COP26 in Glasgow is pretty much over. I’ve been following along as best I can but I keep getting so many emails and news from people and groups on the ground reporting and trying to make sense of it all that I am way behind. But, in a couple days I will start seeing everyone summing up what did, or rather, didn’t happen. Oh yes, there have been lots of promises made, so many that I have a perpetual refrain of Fleetwood Mac’s Little Lies running through my head.
The mainstream media is woefully inadequate about nearly everything to do with COP26, reporting in soundbites devoid of context. So before I jump into a couple lies, let’s talk about what COP26 actually is.
A Brief History of COP
COP, Convention of Parties, is the result of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. There, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, an international treaty that acknowledges anthropogenic climate change, was signed and ratified by 196 countries. One of its core objectives was to stabilize global greenhouse gas emissions in order to prevent climate.
You can see how well this has worked out.
COP was created at Rio as an association of all the member states and tasked with having annual meetings to review the implementation of the convention and to elaborate and build on decisions made at previous COPs. The first COP was held in 1995 in Berlin, Germany. The COP meets every year, except in 2020 because of COVID.
So yeah, the world has been meeting every year since 1995 to solve climate change and nothing has been solved. Emissions have only gone up and up. And up. You and I would never get away with such poor job performance.
At COP3 in 1997, we got the Kyoto Protocol, which the United States doomed to failure by never ratifying it. After years of wasted time, the 2009 COP15 in Copenhagen had big goals and lots of hope.
The goal for COP15 was to craft a legally binding agreement for the whole world to be implemented in 2012. The plan called for a 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 based on 1990 levels. Three weeks prior to COP15, the United States and China met in Thailand and made a pact that any agreement reached in Copenhagen would not be binding. Thus, once again, ensuring no real climate action.
The Paris Agreement came out of COP21 in 2015. It is not binding, however, because if it had been, the United States wouldn’t have been able to get the Republican controlled Congress to ratify it. President Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement looked bad, but meant nothing since the United States hasn’t done anything to cut emissions. President Biden re-joining the Agreement, also means nothing since right before this current COP, he begged OPEC to produce more oil to lower the cost of gasoline for Americans so we could keep driving and keep consuming to keep the economy going.
For a more detailed short history, visit The Ecologist.
A Big Lie
The United States and a good many other rich countries in the global north are giving eloquent speeches about how much they are concerned about climate change and how important it is to help poorer countries because they are the ones who emit the least amount of carbon but are suffering the most. This is true, except for the concern part.
Twelve years ago at Copenhagen, rich countries pledged $100 billion a year by 2020 to help poorer countries adapt to and mitigate climate change. Because there was no COP last year (COVID), the plan was to raise the money this year. The fund has fallen well short of the goal.
The rich countries are making up all sorts of excuses and then promising that it will happen by 2023 and exceed $100 billion in 2024. Rrrriiiight.
The truth is, rich countries have the money but they don’t give a crap about climate change. Well they do, just not on how climate change affects poor countries composed of brown and black people and a good many of them former colonies of those rich northern countries.
A report came out at the end of October revealing that the largest greenhouse gas emitters spend, on average, 2.3 times as much money on border security than they do on financing climate adaptation and mitigation projects at home and abroad. Canada, the biggest offender, spent 15 times more on border security than on climate. That was shocking to me. The United States is third on the list with 11 times more (Australia is 2nd with 13 times more).
While the U.S. spends billions on border security, it spends even more on its entire military, no doubt making sure, among other things, that displaced people don’t even reach the borders to begin with. In a budget bill making its way through Congress, Biden asked for $750 billion dollars for the Pentagon and related work on nuclear weapons for the Department of Energy (this is more than the Pentagon requested). Congress said sure! And you know what, we’ll give them another $25 billion dollars. You can read more about this insanity at Tom Dispatch.
You should also know that the U.S. military emits more carbon than 140 countries combined, and that list includes some industrialized countries.
Take a moment to imagine what $775 billion dollars could do for people in the United States and for climate assistance in poorer countries. Instead it’s going to private military contractors and lining the pockets of very wealthy companies and people who like to tell you that your carbon footprint needs to be a top priority here–take some personal responsibility!
Red herrings everywhere.
Net Zero—The Biggest Lie
If you have been paying attention to COP26, or even the Paris Agreement or President Biden’s inadequate climate plan, you will have heard Net Zero mentioned. A lot. Net Zero by 2050 is the current rallying cry. It sounds great, doesn’t it? No carbon emissions by 2050? But that’s not what it means.
Net zero means there will still be plenty of carbon emissions, only the plan is that the amount produced will be balanced by the amount sucked out of the air. This plan is all predicated on an extremely expensive technology that is not scalable and itself produces carbon emissions.
The technology is called Direct Air Capture (DAC) and there are several papers about it and other net zero schemes nicely summarized in Why net zero carbon contraptions are absurd.
Here is how absurd DAC is. Let’s say we decide to not cut carbon emissions and to just suck all the excess produced out of the air, not even to suck out the extra that’s already causing global warming. To remove the current global 36 gigatons of annual carbon emissions, we would need 30,000 large-scale DAC plants. Each one would cost at least $500 million to build. To store 10 gigatons of carbon (remember current annual emissions are 36 gigatons), would required four million tons of potassium hydroxide, one and a half times more than currently exists in the world! But say we somehow find more potassium hydroxide, running all those DAC plants would require a sixth of all the world’s energy supply.
Let’s say we somehow make the process more energy efficient. How is this carbon going to be stored? And where? We will need an enormous pipeline system and miles of underground caverns, and a monitoring system to find and fix leaks.
I’ve heard glowy reports about how captured carbon can be used to make plastics and turned into fertilizer and all sorts of other things. But this is not capturing carbon, this is just transforming it temporarily before it is re-released into the environment. And the transformation processing itself would likely release carbon into the atmosphere.
Climate scientists warn net zero is dangerous because it continues to foster a belief in technological salvation and reduces the urgency to lower emissions now. As David Spratt writes at Climate Code Red, net zero 2050 is a “deadly scam.”
But clearly President Biden and a whole lot of other world leaders have bought into the scam because it is politically easier than actually doing something real.
What We are Left With
There was a deal made at COP26 that originally called for coal being phased out. However, at the last minute, the language was changed to “phased down.” Everyone seems to be blaming India, but there are over 500 fossil fuel lobbyists at COP26, and I suspect they had a big part to play outside the official negotiations.
So what we get are lies and empty promises, promises that are not binding, promises that can be ignored, and promises that do absolutely nothing to stop the world from rocketing past 1.5C and making large swaths of the planet uninhabitable for humans or anything else for that matter.
Believe me, I know how overwhelming and scary it all is; how powerless you feel. But if you at all care, it’s time to shake off the fear and complacency and step up. Put pressure on your local governments to make changes. Put pressure on companies. Speak up at your workplace, in your social groups, at school, talk with your family. Our leaders are failing us. Are we going to accept that? Or are we going to take up the challenge and make change happen?
We have a choice. Doing nothing is a choice. Accepting the status quo is a choice. Waiting for government to do the right thing is a choice. Hoping for a technological miracle is a choice. Using your talents to make change is a choice.