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COP26: How the UK started the climate crisis – Open Democracy

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Boris Johnson will soon take on the role of the bombastic host at the UN's climate conference in Glasgow. Don't let him pretend we’re the good guys

Occasionally, when I’m walking the dog on the beach, I find a lump of coal, black against the yellow sand. The Firth of Forth, the fjord that washes the north of Edinburgh, cuts deep into the seam that Scotland’s central belt is built on. Sometimes, the waves dislodge a chunk of the bed, and wash up a 350-million-year-old piece of driftwood from the mighty forests of the Carboniferous Period.
In many ways, the story of man-made climate change was first written with these stones. Across the water from Portobello beach where I walk the dog is Fife, where a young Adam Smith observed the birth of industrial capitalism, powered by that same bed of rock. On the Firth of Clyde to the west is Greenock, the home town of James Watt, whose improvements to the steam engine drove the Industrial Revolution and powered the expansion of the British Empire.
With the engineers and philosophers produced by the Enlightenment, it’s often claimed – somewhat arrogantly – that Scotland invented the modern world.
In a few weeks' time, at COP26, international delegates will gather on the south bank of the River Clyde, just a few miles inshore from Watt’s childhood home, to discuss what to do about the fact that the modern world is burning. Their task is clear. They must reinvent it.
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The consequences of failing to do so are equally clear, explained in the increasingly desperate reports of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): floods, fires, droughts, hurricanes, dangerous heat. Average global sea levels have already risen nearly nine centimetres since 1993, and will engulf coastal areas at accelerating rates.
But the most important thing the climatologists have said isn’t a prediction. On the front page of one such report, which warns of the risks of exceeding 1.5°C of warming, the IPCC quote the French writer Antoine de Saint Exupéry: “Pour ce qui est de l’avenir, il ne s’agit pas de le prévoir, mais de le rendre possible.”
“As for the future, it is not a question of foreseeing it, but of making it possible.”
COP26 – or the 26th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, to give it its full name – will be a fight over different possible futures, a battle between social movements and entrenched power; between those desperate to defend the world, and those who prefer to preserve the world order; between reality and spin.
While these events are annual, this one, like Paris in 2015 or Copenhagen in 2009, is set to be a big one. Alongside haggling over money and discussing how to adapt to the now inevitably changing climate, governments are being asked for “ambitious 2030 emissions reductions targets that align with reaching net zero by the middle of the century”.
Getting countries to agree to reduce their emissions dramatically over the next decade, as the science requires, won’t be easy. Last month, the IPCC added together the global total of each country’s own agreed targets. Combined, these wouldn’t lead to a reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, but “a sizeable increase… of about 16%”.
The most likely impact of you cutting your energy consumption is that someone else’s will increase
Even theoretical agreements to slash emissions won’t be enough. Many countries – the UK included – have failed to put in place anything like the policies needed to meet their commitments. Without these, the discussion is indeed, as Greta Thunberg put it recently, “all blah blah blah”.
One of those 'blahs', at the very least, must refer to the way that technology will be promoted at COP. Those who profit from the current world order will try to use the gathering as a trade show for their latest gizmos, in a desperate attempt to prove that nothing more fundamental needs to change.
Introducing this theme at the Conservative Party conference this week, Boris Johnson declared that the solution to the climate crisis lay in “science, innovation, capitalism”.
We do need different machines. But alone they will never solve the problem. In 2020, the number of battery-powered cars driving the world’s roads hit record numbers. This led to a reduction in oil consumption from conventional-sized vehicles of around 40,000 barrels per day on top of the pandemic-related fall, according to the International Energy Agency.
But while some drivers were shifting away from climate-changing commutes, others were going in the opposite direction. A record 42% of new cars sold last year were SUVs. Since 2010, the total number of gas guzzlers has gone from 50 million to 280 million. According to the same IEA report, this trend has wiped out any gains made by eco-aware consumers with their battery-powered engines.
These two trends probably aren’t entirely unrelated. If one group of people buys less petrol, then the price of fuel will fall. And so other people will buy more.
Similarly, the aviation industry will talk up the possibility of more fuel-efficient planes. But we’ve already tried that. Between 1960 and 2018, passenger aircraft became eight times more fuel-efficient. The result was that the cost of a plane ticket fell, and a new class of people was invented: frequent flyers. From 1970 to 2019, the number of air passenger journeys a year has grown from 310 million to 4.4 billion – a 14-fold increase. More efficient machines meant more fuel was used in total.
This isn’t surprising. James Watt’s inventions radically increased the efficiency of steam engines. But, as the economist William Stanley Jevons observed in the 1860s, coal consumption in the UK didn’t fall. It increased: buyers got more pump for their pound, and delivered the Industrial Revolution.
The Jevons’ paradox, and the more recent and related Khazzoom-Brookes postulate, show that this is normal. In a free-market capitalist economy, the more effectively a machine uses its fuel, the more fuel will tend to be poured into it.
These rules of free-market economies also undermine another element of the spin our rulers will attempt in Glasgow. You can expect a whole strand of coverage over the next month to focus on what you, personally, can do to reduce your ‘carbon footprint’. But in reality, the most likely impact of you cutting your energy consumption is, as all those people who bought electric cars show, that someone else will buy more in your place.
The problem isn’t a lack of efficient technology, nor of a desire to do the right thing. It’s that our society is governed by the perverse rules of the free market.
A mirage of ‘negative-emissions technologies’ has been conjured up by highly paid illusionists
We should be equally sceptical of other kinds of technology that will be paraded as the solution to the climate crisis. During the Paris 2015 conference, I gatecrashed a party of lobbyists at a club that Marcel Proust once described as “the most exclusive in the world” and “the inner sanctum of the elite”. Sipping astonishingly good red wine, I met Al Gore and one of the Florida lawyers who, in 2000, had ensured he lost the presidency – now working as an aviation lobbyist. I listened to speeches by the hosts, the great and good of the US fossil fuel industry. And I secretly recorded what they had to say.
When I said I was “a writer”, the swarm of lobbyists were all very keen that I promote the same idea: carbon capture and storage. They wouldn’t need to change their filthy ways, they believed. Pollution could simply be pumped into the ground.
For years, this mirage of ‘negative-emissions technologies’ has been conjured up by highly paid illusionists to create a sense that we don’t need to change the economic system driving the climate crisis – or even to stop extracting fossil fuels. There is a problem with all of this, though: no project has successfully captured and stored carbon at anything like sufficient scale.
As an editorial in the scientific journal Nature put it in 2018, “Negative-emissions strategies remain magical thinking.”
It’s easy to be distracted by the humming of new toys. And of course, the shift to a zero-carbon world will require a green energy revolution. Cheaper solar panels are a good thing. But the new will be meaningless if it’s built alongside the old. We must focus on the material reality of what’s being negotiated over: some of our planet’s vital systems.
Over hundreds of millions of years, plants and plankton have photosynthesised, taking carbon out of the atmosphere. Sometimes, when they died, they rotted, returning it to the air. But sometimes, they became entombed in places without oxygen, and were preserved. Those carboniferous forests, for example, laid down wood that was cooked into coal under pressure from above and heat from below. Plankton that sank into low-oxygen parts of the ocean became oil.
As these plants and plankton drank carbon from the air and took it to their graves, they reduced the amount of the sun’s energy that was trapped in the atmosphere, calming the planet’s weather systems, and gradually creating the conditions for human civilisation to emerge.
There are hundreds of millions of years’ worth of this carbon stored in the rocks beneath us – the lithosphere. In just two and a half centuries since James Watt invented the separate condenser, improving the efficiency of steam engines, we have taken millions of years of deposits, and returned them to the atmosphere.
Over the same period, we have burnt through huge portions of the life around us – the biosphere – slashing plants, poisoning plankton and hunting megafauna. This, in turn, has reduced Earth’s capacity to suck carbon from the atmosphere.
This distribution of carbon between the lithosphere, the biosphere and the atmosphere is the basic material reality upon which all climate change negotiations take place.

Last month, the journal Nature published a paper calculating what this means. “To allow for a 50% probability of limiting warming to 1.5°C… by 2050, we find that nearly 60% of oil and fossil methane gas, and 90% of coal must remain unextracted,” the authors conclude. If we want better than a 50% chance, we must burn less.
Berlin’s Mercator Research Institute puts it another way. If we are to remain within the 1.5°C target, it says, “The atmosphere can absorb… no more than 400 gigatonnes of CO2 … Annual emissions of CO2 are estimated to be 42.2 gigatonnes per year. With emissions at a constant level, the budget would be expected to be used up in less than eight years from now.”
At the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen, countries in the Global South rallied under the banner “1.5 to survive”. The conditions created by any more warming than this, they pointed out, would likely leave much of their territory uninhabitable.
At the 2015 conference in Paris it was finally agreed that the world should be allowed to warm by no more than 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. As world leaders meet in Glasgow, they have to figure out how to meet that target in less time than it took them to set it.
Rather than engaging seriously with this task, Boris Johnson, the conference’s bombastic host, is likely to use it as a global ego-booster. The combination of Brexit cock-ups and one of the worst COVID responses in the world has left him looking like a bit of an eejit, and while he enjoys the role of jester, he doesn’t like being seen as stupid. Here is a chance to do what he does best: pompously blaming other people to get his mates off the hook.
Just as Johnson’s enthusiasm for technological solutions to climate change matches his excitement about technological solutions to the Irish border, he will be as quick to blame other countries for the climate crisis as he was to blame them for his Brexit mess. In particular, it seems likely he will try to imply that this is all China’s fault, and to cast Britain as an eco-Utopia.
It’s important, therefore, to understand the extraordinary extent to which Britain has caused this crisis.
The UK can seem like a progressive voice on climate change, having committed itself to a 68% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 against 1990 levels.
The first problem is that the government has no serious plans to meet those targets. The second is that they count Britain’s responsibility in the narrowest possible way.
Indeed, the UK is arguably more to blame for the climate crisis than any other country.
For his 2011 book ‘The No Nonsense Guide to Climate Change’, the researcher Danny Chivers dug back through historic emissions data and compared them to current population levels. Between 1850 and 2007, he found, the UK was responsible for more CO2 from fossil fuels per person than any other major country. The only country with a higher historic per-person carbon footprint was Luxembourg.
A decade on, Chivers re-ran the numbers for me. “Every UK resident is sitting on around 1,200 tonnes of historical CO2, making us one of the most historically polluting countries per person in the world,” he said. Out of countries responsible for more than 1% of emissions, “We’re jostling for the top spot on the historic responsibility table with a similar per capita figure as the US, compared with 150 historic tonnes per person for China, and 40 tonnes per person for India.”
The infrastructure and relative wealth we enjoy in the UK has been built on huge amounts of past pollution – much of which is still in the atmosphere today.
These figures only account for emissions rising up from the UK’s land mass. If a British company designs a product in the UK, sells it in the UK and counts its profits in the UK, but offshores its manufacture to Vietnam, then its emissions are counted in Vietnam. And because the UK is one of the world’s most de-industrialised countries, this offshoring of emissions means that Britain undercounts its carbon footprint more than most other countries.
A report for WWF last year, for example, argued that around half – 46% – of the UK’s emissions come from products made overseas to satisfy demand in the UK.
The UK’s responsibility is also about history. Britain developed the form of coal-powered industrial capitalism at the heart of this crisis and, through its empire, exported it around the world. When European colonists arrived in Africa, Australasia, the Americas and Asia, they drove deforestation, plunder and pollution, often replacing civilisations which had long survived relatively sustainably, and establishing machinery that continues to extract wealth to this day.
This week, the brilliant website Carbon Brief published its own league table of historic responsibility, which included the impact of changes in land use as well as of fossil fuels – that is, carbon from the biosphere as well as from the lithosphere, as a result of deforestation and agriculture. This addition catapulted Canada to the top of the historic responsibility charts, and Australia into fourth place, while the UK slipped down to eighth. What their analysis didn’t count, though, was that most of the deforestation of both Canada and Australia happened while they were British colonies and was done to enrich British subjects, while Britain itself is one of the most deforested countries on earth, but this land-use change happened before 1850, when the league table starts counting.
On top of this, Britain is still a major oil economy. Two of the world’s five major oil companies, BP and Shell, are British and Anglo-Dutch. The Royal Navy spends a fortune policing the major routes of oil tankers around the world, and significant Foreign Office policy heft is thrown behind British oil companies, from the UK’s oversized representation in countries like Azerbaijan to its willingness to throw resources into propping up the House of Saud.
From Portobello beach, it’s often possible to see rigs loitering in the Firth of Forth, waiting for higher oil prices to make their deployment profitable. Far from working to wind up the North Sea oil industry, the British state is pumping hard to keep it afloat, giving it tax breaks of £250bn in recent years and continuing to permit new exploration and extraction projects.
In Scotland, a political battle is raging over the proposed new Cambo field, west of Shetland. Britain has already used up far more than its fair share of fossil fuels. But in August, Boris Johnson allowed drilling to go ahead.
Johnson has also failed to block the first new deep coal mine in 30 years, which is being fought over in West Cumbria.
Britain’s main contribution to climate breakdown, though, probably comes from its financial institutions.
When fossil fuel companies want to borrow in order to invest, like anyone else, they do it against their assets. And the main things they own are rights to untapped reserves.
As assets, though, these should be worthless: at least 60% of oil and 90% of coal reserves must remain untapped. If you believe that dangerous climate change is going to be avoided, then most major oil companies are already insolvent – they’ve borrowed vast amounts of money against the value of oil fields which must never be drilled.
The only reason the companies are still operational is that the world’s major banks are betting that the oil – and the planet – will be burned. Chatting after a small oil industry fringe meeting during the Paris 2015 climate conference, a senior Shell executive admitted to me that their business model was based on the assumption that keeping warming to 2°C is “not a given”.
Along with China and the US, the UK is one of the biggest banking countries in the world. So the scale of emissions resulting from the investments of British financial institutions is vastly out of proportion to the country’s population – and nearly twice the domestic emissions of the UK in 2019, according to a study by WWF and Greenpeace.
Looking only at coal, Banktrack found in 2019 that the UK’s big four banks were financing over $26bn to international companies which were planning to build a coal plant fleet 16 times greater than UK operational capacity.
Britain’s banks are funding an armada of coal power plants big enough to sink any chance of avoiding dangerous climate change.
Another part of the story is the way Britain protects the wealth of fossil fuel barons.
A study by the Transnational Institute think tank recently found that, “Corporate value chains are habitually structured along… the (former) territories of the British Empire, [and] the Low Countries – Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.”
They concluded: “Overall, this group … together with the wealth of the world’s billionaire class, effectively constitutes the backbone of global capitalism.”
The recent revelations of the Pandora Papers only emphasise this.
The cash that Russian oligarchs, Saudi princes and Emirati rulers stash in bank accounts in the Cayman Islands or British Virgin Islands or Gibraltar – or clean up via London’s housing market – very often originates in oil and gas extraction. Understood properly, Britain isn’t just a declining fringe power with limited impact on the world. Its territories are vertebrae holding up and protecting a global system of extraction, impoverishment and pollution – the same system that’s killing the planet.
The UK keeps the world’s hidden oil money safe, ensuring that we are no longer allowed to know the names and addresses of the people killing the planet.
The UK also has a positive story to tell about climate change. According to analysis by Carbon Brief, domestic emissions have genuinely been falling since 2007, even when you account for offshoring. This reduction has largely been driven by the switch away from coal won by climate protesters in the late Noughties, when a series of Climate Camp protests brought the issue into focus.
Indigenous movements – run by the descendants of those same people slaughtered by the British Empire all those generations ago – have managed to stave off the equivalent of a quarter of the US and Canada’s emissions over the past decade, according to one recent analysis.
It’s not technology or public opinion holding back the action needed to avert the climate crisis
The technology needed for the world to transition to a zero-carbon economy exists. In a recent survey of half a million people across the planet, 64% said they believed that climate change is a global emergency, with overwhelming support for a wide range of policy changes. According to another poll, 80% of people across the developed world say they would be willing to change their lifestyles to reduce the impacts of climate change.
The bloc holding back the radical action needed to avert the climate crisis isn’t technology or public opinion. It’s the system of power that puts our leaders in place. It’s the networks of lobbyists, public relations executives and advertisers who work every day to defend that system. And it’s the deep wells of wealth that pay them to do so.
Facing off against them is perhaps the biggest and best-coordinated global movement humanity has ever seen: networks of young people going on strike across the globe, allied with people of colour insisting that their lives matter, and supported, according to poll after poll, by the vast majority of people across the planet.
On the other side of the Firth of Forth, and a few miles inshore, is the land where Scotland’s last coal power station, Longannet, used to be. It was shut down in 2016. In its place, the hills around Edinburgh dance with the white blades of wind turbines: a reminder on my dog walks that change is possible and, when it comes, it isn’t gradual. It sweeps in like an ocean storm.
Over the next couple of months, I’ll be sending out regular emails from COP26 and its build-up. If you want to get them, sign up here.
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