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COP26, The Future, And Progressive Politics

November 23, 2021

The COP26 conference, held in Glasgow (Scotland) in November 2021 was an event with mixed outcomes. I have brought together here some thoughts about how those of us on the progressive side of politics can now move forward.  On one hand we need to engage people through the small things which are everyone’s concerns: clean air, recycling plastic etc.  And on the other we must all understand that population is a massive issue. One child less per family everywhere would be the biggest thing we could do to slow climate change and other looming environmental dangers.

This note, which I prepared for a presentation, gives some background to the recent COP26 meeting, provides some information on the critical issues around climate change and environmental sustainability, and suggests various levels at which political pressure and action to protect our planet, people and other living things on it may be appropriate.

  • What is COP26?

COP26 was the 2021 meeting, in Glasgow in November 2021, of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). ‘COP’ is an abbreviation of ‘Conference of the Parties’, of which the current event was the 26th  The event has occurred almost annually around the globe – see IUCN locations listing – since 1995.

The core activity at COP events is formal negotiation between three main groups of stakeholder nations, including almost all countries (197 in 2021) of their climate commitments and actions, but around this core there is also an important forum for many different interested parties from around the world, also considering wider issues and pursuing different aspects concerning climate change and responses. The absolutely critical objective in COP meetings is to find ways to keep global heating to within 1.5oC of pre-industrial levels. As things stand, it seems the rise will actually be around 4oC or even higher, a catastrophic prospect.

[For further info on how COP works, see also ADDENDUM ON COP26, below.]

  • Real issues for real people on the ground

The UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, characterised COP26 as ‘coal, cars, cash and trees’. Whilst his take on the issues is no doubt partial (and frequently hypocritical), the UK Government’s focus is therefore on

Coal: Developed countries must divest of coal completely by 2030, with developing countries having done so by 2040; a big challenge, given that the largest coal producers / users include China – more than 50% of the total globally -and, also loath to divest, India and Australia, as well as Russia and the USA (plus the UK is actively now considering a controversial new coking coal mine for steel production).

Cars: Provision of charging points and technologies so everyone can transition to electric cars and abandon the internal combustion engine.

Cash: Developed countries to honour their pledge to developing nations of $100bn for climate finance ‘loss and damage’.

Trees: All governments to protect nature / the environment and stop, hopefully reverse, deforestation. This objective is in reality extraordinarily complex: the more that sustainability and eco-diversity is considered, the more we begin at least to see, if not properly to understand, the inter-connections at every level between animals, plants and their environments, as well as between human beings and all these other factors. In the meantime, however, pristine tropical rainforests are being cleared at the rate of ten football pitches per minute – along with much more deforestation of all sorts – and this rate of deforestation is verging on a ‘tipping point’ of irreversibly massive, disastrous destruction.   (We need to remember however that the cattle herders, loggers and other on-the-ground workers are simply trying to feed their families; it is the financiers and owners of the land, far away, who at least in the shorter term make massive profits at the expense of the forests and the animals and plants in them.)

To this list must also be added, explicitly,

Methane, HFC-23 and other greenhouse gases: A potent greenhouse gas which, along with carbon dioxide, is driving global warming, methane is one of the most promising prospects in the near-term for reducing global warming. An alliance of more than 90 nations (two-thirds of the global economy) has committed to reducing methane emissions by at least 30% by 2030.  Methane is emitted from gas and oil wells, pipelines, livestock (meat and dairy etc) and, importantly, municipal landfill sites.

One strategy proposed for cancelling the impact of carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas has been that we aim for net zero – when we do something (e.g. flying) which increases global warming, we ‘cancel’ it by doing something (e.g. planting trees), creating a carbon sink (there are also many natural carbon sinks, if we don’t destroy them), which reduces the risk.  But whilst this idea makes some sense, it also has significant drawbacks.

Alarmingly, however, emissions of the refrigerant gas HFC-23, which is 12,400 times more potent than carbon dioxide at heating the planet, have continued to increase despite expectations that industries would incinerate the gas, bringing emissions to zero.

HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons) are an international problem, but perhaps Johnson omitted methane from his list (above) because he believes everyone enjoys their steaks; and perhaps he neglected landfill because it is a thorny local-level political issue he prefers to leave to hard-pressed local councils?

Biodiversity and extinction: Although this was not the main focus of COP26, the rate at which animals and plants have become extinct, or are facing extinction, is extraordinary. It is becoming clear that the rapidly increasing loss of many forms of life is a serious threat to humanity and all other species.  Biodiversity is diminishing rapidly, and with it much damage to our oceans, landmasses and atmosphere.

Nonetheless, restoring natural lands or preventing them from being destroyed in the first place could deliver more than a third of the action needed by 2030 to keep global warming to below 2oC.

Population and gender: Hardly mentioned at COP26 were the massive challenges of rising populations – in a world where about half of all pregnancies are unintended and millions of women don’t even have autonomy over their own bodies. Even in England 45% of pregnancies and one third of births are unplanned or associated with feelings of ambivalence.
Most pregnancies continuing to term have positive outcomes, but unplanned pregnancies can have adverse health impacts for mother, baby and children into later in life.  Educating girls and proper provision of family planning, like other aspects of gendered environmental transition and funding which acknowledge the significance and involvement of women, have important positive impacts for women and their communities as well as for environmental sustainability everywhere.
It should of course be noted that , whilst carbon dioxide emissions rose by 60% over the 25-year period, the increase in emissions from the richest 1% of the global population was three times greater than the increase in emissions from the poorest half.

Just one child fewer per family is by far the most significant individual way to reduce climate change, but, despite its benefits to women, few high-profile leaders have courage enough to acknowledge the issues around population growth.

  • Tackling climate change at different levels

Moving from the COP26 international sphere of influence, I see three primary levels at which climate change and similar issues can be addressed.  All three of these (the ‘3 Ps’) are aspects of required action for any progressive political party.

Political: By which I mean top-level democratically made decisions by senior law-makers, in our case at Westminster (and in the UK’s devolved governments).

Policy: Delivery of political decisions at various levels via regional, city and similar administrations (eg the London Assembly, and some at borough council levels). This is often the level at which action-based genuine leadership on difficult matters such as climate change can (and should) emerge.

Parochial: The time-honoured ‘on the doorstep’ approach, listening to local people and checking out how voters perceive (and/or don’t understand) what is being done, or should (not) be done, and how.  There needs to be genuine dialogue here, hearing about concerns, sharing information (eg also by social and news media) and helping people to join the dots.

Scientific findings at all levels from the politically strategic to the local and personal are important. Recent large-scale research tells us that important actions individuals in developed countries can do to mitigate climate change and support sustainability include four widely applicable high-impact (i.e. low emissions) actions having the potential to contribute to systemic change and substantially reduce annual personal emissions. These are

*having one fewer child (an average for developed countries of 58.6 tonnes CO2-equivalent (tCO2e) emission reductions per year),
*living car-free (2.4 tCO2e saved per year),
*avoiding airplane travel (1.6 tCO2e saved per roundtrip transatlantic flight) and
*eating a plant-based diet (0.8 tCO2e saved per year).

These actions, the researchers tell us, have much greater potential to reduce emissions than commonly promoted strategies like comprehensive recycling (four times less effective than a plant-based diet) or changing household lightbulbs (eight times less).  Nonetheless, it is the smaller actions which may most comfortably first engage people in the issues.

  • How can climate change and environmental messages be delivered politically?

Just as in other areas of community well-being, an asset-based approach is essential. One report on public health (an area which is closely related to environmental matters) proposes that the narrative to engage local people be shifted away from characterising and responding to neighbourhoods on the basis of deprivation statistics, to a focus on communities’ strengths, enabling and empowering individuals, even in the face of reductions in local authority funding.

Likewise, research suggests that there are effective ways to ‘tell the story’ for public health which could also be helpful for offering political leadership regarding climate change. These include talking about real people, offering clear evidence and information about how the issues are being addressed, acknowledgement of the need to use different languages / context-specific examples for some parts of the community, visuals, and quotes from stakeholders.  This action / engagement approach is surely one that a major political party such as Labour can adopt, even in opposition?

There is a very urgent need for people to know and understand more about climate change – and it is an issue which actively engages young people along with many older people.

  • So what issues might activists at the local level want to highlight?

This question is best answered by progressive party local councillors and other on-the-ground activists, but there are several obvious possibilities. Translated into issues which might be discussed with local people on the doorstep, discussions might include consideration of

Personal / family responses: Project Drawdown suggests ways in which ‘ordinary people’ can help reduce climate change:

The scope here for genuine local political advocacy and leadership is enormous.

Picking up issues post-Covid: Rebecca Solnit’s long read in The Guardian proposes ten strategies and tools for ‘the inward business of attending to [her post-Covid] state of mind, and for the outward work of trying to do something about the climate crisis – which are not necessarily separate jobs.’ Suggestions to make progress include celebrating what’s already been achieved, and ensuring that solidarity is encouraged: ‘If some past victories are hard to see, it’s because there’s nothing left behind to see…. The trees that weren’t chopped down’ etc.; and ‘As citizens massed together, we have the power to affect change, and it is only on that scale that enough change can happen.’

Mind the gaps: Another Guardian writer, Jessica Elgot, reminds us what is not being done by the UK Government, despite their claimed enthusiasm for tackling climate change and carbon emissions. It’s important to make sure people know what isn’t being done on their behalf – and how others locally and nationally would do things differently.

Engage in wider issues where appropriate: Sometimes local people suggest that other nations’ sustainability is a distraction or worse. Non-political, respected initiatives such as the WaterAid and BillionTrees projects illustrate how we can if we wish attend to both our local and others’ international needs. You can even calculate your own carbon footprint and offset it by supporting tree planting.  (People may like to know that programmes attending to land use etc in developing nations also reduce the numbers of refugees who would otherwise need to flee increasingly dangerous places where prospects for food and work have diminished because of climate change.)

Consult on locally preferred resolutions: The Camden Citizens’ Assembly on the Climate Crisis indicates a methodology which, even if applied only informally (e.g. by parties in opposition) as required, can show what people are focussing on or want to know more about.

Promote good political policy ambitions: For instance, the UK Labour party recently introduced a bill in Parliament to include teaching about ‘sustainable citizenship’ as a part of the national curriculum; likewise, Sadiq Khan as Mayor of London has delivered on multiple sustainability ambitions.

  • Everything comes back to our environment and sustainability

These are amongst the many possible ways that progressive politicians can take action on climate change / sustainability and the environment whilst also attending to the imperative of winning seats and power.  Whether it’s flooding, air pollution, transport, walking, food waste collection, safety on our streets, clean energy, domestic insulation or something else, there is much to consider.

And, regardless of how successful or otherwise COP26 was, there is also another important straightforwardly political reason for pursuing environmental issues vigorously: the ‘green’ agenda is very attractive to many – doubtless including significant numbers of young people.  But not all those concerned about climate change and sustainability can be expecting to vote for particular political parties.  It is vital that all progressives keep on top of this agenda.

In England in November 2021 a Conservative council candidate (in a seat previously held by the LibDems) won by a single vote from Labour, after a big increase in the Green Party vote.  Whichever progressive political parties choose to promote it, the future is green; but for delivery a modicum of collaboration may work better than all-out competition.

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The 2015 Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement (which is successor to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, and is backed up by a Rulebook on actual implementation) is an international treaty which was signed by almost all countries in the world, at COP21 in 2015.  The shared ambition was (is)
to limit the rise in global average temperature to ‘well below’ 2 degrees Centigrade – ideally, below 1.5oC – compared with pre-industrial levels;
to strengthen adaptability to climate change, and build resilience; and
to align financial flows with a ‘pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development’.

The Paris Agreement has a ‘bottom up’ approach where countries decide for themselves by how much they will reduce their emissions each year. These targets are then communicated annually to the UNFCCC as ‘NDCs’ – ‘nationally determined contributions’.

The NDCs submitted in 2015 were not enough to avoid a 2oC rise, let alone 1.5oC. New and better NDCs are supposed to be submitted via the ‘ratchet mechanism’, every 5 years (this time, after 2015 in 2021, allowing for the fallow Covid year in 2020).    It has now been agreed however that waiting 5 years is far too long, and the next NDC review will be at COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt – where it is feared by some that informal civil engagement / public demonstrations will be prevented? – in 2022.

Objectives of the 2021 event, COP26

It is now widely recognised that global warming must be limited to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels, if critical and probably irreversible climate changes are to be avoided. To secure that limited rise
global emissions must halve by 2030; and
net zero’ (no more rise in temperature, within the agreed 1.5oC – as per a law passed by the UK in 2019) must be reached globally by 2050;
there must be a clear connection with the UN SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) – both SDG13 specifically about climate, and several others;
for a high polluting country such as the UK with CO2 emissions of 10 tonnes per person per year, it must be recognised that the carbon budget will run out by the end of 2024, i.e. in 3 years.

The different impacts of temperature rises between 1.5 and 2oC is truly massive: every increment of a degree translates into increased risks for people, communities and ecosystems across the globe.

The major strategic factors at play during COP26 were
Ambition (will it go far enough?  Assessments of real need vs. political realism);
Finance (despite double counting, reducing bilateral aid as the UK is doing, unfunded promises, etc);
Adaptation and resilience; and
Finalizing the Paris Rulebook.

Amongst the critical elements in these considerations were
honouring promises in 2009 to mobilise $100bn p.a. by 2020 (a goal not currently being met), in support of climate change action in developing countries and
dealing with the climate change harmful impacts which cannot be avoided through adaptation or mitigation – ‘loss and damage’: compensation by richer, polluting nations to poorer ones.

This is one (of the many) commentaries on the relative successes and failures of COP26.

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Hilary Burrage is a sociologist. She was a member of the DEFRA Science Advisory Council for some years during the last Labour Government, and Vice-Chair of the North West Sustainability Group, an advisory body to the NW Development Agency and Regional Assembly.  Hilary also taught the Homes and Communities Agency In A Nutshell online course about community development and sustainability.

Read more about the environment and sustainability

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Your Comments on this topic are welcome.  
Please post them in the box which follows these announcements…..

Books by Hilary Burrage on female genital mutilation

18.04.12 FGM books together IMG_3336 (3).JPG

Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation: A UK Perspective (Hilary Burrage, Ashgate / Routledge 2015).
Full contents and reviews   HERE.

FEMALE MUTILATION: The truth behind the horrifying global practice of female genital mutilation  (Hilary Burrage, New Holland Publishers 2016).
Full contents and reviews   HERE.

Email: Hilary @  Twitter@HilaryBurrage  LinkedInHilary Burrage

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