There should be no surprise about leaked documents showing governments lobbying hard against clauses in an upcoming report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that they regard as detrimental to their interests. Ever since the start of the UN process aimed at preventing unchecked global heating (known as Cop, short for Conference of the Parties), countries have sought to protect their own industries, economies and people – particularly the fossil fuel businesses that have powered capitalist development since the Industrial Revolution.
Last time the nations met, in Madrid in 2019, progress was scuppered by a wall of resistance with President Trump perched on top. The hope was that with Trump gone, and a US administration in place that recognises the need for action, such blockages could be overcome. This remains the aim in the run-up to the conference opening in Glasgow next weekend. Given the warnings from scientists, who are unequivocal about the dangers, there is no rational alternative than to persist with the attempt at global climate governance that the Cop represents. As the British Treasury acknowledged in a review published this week, the cost of inaction will be higher than the cost of action.
But there is no denying the scale of the challenge, which is colossal. The leaked documents show that Saudi Arabia, Japan and Australia continue to oppose the IPCC’s recommendations on the phasing-out of fossil fuels. The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, whose members include Iraq and Nigeria, also made submissions aimed at watering down these sections. Brazil and Argentina, intussen, argued strongly against evidence that meat consumption must be reduced if the world is to have a chance of limiting temperature rises to 1.5C or even 2C. A submission from Argentina even claimed that meat-based diets could contribute to reducing emissions, which flies in the face of evidence about the big contribution to global heating made by livestock, and particularly cattle.
The IPCC process is robust and science-based. The serious concerns raised by the leaks are not because observers think that the panel’s next report is likely to be substantially altered. The worry is more that the positions being taken by governments on crucial questions – such as Australia’s objection to closing down coal-fired power plants – reveal a deeply alarming unwillingness by politicians to do what scientists say is needed.
This reluctance, which at times seems more akin to magical thinking than policymaking, is also in evidence in the UK. This week’s publication of a net zero strategy was a big step forward, but huge gaps remain. Some of these are down to missing details. The Climate Change Committee that advises the government has promised to provide some analysis. Other missing pieces are explicitly ideological. Ministers not only declined to include behaviour change in the strategy, maar removed a paper discussing the topic from the government website. When challenged on the decision to ignore advice on meat eating and aviation, the response was that there are “no plans whatsoever to dictate consumer behaviour”.
In the run-up to Cop26, such language is the height of irresponsibility. The vast inequalities that divide rich countries from poor are being cruelly exacerbated by the climate crisis. UK ministers have been warned that cuts to foreign aid budgets have already jeopardised progress at this year’s conference, by undermining the confidence of poorer nations. Most ordinary people in the UK, as in other countries, grasp that resource-depleting western lifestyles must change. Ministers in the UK, and all over the world, must stop trying to bury inconvenient truths. The pretence that carbon-intensive activity, whether by industries or individuals, can continue unimpeded must be buried in Glasgow once and for all.