Brian Fallow: Words can’t hide climate failure

OPINION:

The Glasgow Climate Pact agreed last weekend when COP26 wound up is long on words but almost bereft of numbers, and the few it contains are either shameful or scary.

It “notes with deep regret” the failure of rich countries to come up with the long-promised US$100 billion a year to help poor ones respond to climate change. While that is not a trivial sum, it is way below what is needed and would represent less than one-fifth of 1 per cent of the US$56 trillion the IMF reckons advanced countries’ GDP will hit this year.

In this, as in other things, New Zealand, which has the sixth-highest emissions per capita among developed countries, cannot pitch its little tent on the moral high ground. The four-fold increase to $1.3b — over four years — to support countries most vulnerable to climate change which the Government trumpeted last month would be an even smaller share of our GDP.

COP26 also failed to deliver one red cent for “loss and damage” compensation to those already suffering the jagged sharp edge of climate change.

The injustice of the status quo is not just the harm rich countries have done, and continue to do, to poor ones via the global climate, but also the harm the incumbent generation in power is doing to the young and generations to come.

On that the Glasgow Climate Pact’s numbers are stark.

It “recognises that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius requires rapid, deep and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, including reducing global carbon dioxide emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 relative to the 2010 level and to net zero around mid-century, as well as deep reductions in other greenhouse gas emissions”.

But it goes on to “note with serious concern” that the most recent tally by the United Nations secretariat of countries’ nationally determined contributions (NDCs), as of November 2, would see emissions in 2030 being 13.7 per cent above — not below, but above — 2010 levels.

It is all well and good for countries to “commit” to a net zero target by 2050, or 2060 in the case of China, or 2070 in the case of India.

For governments in power now, those are nice long roads to kick the can down.

It is when the focus turns to action being taken now or soon to curb emissions in the current decade that a yawning chasm of an emissions gap opens up.

Climate Action Tracker, which gets deep into the weeds on these things, says the targets for 2030 remain totally inadequate.

If fully implemented, they would put us on course for 2.4Cof warming by the end of the century, way above the threshold scientists say we should dread to cross.

“Even with all new Glasgow pledges for 2030, we will still emit roughly twice as much in 2030 as required for 1.5 degrees,” Carbon Action Tracker says.

When it adds in the long-term pledges and targets, and again assumes full implementation, we would still be on course for 2.1 degrees.

Much dismay has been directed at a last-minute watering down of the agreement, at the behest of India and China, so that it now calls on governments to accelerate the phasing down of coal power and fossil fuel subsidies, rather than their phasing out.

But given that those two countries, which account for nearly half the human race, currently meet the majority of their energy needs from coal, the semantic change is merely honest. It will be a lot harder for them to do without coal that it would be for New Zealand.

Glasgow was not our last chance, however. There will be another COP in November next year in Sharm El-Sheikh, a resort on the Red Sea (perhaps they are hoping for another Exodus-scale miracle).

Governments are urged to bring more ambitious targets and more concrete plans for achieving them.

In New Zealand’s case, we will by then have the emissions reduction plan the Government is due to announce next May.

And by then we should havethe judgment of the Climate Change Commission on whether the He Waka Eke Noa consultative process, aimed at figuring out how to quantify and price livestock emissions at the farm level by 2025, is likely to succeed.

Farmers are incentivised to ensure it does. Otherwise, they face the rough justice and inefficiency of seeing emissions priced though the emissions trading scheme at the processor level.

And it should reduce the lurking danger — as the world increasingly seeks methane as low hanging fruit — of the protectionist mischief of carbon tariffs.

But will the geopolitics of climate change have changed by this time next year?

Will China be any more inclined to let the rest of the world tell it what to do and how quickly?

Will India no longer look like a whole lot of poverty sitting atop a whole lot of coal?

Will Europe be any less in thrall to Russian gas?

One change which does look increasingly likely is that by this time next year, Republicans will have regained control of the US Congress.

If so, we can forget about any effective action at the federal level on climate change, at least anything that would require legislation or a budget. And the United States is the second-largest emitter.

The inherent limitations of an international system which relies on peer pressure and consensus is not an excuse for cynicism, fatalism and apathy, however.

It is a world where money talks.

At the moment the loudest voice is that of vested interest.

But the collective impact of what people do with their hard-earned dollars, as consumers and as investors, could drown that out.

And at the big end of town the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, set up last April, now represents 450 banks, fund managers, insurers and other financial institutions, controlling assets of over US$130t. They Include ANZ, the NZ Superannuation Fund, ACC and the Government Superannuation Fund.

It is committed to applying that heft to the goal of net zero emissions by 2050. Its chairman, former Bank of England governor Mark Carney, said “we now have the essential plumbing in place to move climate change from the fringes to the forefront of finance so that every financial decision takes climate change into account”.

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