Towards the end of last year, world leaders and delegates gathered in Sharm-el-Sheikh for 12 days of speeches, negotiations, and exhibitions. The key focus areas were the promise of innovation and clean technologies, as well as the importance of water and agriculture to the climate crisis. In the opening speech, the new United Nations Climate Change Executive Secretary, Simon Stiell, described ‘a new era to do things differently’ and emphasised the need to deliver, to ‘turn words into actions.’ But can we honestly say, looking back, that COP achieved what it set out to achieve? The IPCC now warns that a ‘liveable’ future is in jeopardy. That should remind us that we don’t have the luxury of self-indulgence with respect to climate action.
It is well beyond doubt that the COP framework has led to action and profound changes, including in attitudes. By virtue of its existence, it highlights and communicates the importance of the climate emergency, and the need for all the world’s countries to play their part. But 27 years and 27 meetings of the signatories to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change later, it’s clear that this hasn’t been enough.
Emissions are still going up. The concentration of methane in the atmosphere is growing at an alarming rate, and even emissions reductions across Europe, where successive governments have taken committed climate action, have been cancelled out by the emissions discharged in the movement of the goods they import. Speeches, negotiations, exhibitions, areas of focus, demands to do more, and all the activity that flows from that, hasn’t translated to meaningful change. As we approach the summer of 2023, what needs to be done simply hasn’t been done.
Why COP hasn’t moved the needle
This raises the question: why? Faced with a crisis in the COVID era, there was an explosion of innovation that helped us to manage, endure, and escape the pandemic. Indeed, innovation touched almost every area of life, allowing companies, new and old, to move operations online, goods to be delivered at a rapid pace, and doctors to consult their patients digitally. A vaccine was discovered, tested, mass-produced and distributed, bringing the crisis to a close. So why do we see nothing comparable in respect to the climate crisis—despite the existential threat it poses to human life and the human way of life?
What COVID can teach us
The short answer is that it doesn’t matter. The fact is that it is no longer working. And the Covid experience is instructive because it shows what does work. Yes, the context was very different: everyone was affected by the virus, either by catching it or by being locked down to prevent its transmission. Yes, for a long time the effects of COVID were poorly understood, which pushed up anxiety, and a corresponding desire to bring the crisis to an end. But it was nonetheless a crisis, sufficiently similar to the climate emergency and could contain valuable lessons that can translate into actions.
The virtues of state ‘egoism’
Foremost among these is that a kind of egoism, at the state level, is highly effective for dealing with threats to society. The governments most successful at addressing COVID recognised early on that they were in a race against time, bleeding both money and lives and dependent on the patience and unity of their populations, which naturally frayed the longer the crisis wore on. They learned from the approach taken by other countries; but ultimately they understood that theirs was a unique context, and however ‘global’ the crisis was, they needed to focus first on themselves. They therefore leveraged the most effective tools they had at their disposal, imposing the needed regulations while working closely with the private sector to boost innovation and keep society on an even keel. Targets and promises didn’t end COVID, and nor did a globalist perspective: a close, focused, and meaningful public-private partnership did.
So principally we need a radical rethink of governance, driven by a recognition of what works: state regulation and private money. John Kerry’s carbon credit programme, the energy transition accelerator, may prove instructive here. Secondly, we need to focus on national solutions which, if successful, can be adjusted and adapted to other countries, a little like putting on your mask on a stricken aeroplane before helping someone else with theirs. Thirdly, we need realism: a willingness to discard failing solutions before they fail completely and embrace a new approach. We simply don’t have the luxury of carrying on with broken models and flawed approaches.
So let’s move forward with our eyes wide open. Let’s recognise that COP will always stand out as proof that faced with a planetary crisis, the countries of the world can, with a relatively small number of exceptions, put aside their differences and discuss solutions. Let’s recognise that some of the greatest minds around the world have come together at COP to negotiate, to debate and discuss, to share knowledge, and to chart a course forward. And that is no small thing. But let’s not mistake that for the concrete action that COP promised, and let’s make sure that this recognition remains front of mind as we move forward.
The IPCC emphasises as never before the danger of ‘tipping points’, and the mass suffering that a climate catastrophe will cause. We must be more practical. And if we make the necessary changes, we have every reason to believe that we can mitigate the worst effects of the climate emergency and adapt to the outcomes that are now inevitable. It worked during COVID. It can work for the climate crisis, too.
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