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The Future is Now: global heating and COP hot air?

A guest post by Jamie Morgan ( )

Critical realists and those influenced by them have a longstanding interest in environmental issues: Clive Spash, John O’Neill, Petter Naess, Leigh Price, Jin Xue, Ted Benton, Andrew Sayer and many others. Drawing on parallel themes a recent special issue of the journal Globalizations explores the role of economics in how we got to the current state of crisis and what might be done about it.  

As Charles Kettering has it, the future is important to us because it is where we will spend the rest of our lives. Few today are unaware that we are living in an era of declared “climate emergency” and ecological breakdown. After decades of warnings from ecologists and climate and Earth system scientists a once distant future has arrived as an “unwelcome guest” and we now face the thorny if not intractable problem of reducing carbon emissions by 45% on 2010 levels by 2030 and achieving net-zero by midcentury in order to have some reasonable prospect of limiting the average global temperature increase on pre-industrial levels to 1.50C over the century (though there is a slightly less restrictive target of 20C too). This is the “ambition” set by the Paris accord of 2015 and pursued by signatory parties within the United Nations Framework Conference on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and through its periodic conference of the parties (COP) meetings.

Glasgow COP26 has received more publicity than any COP since Paris and this is for several reasons. First, Paris requires signatories to provide nationally determined contributions (NDCs) which set out the emissions levels and reductions countries commit to over five-year periods and beginning around 2020, so Glasgow (which was delayed from that year by the Covid pandemic) is the first COP to be convened in the active first decade of the accord, even though all the COP meetings since 2015 have been working towards setting out mitigation and adaptation policy for this decade. Second, a series of high profile extreme weather events and declared natural disasters have made the public and politicians more aware that climate emergency has begun (average global temperature is not weather, it is the background effect on climate systems and their stability). Each successive year is now either the hottest or among the hottest on record for the modern era. Third, it is becoming increasingly evident that while a climate emergency has been declared, collectively governments (corporations and populations) are not treating the situation as an emergency.

Emergencies are typically situations where everything not directed at the problem at hand or which is liable to interfere with its resolution is suspended, all available and required resources are directed at the problem and it is addressed with urgency commensurate to that problem. The UNFCCC released an assessment of the latest NDCs just prior to Glasgow COP26. While NDCs had been updated and improved for 116 of the 191 Parties to the Paris accord, even if the NDCs are fully implemented, combined annual emissions are set to be 54.7 gigatons CO2 and equivalents (excluding land use changes and forestry) in 2030 and that is 15.9% above the 2010 level (not 45% lower).

A large proportion of carbon emissions stay in the atmosphere for hundreds and thousands of years, they are cumulative and add to atmospheric CO2 measured as parts per million (ppm), which then feeds through natural systems and processes and induces global heating. As things stand we look set to exceed the “carbon budget” for 1.50C early in the next decade (though some research indicates we may have done so already if all factors are taken into account) and are on track for much higher average temperatures over the rest of this century and into the next – a matter that rests on “climate sensitivity” and this is a contingent relation between doubling of atmospheric CO2 and temperature increase in an open system. In any case, climate change is just one of several conjoint problems created by the increase in scale and intensity of economic activity on the planet and the spread of industrialisation and consumerism. According to Earth system scientists over the last two decades or so the “safe operating space” of  3, then 4, and now likely 6 out of 9 components of Earth systems have been transgressed.

And yet only a fraction of the world’s population live the lifestyles that this system offers as an aspiration, the rest are involved in servicing it or merely suffer from it. A major rethink is thus required. The IPCC calls for mobilisation equivalent to wartime and the UN refers to its latest reports as a “code red warning for humanity”. There is growing recognition that “technofixes” are insufficient to resolve the problems we confront – since these mainly aim to transform energy systems and infrastructure but do not address the main drivers and mechanisms that place pressure on the planet. The Alliance of World Scientists, meanwhile, calls for immediate change across six areas (amounting to system transformation) and there is growing momentum for green new deal (GNDs) proposals to adopt social ecological economics principles and degrowth and postgrowth agendas. This means reducing the scale and intensity of economies on a global basis and redirecting activity and resources to meet primary welfare concerns – a project that amounts to continued social, technological and cultural progress but which  targets these within planetary limits and this degrowth is quite different than uncontrolled collapse or recession (which is what the absence of growth tends to imply to those socialised to our current framework).

In any case, expectations for COP26 are high but the current politics involve multiple tensions. More countries are signing up to net-zero but coordinated and urgent action is thin on the ground and a lot of the current “net” in net-zero seems like future promises predicated on technologies or policy formats that have little or no impact now and may come to nothing in the future. Countries are struggling to come to terms with the pervasiveness of change now required – transition from fossil fuel energy systems is a major first step that still needs to be taken in most countries. At the moment on a global basis we are increasing renewable energy capacity but not significantly reducing fossil fuel use. And beyond changing what powers a plug socket or propels our transportation there are numerous other changes that will affect all aspects of life. In this sense the COP process needs to start thinking about how to communicate the need for profound social and behavioural change, rather than conveying the impression (especially to the wealthy world) that things can carry on much as they are so long as we invest in new technology and switch to a more circular economy.

In the meantime achieving the agreed annual $100 billion of financing to support poorer nations is proving problematic. The UK may have one of the better track records in recent years for reducing emissions on a “production-based accounting” measure and it may also be one of the first to publish a set of more targeted policy areas to meet its legislated net-zero target, but behind this lies incoherence and lack of adequate follow-through or feasible policy. Similar problems can be identified in almost every country’s commitments and planning – whatever stage they are currently at in terms of legislation, financing and development. It is easy to pick out China and India for their coal dependency, or Russia and Brazil, and without changes in these the 1.50C target seems doomed, but one can identify different tensions within the EU the US and elsewhere, all working to fragment and delay what needs to be a focused, concerted and coordinated effort.

Clearly, we need practical solutions not just criticism, but we also need clarity regarding what must be done and what we can begin to do now. As any critical realist will aver, societies are not merely free floating sets of conventions in the social construction sense. They are structured sets of relations which we produce and reproduce and which enable and constrain. Changing society is not easy even though its existence depends on us. But societies can be changed and this is something we have the power to do if choose to organise to do it. Our survival and many other species may depend on us choosing wisely. The alternative seems to be a gamble that politicians, economists and technology will save us – and the evidence seems to be against that unless more pressure is exerted from below.

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