After Glasgow

I haven’t been following the negotiations at COP26 very closely. And I haven’t examined the eventual agreement in great detail, instead following the insight of commentators I trust. It seems, from what I’ve read, that while there are some incremental steps forward in the detail – strengthening of language, and so forth – mostly the parties have agreed to kick the can down the road another year. If readers have better insight and want to contradict that, they are most welcome to do so, but I think it’s fair to say that any climate summit that ends in its president apologizing and breaking down in tears is not what the world wanted to see.

On social media people have noted that the commentators who, two weeks ago, were talking about a “last chance for humanity” are now praising the small steps forward. Greta Thunburg has, of course, summed up her view with eloquence:

The #COP26 is over. Here’s a brief summary: Blah, blah, blah.

@GretaThunberg / Twitter

Twelve years ago, before I had even started studying renewable energy, I wrote a blog post on another site entitled “After Copenhagen”. That was the first COP that was a mainstream media event, and the first one – thanks partly to Barak Obama’s involvement – that felt as though it might get somewhere. In the end it achieved little for various reasons, and there was a temptation to give up. I did a lot of thinking back then, and this is what I concluded:

“I’ve spent a certain amount of time thinking “If I think that the cause is hopeless, why am I wanting to work in the renewable energy and/or energy efficiency fields?”. The answer is that… every little still helps. Yes, low-lying countries are almost certainly doomed. Yes… wars will be caused and exacerbated, many will starve or die of disease… but for every bit that we can reduce our emissions, less of this will happen. The fact that the situation is so terrifying, depressing, and hopeless, even to those of us who probably won’t suffer the worst (or at least the first) of the direct effects, doesn’t mean that we can’t try to lessen it.”

I still believe this. We missed the 350ppm and 400ppm targets that were talked about at Copenhagen. It seems very likely that we will miss the 1.5°C target that is increasingly believed to be important. But it’s still worthwhile to make things better than they otherwise would be. If global efforts get us to 2.6°C, as is suggested by the current NDCs, that’s bad, but it’s better than it could be. As I wrote in some internal training materials recently, under the heading “A note about missing targets”,

“It’s too late to prevent climate change – it’s already happening. It’s probably too late to keep to 1.5°C, and 2°C looks hard as well. But this isn’t a binary thing: it’s wrong to say “we missed the target, may as well give up”. 3°C is better than 4°C, which is better than 6°C. Some harm is locked in, but we can minimise how much more.

That’s the thought that keeps me going now, as it does on a regular basis away from the COP cycle. In the words of Mary Heglar, “home is always worth it“.

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