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Climate change is too serious to be left to environmentalists

The debate is now about means, not ends

Environmentalists protesting at Cop26 Reuters/Ewan Bootman (NurPhoto)
Protestors at Cop26 in Glasgow

I had a surreal experience, almost Pauline, at Cop26 in 2021.

Wandering the corridors of the Scottish Event Campus in Glasgow, I turned a corner and came across an indigenous person from the Amazon – wearing grass skirt, feathered headdress and face paint – locked in earnest conversation with a man who looked the epitome of a Wall Street investment banker – tailored three-piece suit, silk tie and cufflinks.

I’ve no idea what the pair were discussing. Assuming the Amazonian was actually a representative of an indigenous group and the suit was really a banking blue-blood (though he could have been an energy industry executive, a lobbyist or even a government official), the meeting would probably be reported as an “exchange of views across the environmental divide”.

Such encounters are possible because the UN Conference of the Parties (Cop) is still uncertain what exactly it should be.

Is it a climate change conference dedicated to finding a solution to the existential threat of calamitous global warming? Is it a business fair to showcase the latest and best in renewable and alternative technologies to combat the pernicious effects of greenhouse gases?

Is it an occasion for environmentalist activists to get together to hit home to government and energy industry policymakers how serious the matter is, partly by talking to people immediately affected by global warming, such as the indigenous people of the Amazon?

In my view – and I think in the view of the organisers of Cop28 in Dubai – roles 1 and 2 above are the core activities of the summit.

Role 3, less so, because on the central issue of climate affairs, the environmentalists have won.

There is an overwhelming consensus in the energy world, from the mightiest Middle Eastern oil sheikh to the greenest of European activists, that climate change is manmade and that, if left unchecked, it presents a serious threat to the lives and livelihoods of everybody on the planet.

There is no longer any need for the mass demonstrations that took place outside the Cop26 perimeter in Glasgow because those inside are in near-unanimous agreement on this.

Now the debate is not about ends, but means – though no less heated because of that.

The ideologues on the green left of the spectrum are mostly variants on the “just stop oil” message. They use “oil” as a shorthand for all hydrocarbon fuels, including gas and coal. They propound the simplistic argument that humanity has to stop burning fossil fuels and halt investment in hydrocarbon exploration and development.

There is little thought given to the economic winter that would set in if that ludicrous policy were ever implemented.

Most of the rest of the Cop spectrum is involved in a lively and constructive debate about ways to combat global warming and climate change, without triggering a return to the economic Stone Age. That will be the central focus of Cop28.

But the environmentalists have succeeded in hijacking the debate to the point where it is now a matter of principle that fossil fuels are automatically evil and must be eradicated.

That is the basis of most of the criticism of holding Cop28 in the oil-pumping UAE and the appointment of Sultan Al Jaber as president of the event, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Al Jaber was a renewables man before he was an oil man. Just recently, he said the end of fossil fuels was “inevitable”. How much more do the ultras want?

There are big, serious issues to be decided at Cop28 if we are to stand any chance of meeting the 1.5C targets set in Paris.

The five-yearly “global stocktake” will show that the world is falling short of the ambitious Paris targets. But, rather than seeking to blame and expel hydrocarbon “heretics”, it should provide the opportunity for serious analysis as to why this has happened and what can be done to rectify it.

There is a big need to tighten the nationally determined contributions that set the permissible levels of CO2 output by individual countries.

The “scope” emissions that determine emissions reduction targets on a sliding scale of 1 to 3 must also be reassessed, because nobody has yet come up with a practical formula, especially on scope 3.

There also has to be greater focus on investment in energy transition, both in terms of the funds that developed countries should pay to poorer nations to help wean them – gradually – off coal, and the money available to finance new technologies that can abate emissions.

All these are weighty and complex issues that will be resolved by serious debate, empathy and compromise.

Fancy dress, street protests and all the rest of the environmentalist circus are an irrelevance.

Frank Kane is Editor-at-Large at AGBI

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