Pilita Clark: No need for defeatism on climate change

Challenges abound, but ahead of Cop27, governments and regulators are finally getting serious

“What’s the point of Cop27?” a friend asked the other day of the United Nations climate talks starting next week in Egypt. “When it comes to climate change, aren’t we doomed?”

That question is often asked in advance of these annual climate gatherings and it always leaves me with a deep sense of cognitive dissonance – the unsettling psychological state caused by holding two conflicting beliefs at once. In this case, bleak pessimism versus unexpected optimism.

The reasons not to be cheerful are obvious. Despite 27 years of UN climate Cops – a catchy title for the more cumbersome Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – greenhouse gas concentrations are still rising to record highs. So climate change is already here, its fingerprints literally measurable in the lethal heatwaves, wildfires and floods pounding a globe that has warmed by about 1.1 degrees since the late 1800s.

Governments and regulators that have been missing in climate action are finally getting serious, and taking unprecedented steps that would have been unthinkable even a year ago

The 2015 Paris agreement is supposed to be driving enough emissions cuts to keep warming well below two degrees and ideally 1.5 degrees. But we are heading for at least 2.4C according to a stinging UN report that last week branded existing Paris climate efforts “woefully insufficient”. Then there are the jolting economic and political shocks that have led us to talk of “polycrisis” and “permacrisis”.

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Hundreds of Cop27 delegates will come from pandemic-ravaged poor countries facing debt, food and energy crises, plus disasters fuelled by a warming climate they did almost nothing to cause. Hardly a recipe for climate negotiating success.

In richer nations, meanwhile, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the risk of recession have thrown efforts to shift away from fossil fuels into reverse. A scramble for non-Russian energy supplies has extended the life of European coal plants.

Some climate finance is also heading in the wrong direction. Cross-border climate investments that boomed in 2021 are now on track to decline. Blended finance deals that use public funds to make green investments more attractive to private investors have nosedived. So has support for some shareholder climate resolutions at oil groups such as BP and Shell.

The list goes on. So what grounds are there for optimism?

One big reason: governments and regulators that have been missing in climate action are finally getting serious, and taking unprecedented steps that would have been unthinkable even a year ago. This is most notable in the United States where, in August, President Joe Biden signed into law the most significant climate legislation in US history: the Inflation Reduction Act.

Two weeks ago, the UK’s advertising watchdog banned a set of HSBC adverts for greenwashing, the first move of its kind

It could have been bigger and some of its $370 billion (€375 billion) worth of support for electric cars and other green tech is unhelpfully protectionist. Still, it is finally possible to imagine a time when the power of green moguls and green jobs is impossible to ignore, with big knock-on effects.

The US law has already spurred calls for the European Union to ramp up backing for technologies such as green hydrogen. And the EU itself shows why the International Energy Agency said last week the war in Ukraine could ultimately hasten the clean energy transition.

To wean itself off Russian fossil fuels, Brussels has unveiled RepowerEU, a sweeping €210 billion plan to boost green energy. It’s still a blueprint, but it is also a stark shift from a year ago. Likewise, Ukraine did not stop a record $226 billion of new renewable energy investment globally in the first six months of 2022, led by China.

In a way though, it is more striking to see what corporate regulators are suddenly doing. Two weeks ago, the UK’s advertising watchdog banned a set of HSBC adverts for greenwashing, the first move of its kind. Another first came a week later when Australia’s corporate watchdog fined an energy company 53,280 Australian dollars for exaggerating its green credentials.

This has happened as EU countries, including France, Spain and Poland, have suddenly decided to quit the 28-year-old Energy Charter Treaty, a contentious trade and investment accord that campaigners have long claimed stymies climate action.

None of this gets us close to the 45 per cent fall in emissions needed by 2030 to keep the 1.5 degrees temperature goal alive. But it could be a sign that we are nearing vital political tipping points. A growing body of research suggests sweeping social change can be unleashed once 25 per cent of a population is pushing for such a shift. Rising concern about the climate must be bringing that threshold closer in many places.

Either way, it is clearer than ever that the climate burden falls heavily on those least able to bear it, so every tenth of a degree of warming matters. Pessimism may feel unavoidable but caving into defeatism is ultimately a luxury that vanishingly few can afford. – Copyright The Financial Times