Nov 15 2021

What Came Out of COP26

The world met in Glasgow at the COP26 summit to see if politicians could put their heads together and work out a deal to limit global warming. The outcome was as much of a mess as you probably think it was. I suspect this is because their entire approach to the problem was flawed. That doesn’t mean it was hopeful or fruitless, just that it was highly problematic, and yielded highly problematic outcomes.

As an analogy, the psychological literature indicates that the best way to achieve a goal is not to focus on the goal but on the steps you need to achieve that goal. Richard Wiseman points this out in his book, 59 Seconds. Imagining yourself having achieved your goal is not helpful, and may even be counterproductive. Rather, you should outline the precise steps you need to take in order to achieve your goal. Chart a path, don’t just indicate your destination. I might humbly suggest that our world leaders would take this advice when they approach the problem of climate change.

As far as I can tell from all the reporting from COP26 (and the Paris agreement, and other climate agreements), the focus is primarily on the goal. We want to limit climate change to 1.5 C temperature rise above pre-industrial levels. That’s a great goal – now how are we going to achieve it? This latest agreement goes a bit further. It lays out several actual steps that are critical to achieving the temperature goal. One is to “phase down” coal. At the last minute India objected to the agreement to “phase out” coal and a watering down of the language was necessary to get an agreement. There was also an agreement to reduce deforestation, an admirable goal that is vital to tackling climate change.

While this language is one step closer to laying out actual policy changes, it is still not quite there. Politicians are straining to come up with language to portray the deal in a positive light, preferring the word “progress” over all others. But few are willing to use the word “success”, which is an indication that many think the conference was essentially a failure. But I think the failure was baked into the process. This is because you can’t just tell countries like India, who are banking on coal to develop their nation and reduce poverty, to phase out coal.

Similarly the US and China, the two biggest CO2 emitters, met separately and agreed to further talks on how to reduce climate change. I get it, this is part of the political process. You have to meet in order to agree to further meetings so that you can set an agenda for talks on further meetings. But can the world wait while the excrutiatingly slow process of diplomacy works itself out? It doesn’t seem so. I also get that the conference is about setting goals and then letting each country figure out for themselves how to achieve those goals. There is something to be said for allowing creativity and innovation blossom. That should be part of the process. But a little specific guidance might not be a bad thing either.

So what would a more specific agreement look like? Let’s focus on coal for a bit – coal is responsible for 46% of the world’s CO2 emissions, and 72% of total GHGs from electricity production. Phasing out coal burning entirely would take us a long way toward our goal of reducing CO2 production by half by 2030, and net zero by 2050. Perhaps we need an entire conference focusing entirely on how to achieve the goal of weaning the world off coal as quickly as possible. Simply agreeing on this goal is nice, and better than not having such an agreement, but it doesn’t achieve much on its own. How are we going to eliminate coal? Specifically, what are we going to replace it with? That last question is really the only question – what steps can be taken to maximize the building of new green energy sources that can replace current coal-powered plants?

This, of course, is where scientists and engineers come in. I wrote recently about the fact that global warming is a political, scientific, economic, and social problem all at once. Politicians can really only solve the political part of the problem, although they control a lot of money so this can feed into the scientific and economic ends as well. Unless we drill down to the specific nitty gritty details of how to implement a pathway to end coal, I don’t feel confident we really achieved anything useful. Scientific and economic factors will continue to dominate the pace at which we adopt clean energy, and politicians will talk, make agreements, and then take credit for what was going to happen anyway.

What I would like to see is politicians reach agreements on the specific political factors (meaning regulations and investments) that can accelerate the adoption of clean energy. What might this look like? How about agreements on how to develop and facilitate the world-wide mining of elements necessary to build all those solar panels and batteries we are going to need, shifting subsidies from fossil fuels to green energy, and investment in accelerating solar, wind, and battery technology. We could make agreements to end NIMBY barriers to putting up wind turbines, or mandate investments in updating the grid. Some things might have to be banned, like deforestation, but then we need a plan for how to compensate those who would otherwise benefit from the practice and give them other alternatives. Streamlining the approval process for new nuclear plants would also be helpful, and developing an international plan to allow those developing nations to benefit from nuclear power. Investing in developing the technology further will also help.

In short – we should be agreeing on how exactly we are going to build as much wind, solar, and nuclear as we can as fast as we can. There is also a role for natural gas, until coal is entirely phased out, then natural gas is on the chopping block next. Politicians should be taking what political steps they can to facilitate this. Simply agreeing to ultimate goals hasn’t really achieved much. Perhaps the most useful thing to come out of COP26 was this:

More than 400 financial institutions – controlling an estimated $130tn of private finance – agreed at COP26 to provide more money for green technology.

This extends an existing trend for financial institutions, reacting to social pressure, to end investment in the fossil fuel industry, which is having an impact. Essentially, pressure financial people to offer financial solutions, while politicians work on political solutions, including funding scientists so that can continue to improve on the scientific solutions. Just agreeing to broad brushstroke goals is nice, but no longer enough. We have to role up our sleeves and make specific changes that will have a direct impact.

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