So COP26 kicked off in Glasgow during the weekend. But it’s hard to get too enthused about an international jamboree if you’ve been involved in organising one.
The striving by the in-group to pre-cook an outcome which can be pitched as ‘successful’; the breathless blow-by-blow media coverage; the travelling circus of groupies, civil society and protesters. The Times reports on those making the pilgrimage to Scotland’s famously tough city, including “a Greek actor … on the final leg of a 2,000-mile run from Athens to Glasgow”. Which certainly sounds more attractive than the journey from Germany in a “human-sized hamster ball” – although the latter may have protection and shelter benefits.
(Your correspondent recalls an interminable drafting meeting for the inevitable communique drifting on into the small hours. The British chairman had put France’s representative under a defective light fitting to help avoid his interventions, and only the Frenchman’s gesticulations, raised eyebrows and frequent snorts could be discerned through the stygian gloom.)
You’ve already gathered that the symbolism is often the substance. Which is why the non-appearance of China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin (and to a lesser extent Brazil’s Bolsonaro and Turkey’s Erdogan) is perhaps more significant than at first it might appear – and a reminder that the appearance of consensus is not proof of existence.
Think back to December 2015 and the conclusion of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, better known as the Paris Accords.
With hindsight, this might be seen as the high water mark of Obama-era / European Union progressive multilateral diplomacy.
It achieved a global consensus based on the following principles:
- A technically untested and financially implausible transition must be undertaken with urgency to avoid a modelled apocalypse.
- The rich western countries promoting the agreement would do the heavy lifting first, weakening their own economies in the process.
- Leaving time for their
enemiesstrategic rivals to strengthen their economies, before deciding whether or not to meet their commitments.
- Giving poor countries a basis to shake down the West for more aid linked to climate change.
Looked at this way, the agreement means that the world’s climate bill is due to be paid by the global 5%, roughly anyone with a job, mortgage and passport from an OECD country (that’s you reader).
Folk on welfare in rich countries will hope – with some justification – that they are protected. Historical precedent also suggests modest prospects at best for screwing more tax out of owners of capital and the internationally mobile wealthy.
So far governments have avoided real voter pain (with a few missteps like the Ute tax) by subsidising the easiest steps on the path to zero carbon. Now it’s time for the hard stuff.
Even super-rich Norway can’t avoid hard choices for much longer. Last year more than half of cars sold were battery powered. Reuters says that the government is finding the annual cost of US$ 2.3 billion (more than NZ$40,000 per vehicle) a bit troublesome.
It all looks a lot more difficult than it did back in 2015. When the Paris treaty couldn’t even get ratified by the US Senate. And when it failed to survive its first critical electoral test with the election of President Donald Trump in 2016.
So perhaps it’s not such a surprise that Xi, Putin and others are unwilling to make more diplomatic investment in the Paris framework right now. It looks like a good time for them to wait and see how the readers of the New York Times, the Guardian, Le Monde and the New Zealand Herald react to paying for the climate commitments made on their behalf. And if they kick up a fuss, blame the West again.