Be Very Worried: COP 26 in Glasgow

American writer and environmentalist Daniel Quinn once said “But why? Why do you need prophets to tell you how you ought to live? Why do you need anyone to tell you how you ought to live?”

A bunch of prophets (world leaders) are set to convene in Glasgow for “COP” 26. Their consensus on the relevant matter, global warming, is muddled. As for domestic matters, these same prophets take a different approach, espousing nationalist fervor. Such a quandary of thought begs the question: who tells the prophets how to live, eh? 

Perhaps that paints politicians as a monolith, as egotistical and self-righteous, but it would be unwise to say that they aren’t deeply concerned with job security. As a result, politicians today attempt to distance themselves from international institutions, all the while agreeing to passive international plans that allow them to meet the needs of voters. Regional bodies such as the European Union (EU) aside, emission reduction initiatives are tacitly held together by scarcely recognized shared ideals, not actions.

In this sense, a systematic overhaul of the energy sector will be difficult, for it will have to account for market forces, which make up an economy that politicians and citizens are so reliant upon. From this basic supposition one can reason that any changes to energy policy will have to aid economic growth. Politicians in countries such as India and Nigeria often fret about the contradiction in climate policy logic–that they are being asked to use renewable energy at the expense of cheap fossil fuel fed development. Such an imposition reeks of neo-colonialism and 1990s structural adjustment programs, but it doesn’t have to if economic development is carbon neutral and offset by Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from “rich” countries.

One of the principal drawbacks to The Paris Agreement of 2015 was that countries pledged “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs), and did not follow through on them. Specifically, they didn’t do enough to support green energy in other countries via (FDI), or implement competitive carboning pricing. 

Geopolitics aside, current NDCs aren’t enough to meet the Paris goal of 1.5 degrees celsius above pre-industrial temps. If countries want to mitigate warming at all, they ought to consider the following in Glasgow. First, countries will have to address the free-rider issue that is apparent in global climate policy. Secondly, countries need to stabilize their intermediary fuel source, whether that be with liquefied natural gas (LNGs) or renewable energy. Lastly, and this is most likely to determine success in Glasgow, we need an international consensus to pair with national level commitments.

With respect to the free-rider issue, the issue is rather simple. Countries like Australia, China and India can get away with producing a vast amount of CO2 and methane, all the while pledging to do something about it. In the case of Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison only recently pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emission to net zero by 2050. The plan does not mention carbon pricing, and continues to fund Australia’s coal industry, which makes up 11% of their GDP. Furthermore, if you account for Australia’s net emissions, while including the coal they export, they are the 5th largest producer of greenhouse gases. If the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is to do anything in Glasgow, they ought to punish free riders such as Australia with sanctions, and more importantly, render them, and countries like them, powerless at the negotiating table. While this could ostracize them to a degree that is unproductive, the countries they send coal to are economically speaking, small and dependent on fuel imports. By dealing with the free rider problem, and reducing the use of coal, COP 26 could do something far greater than merely being a promotional tool for climate policy.

Prospective actions aside, there needs to be work done to address the instability of fuel supplies right now. Natural gas supplies in Europe are at a historic low, making countries in the EU increasingly dependent on Russian gas lines, and the geopolitics that come with that reality. This is in large part a byproduct of soaring demand in a post-pandemic world, but nonetheless presents complications as it relates to further development in renewables. The main takeaway from the energy crisis in Europe is that countries shouldn’t use it as an excuse to let up on the push towards renewable energy. In fact, such a calamity should accelerate renewable investment so as to stabilize the energy market in a region where 100% renewable energy reliance is not unthinkable. 

 Finally, Glasgow needs to make their action plan conditional and enforceable. While Paris represented the most comprehensive agreement in climate policy, it was not enforceable. As a result, NDCs should be tied to international free trade agreements. Furthermore, an international carbon price and market should be established in coordination with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). While these measures would be incredibly difficult to achieve, the agreement can be used to exclude countries from European and American markets. More importantly, such an agreement would show that development and sustainability can go hand and hand. Easier said than done. 

Nonetheless, all of this is conditioned on a new way of thinking about the global climate crisis. In time countries will come to recognize the immediate threat posed by climate change, but until then the methods for negotiation need to be carved out. As they exist today they are anachronistic and tired. A world led by the United States and its European allies is surely fading, and COP 26 ought to acknowledge this trend. They can do this by creating an agenda that does not sacrifice economic growth, but promotes it through unprecedented investment via FDI in renewable energy. The unique nature of the climate crisis is that national legislative bodies and their leaders are integrally tied to the international stage. If the climate crisis is truly an existential one, then national initiatives will eventually give to international institutions.

This inflection point will not occur at COP 26 and for all I know it may never happen. It is in this grey space of uncertainty that solutions will inevitably be forged. Even so, a narrative of impending doom creates a climate rife for prophets and preachers to fill the void and quell fears. Still, answers will need to be found, and if COP 26 doesn’t produce, do not be shocked to see the private sector step in to help mitigate the impacts of climate change. 

As for who tells prophets how to live, hell if I know.