state which has a high number of jobs tied to coal.

The gargantuan nature of what is required is compounded by the clear lack of grasp governments, corporations, financial institutions and other bodies have of the need for a complete restructuring of society to take place without delay. Or it might be that these institutions understand the dimensions of the task but chose for the reason of short-term gain to take an incremental approach. This is one that, among other things, avoids constructing a rigorously fair and transparent taxation system, persuading people to significantly reduce their consumption of meat and dairy produce, ration their number of flights, and governments severely cutting back on the colossal sums annually spent on the military. In 2020 the global sum was $2 trillion. This includes the $72.6 billion the nine nuclear countries spent on nuclear weapons. The incremental approach, which is that of most governments, allows the vehicle we are collectively in to drive straight over the cliff into the abyss.

A number of reasons account for why society shies away from accepting that an ecological sustainable society, one that has zero greenhouse gas emissions, a thriving bio-diverse world and an absence of poverty and avoidable ill-health, cannot be a replica of our present consumerist society. The politics and marketing of electric vehicles in the format of the myth of individual autonomy and a means of status signalling exemplifies the commitment of governments and powerful business interests to the prevailing Earth destroying paradigm. This helps explain why the Irish and UK governments are intent on spending billions on new roads. The UK government plans to spend £27 billion over the next ten years.

The Earth destroying paradigm is summed up by James Ball in The New European, 21-27 October 2021. He writes that “Green tech and building can be good for growth and the environment.” Economic growth, dubbed green or not, is based on the extractive economy which in many instances has an inherent number of negatives including pollution, loss of biodiversity and poverty-level wages for many. This is in part illustrated by the case that the 70 per cent decline in the global population of mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and amphibians since 1970 aligns with the worldwide rise in economic growth in this period.

The greatest impediment to becoming an ecological sustainable and equal society is not the lack of technical know how or organising abilities but our unwillingness to envisage such a society coupled with insufficient awe, love and respect for the natural world. As these can be addressed through education, in the holistic understanding of the term, there is no need for despair. Further, as each of us has a stake in the present and future health of the biosphere we are, whether we acknowledge it or not, ecological actors rather than spectators. Knowing this is empowering.