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COP26 is the 2021 United Nations climate change conference.

In November, the UK, together with our partners Italy, will host an event many believe to be the world’s best last chance to get runaway climate change under control

For nearly three decades the UN has been bringing together almost every country on earth for global climate summits, known as COPs or Conference of the Parties. In that time climate change has gone from being a fringe issue to a global priority.

This year will be the 26th annual summit – giving it the name COP26. With the UK as President, COP26 takes place in Glasgow.

In the run up to COP26 the UK claims to be working with every nation to reach agreement on how to tackle climate change.

Most experts believe COP26 has a unique urgency.  The last real chance to make the necessary changes

I thought it would be useful to look at the 4 stated objectives of the United Nations climate change conference and compare and contrast them with the actions of the UK government and offer a view of an environmentalist and trade unionist who has been calling for action since before the COP began 26 years ago

Objective One

Secure global net zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach Countries are being asked to come forward with ambitious 2030 emissions reductions targets that align with reaching net zero by the middle of the century.

To deliver on these stretching targets, countries will need to:

1. Accelerate the phase-out of coal

2. Curtail deforestation

3. Speed up the switch to electric vehicles

4. Encourage investment in renewables.

Right from the off we find ourselves at odds with the objective.  The fundamental flaw seems to be that the participants seem to want to continue with current activity of use and consumption and expect science to come up with answers to enable this and industry to voluntarily risk their high profit margins.

As trade unionists we should argue for zero carbon, not net zero. The difference being net zero aims to recover the environmental degradation done by business as usual, whereas zero carbon reduces the environmental degradation to zero.  Recovering the environmental degradation will demand the use of scant resources and risks passing the tipping point.  As one activist put it, net zero is to carry on smoking and rely on science or a lung donor, whereas, zero carbon would achieve smoking cessation.

Accelerate the phase-out of coal

Whilst we agree that the phasing out of coal is a good thing, we do have to wonder if Boris Johnson would feel the same level of embarrassment and hint at calling for a public enquiry into the Cumbria coal mine if he was not to be the host of COP26

Curtail deforestation

This is an admirable step but must go further to allow the worlds forests to recover back to their diverse state by removing the intense monoculture plantations of grain for beef.  It is not enough to create swaths of pine trees.

Speed up the switch to electric vehicles

Assumes that we will carry on as usual making the same trips when the real answer is mass transport and a coordinated system for moving people and goods across the nation and world.  The technology to operate from our own homes has been around since the internet yet it took a pandemic to give up business lunches and use it.  It also comes up against those in the fuel industry that seek to confuse the issue by calling for the roll out of hydrogen and thereby delaying the decline of demand for oil.  We know from the behaviour of the big tech companies that they will not introduce version 2 until they have distracted all possible profit from version 1

There is also an unanswered question of battery reuse or disposal as unlike the well recognised domestic batteries that now have rechargeable options there is not yet a standard for car batteries that would govern reuse and disposal.

Encourage investment in renewables

The government and many financial institutions hide behind a claim that they engage, or encourage investment in renewables from polluters to get them to change their ways, this is nothing more than a distraction as only this month –

A candidate for the position of Unite secretary said recently “Britain is surrounded by off shore wind generation yet none of it is built or installed by British workers”

And a FOI revealed that Taylor Wimpey, one of the UK’s biggest house builders, opposed government plans to slash carbon dioxide emissions from new homes by at least three-quarters and argued against heat pumps, which are proposed as a replacement for gas boilers, one of the UK’s biggest causes of greenhouse gases. 

Acknowledging how far the UK is behind the rest of the developed world we are only just addressing the issue of Built in obsolescence where manufacturers refuse to allow parts to be made available to the general public thus creating a market for new products instead of repairing the existing.  This don’t repair but replace approach means we throw away machines and devices damned as out of date, the result is a growing mountain of e-waste. Last year alone, it was reckoned that more than 50m tonnes of it were generated globally, with only around 20% of it officially recycled. Half of the 50m tonnes represented large household appliances, and heating and cooling equipment. The remainder was TVs, computers, smart phones and tablets.

The UK must legislate to achieve zero carbon and as trade unionists we must demand that this new industry must have safe, secure well paid employment at its core as well paid employment drives the local economy as workers with expendable incomes create demand and hence further employment, reduce the burden upon the benefit system and increase tax revenues.

Objective 2

Adapt to protect communities and natural habitats

At COP26 we need to work together to enable and encourage countries affected by climate change to:

1. Protect and restore ecosystems

2. Build defences, warning systems and resilient infrastructure and agriculture to avoid loss of homes, livelihoods and even lives.

An admirable objective which we would all support but when will it start?  We had global coverage of a reservoir bursting its banks and the armed forces holding back the water yet no mention of the cause of the swelling reservoir nor lack of investment and foresight to protect the Victorian damn.

These works can only be achieved by a state controlled response, not a state tendering exercise.  We have the workforce, skills and ability to achieve these objectives yet monetisation will get in the way as creating profit for the city, or even my local pub landlord, will come first. 

We are willing to deploy the armed forces to stack shelves and transport food, then why not to protect and restore eco systems and build flood and erosion defences.

So again global governments will fail to act in a timely manner, waiting for the lung donation instead of stopping smoking……

Objective 3. Mobilise finance

To deliver on our first two goals, developed countries must make good on their promise to mobilise at least $100bn in climate finance per year by 2020. 

International financial institutions must play their part and we need to work towards unleashing the trillions in private and public sector finance required to secure global net zero.

Unfortunately, a lot of states around the world have invested their funds into National Oil Companies (NOC), and are continuing to do so, even though the oil majors are lowering their price estimates. With the energy transition speeding up, these state oil firms risk losing 400 billion dollars that could have been spent on healthcare, education or other things that enrich the lives of their citizens.

Rather than transitioning away from deadly fossil fuels, we’re seeing a renewed push for dangerous false solutions. The latest nonsense is from the Swedish State-owned Space Company that is involved in the development of solar geoengineering technology that would reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the earth. Our governments would rather fight the sun rather than change our economic system!

Another idea doomed to fail is the use of Carbon Markets

Carbon markets are being pushed by big corporations at the UN climate talks, but decades of experience tells us they won’t cut emissions.

Carbon markets are, as the name suggests, market-based mechanisms for reducing climate change emissions. They allow polluters to continue emitting greenhouse gases, for a price. There are two main kinds: cap and trade, and offsetting.

Cap and trade is where a limit is set at the country, state or regional level on how much pollution can be emitted, within a certain timeframe. If a party (e.g. a polluting company) emits less than their limit, they can sell what’s left of their quota to another party who doesn’t want to reduce their emissions. 

Offsetting is where a country, state or region pays another to make carbon savings, theoretically beyond what they otherwise would have done, so as to avoid making emissions reductions themselves.

The most obvious problem for carbon markets under the Paris Agreement is that theoretically, even if we were in a perfect world, with perfect rules which everybody abided by, we have simply run out of time to play around with trading and offsetting. 

What’s more, carbon offsetting projects have a track record of serious human rights abuses, particularly to Indigenous Peoples. One of the most infamous offsetting schemes known as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) – in addition to failing to do what it is supposed to do and reduce emissions – has seen violent evictions of Indigenous people and small holder farmers in the name of conservation projects, land-grabbing that sees forests destroyed to make way for monoculture plantations, and even ‘carbon slavery’ where families are tied into decades long contracts to tend forests for next to no pay.

Geo engineering includes a range of technologies from the dangerously distracting Carbon Capture and Storage, which the Scottish Government and the UK oil and gas industry are keenly pursuing, to the terrifyingly uncontrollable: ‘fertilisation’ of oceans with iron to cool them down, and solar radiation ‘management’ in which aerosols are sprayed into the stratosphere to block sunlight. The fundamental problem with all of these technologies is that they are impossible to test without actually putting into practice at a large scale. By the time we learned whether they worked or what their knock on adverse impacts were, it would simply be too late. 

Ultimately, carbon markets are a dangerous distraction from the just and people-centred solutions to the climate crisis that we know will cut emissions. Like putting a date on the end of oil, gas and coal extraction –  in Scotland and in all fossil fuel producing nations around the world – and planning for a rapid phase out of fossil fuels alongside a just transition for the workforce and wider communities. Like transforming the way we travel and how we produce and consume food, relying on public transport and agro ecology instead of private cars and industrial farming.

It’s not surprising that fossil fuel companies, including Shell and BP, are amongst the most ardent advocates of carbon markets. These companies have free reign to lobby openly and behind closed doors in the side events and corridors of the annual UN talks on climate change. In fact Shell boasts that it wrote the Paris Agreement. The same Shell that is paying the Scottish Government £5 million towards existing tree planting and calling it carbon offsetting.

That’s why we need to kick polluters out of the UN climate talks, like the World Health Organisation eventually kicked Big Tobacco out of its processes.

Objective 4. Work together to deliver

We can only rise to the challenges of the climate crisis by working together.

At COP26 we must:

Finalise the Paris Rulebook (the detailed rules that make the Paris Agreement operational) and, accelerate action to tackle the climate crisis through collaboration between governments, businesses and civil society.

We must finalise the Paris rulebook and the clock is ticking.  Working together means different things to different people.  It is the authors view that the world states must be driven by science not markets.  As trade unionists we have argued for decades that outsourcing does nothing more than privatise profit and nationalise risk.  If there are skills that only exist in the private sector then those skills should be brought in to the public sector.  An international threat requires an international response

Smoke and mirrors

We have a government who make bold claims, indeed Britain claims it is at the very fore of tackling climate change with targets to reduce emissions by 78% by 2035, however, actions speak louder than words

Prospective oil projects in the North Sea with the capacity to produce more than a billion barrels will avoid a new test designed to assess their impact on the climate crisis.

It has emerged that proposed new developments representing some 1.7bn barrels of oil will not have to undergo the forthcoming “climate compatibility checkpoint”, designed to determine whether they are consistent with the government’s climate commitments.

The test will be applied before projects are given an initial licence. But the government has confirmed that previously licensed projects will not have to meet it.

It comes as ministers face mounting pressure over the Cambo heavy crude field off the coast of the Shetland, which could be given approval before Cop26 begins. The oilfield is expected to operate until 2050. Campaigners say the project contradicts recommendations made by the International Energy Agency, which has called for “no investment in new fossil fuel supply projects”.

This is further compounded by the proposed Cumbria coal mine the ultimate approval for which lies with Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick.  Under planning law he’s supposed to make that decision without referring to his colleagues.

But it’s barely conceivable that Boris Johnson, with his reputation on the line, won’t find a way of pointing him in the right direction – whichever way he thinks that is, but probably after COP26……..

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