COP27: doomed to fail?

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In little over a month, delegates from national assemblies will be meeting for COP27 in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, to build upon existing progress in climate change agreements. With COP26 hosted by Glasgow in 2021, clear momentum has been building in favour of a Net Zero world, epitomised by the 2016 Paris Agreement, where 196 countries agreed to limit global temperature rises to just 1.5°C. However, the effects on the global energy market arising from the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, alongside changes in the UK’s environmental policy seem to have stalled this momentum, making COP27 a far less unified meeting.

The marked sense of urgency at the COP26 conference in 2021 led to it being one of the most impactful conferences in its 30-year history. The aftermath of COVID-19 acted as a wake-up call for many world leaders, alerting them to the fragility of the world and inducing a range of policy agreements. This was not just limited to the 1.5°C temperature limit, but also an agreement to halt deforestation by 2030, signed by over 100 countries, including Indonesia and Brazil. Given the high levels of deforestation in these two nations, COP26 appeared to demonstrate consensus between nations at different stages of economic development. The main cause for concern at COP26 was China and India’s unwillingness to “phase out” coal power, instead only announcing they would “phase down” its usage.

The aftermath of COVID-19 acted as a wake-up call for many world leaders

It is this hesitation from major polluting nations that seems to cap the potential success of climate change conferences. For many, particularly in industrialising nations that are yet to fully exploit their fossil fuel resources, the idea of industrialised nations in Europe and North Africa policing fossil fuel usage seems hypocritical and unjust. Accountability thus remains the stumbling block in reaching global agreements. Should industrialised nations have to do more in light of their historical emissions, or should industrialising nations have to sacrifice the economic potential for environmental hope? Nevertheless, climate change conferences still can be effective in channelling a collective effort towards a Net Zero world. During a COP conference, environmental affairs have the ability to dominate the news cycle, placing pressure on governments to act on climate change. In the UK, CO2 emissions per capita have declined from 9.78 tonnes in 1995, during the first COP conference in Berlin, to 4.85 tonnes by 2020, perhaps a signal that world leaders are acting in the right direction to prevent environmental disaster.

In the UK, CO2 emissions per capita have declined from 9.78 tonnes in 1995, during the first COP conference in Berlin, to 4.85 tonnes by 2020

Although UK environmental policy has been shifting in a more positive direction, recent decisions have created cause for concern for many in political circles. The recent decision to green-light fracking appears especially contentious, with prominent Conservative MP and Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Jacob Rees-Mogg causing outrage in some circles by saying he would allow it in his garden. Much of this stems from the proposed decision to categorise fracking sites as “nationally important infrastructure,” which would allow fracking to begin without the consent of local communities. In a 2021 YouGov poll, 51% of Britons say they would oppose the opening of a fracking or shale gas extraction site, with many citing the risk of earthquakes and pollution that fracking can bring. In spite of this, the expansion of fracking may simply be a temporary measure designed to offset rising energy costs in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, meaning that the UK’s energy mix is more resilient to shocks and global crises. Simultaneously, the announcement of “investment zones” has furthered this risk of environmental degradation. The “investment zones,” which would face fewer regulations and bureaucracy, are allowed to be set up in national parks, meaning that the strict legal framework on pollution and habitat protection could be relaxed. Current government documents provide no reference to environmental constraints when building in these “investment zones,” which might open the door for higher levels of water pollution and sewage discharge in national parks

In a 2021 YouGov poll, 51% of Britons say they would oppose the opening of a fracking or shale gas extraction site

Despite this, less publicised actions do offer some hope for environmentalists. The ban on the onshore wind was lifted in the government’s September 2022 ‘mini-budget,’ potentially allowing for a considerable expansion in domestically produced renewable energy. Even though most of the public support an expansion in onshore wind capacity, it remains very unpopular amongst Conservative party members, perhaps reflecting that the Truss government is steadfast in its plan to attain a Net Zero economy by 2050. Equally, shifts in consumer behaviour reflect a growing appetite for the UK to reach its environmental targets. The number of electric vehicle sales doubled in 2021 compared to 2020 (although still only accounting for 11.6% of total car sales in the UK), and record numbers of UK households are choosing to reduce their consumption of animal goods. A more environmentally conscious consumer base is not only beneficial in reducing personal carbon footprints, but it additionally increases the responsibility of businesses and MPs to act more hawkishly on climate change.

Image: Scottish Government via Wikimedia Commons

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