COP26 climate change summit: Economic reality and cutting carbon emissions should go hand in had – Brian Wilson

When the green ink dries on Glasgow’s COP26 agreement, the focus should be maintained on what happens next. However, making commitments is easier than tracking the reality that follows.

Much of the money promised to vulnerable states, as far back as Copenhagen in 2009, failed to turn up. Its purpose is to assist poorer countries with mitigation of climate change’s impacts and also adaptation for the future, vital to the whole world since emissions do not respect borders.

The consensus is that rich countries have been stumping up three-quarters of what was promised. Most of that is in loans while academic studies say the lack of clear definition of what counts as climate finance “makes it impossible to know if developed countries have delivered”.

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Thus, on one of the central objectives set for COP26, agreement will be no guarantor of outcomes. Glasgow’s true place in the history books may not lie in the fine print of an agreement but in the strength of signals transmitted to the world and with which the city’s name will long be associated.

That seems an appropriate point at which to acknowledge the debt Glasgow owes to the decision to make it the venue for COP26, a point to which other political disagreements can surely be subordinated. In terms of global recognition and status, it has been a game-changer with continuing potential benefits for the city.

As the visiting masses depart, we still need to live with the world as it is. While anything that sounds virtuous is pretty much guaranteed post-COP headlines, actions should be carefully measured against their likely consequences rather than on the applause of the gallery.

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Take an example local to Glasgow. The back-of-an-envelope announcement from its council leader that the city centre is to become car-free was made with no consultation, far less measurement of net environmental benefits. What will it do for the environment if even more folk just take the motorway to out-of-town shopping centres instead, while the inner city crumbles further?

The world must balance cutting carbon emissions and maintaining the health of the economy (Picture: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)The world must balance cutting carbon emissions and maintaining the health of the economy (Picture: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)
The world must balance cutting carbon emissions and maintaining the health of the economy (Picture: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

The chief executive of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, Stuart Patrick, smelt a “policy gimmick” which had not been mentioned even in the council’s own plans. “We need policies that support climate change,” he said, “not simply blocking access to the hard-pressed city centre and sending customers elsewhere”.

Therein lies a key a point. The word “transition” implies having something to transit to and this is the bit of the equation that tends to be forgotten by those whose enthusiasm is for closing things down or stopping them happening without thinking through the consequences – environmental, economic or social.

On a larger scale, the current demand for shutting down the North Sea is another obvious example. It would not reduce global or national dependence on oil and gas one day more quickly but simply mean more of these commodities coming to us from elsewhere while thousands of jobs go down the swannee.

The necessary perspective is that there need be no conflict between pursuing virtue – ie an ongoing, determined effort to meet targets set for each staging-post – and protecting economic reality. In fact, if done in tandem the two should be entirely, virtuously complementary. The trick is in maintaining that balance.

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Certainly, Norway’s new Labour Prime Minister, Jonas Gahr Store, has no difficulty understanding that concept. “If we were to say from one day to the other that we close down production… I believe that would put a stop to an industrial transition that is needed to succeed in the momentum towards net zero. So we are about to develop and transit, not close down.”

Norway’s energy transition, he said, “will have huge importance in Europe’s transition, in India’s transition, in Asia’s transition”. In other words, they are planning to carry their own strategy into the wider world, doubtless for Norway’s economic benefit as well as the global drive to net zero.

“Develop and transit.” That is exactly the approach Scotland and the UK should be pursuing – and it will deliver more for the environment at less social cost than signing up for eye-catching declarations that are unachievable or undesirable.

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