Another humiliating U-turn by Rishi Sunak. As I write he’ll be packing his bags for a trip to Egypt for a meeting which he’d said he would not attend because there was too much happening here that demanded his attention. But when Boris Johnson announced he was going, Mr Sunak had little option. This, after all, is not just any old meeting dealing with matters that can easily be left to underlings. This is COP27 and its agenda is, quite simply, the future of the planet. Or at least that’s what its supporters say. Its detractors say it’s little more than a massively over-hyped platform for world leaders whose records show that they will (almost literally) promise the earth but deliver precious little. What is not in dispute is the effect of unchecked global warming because of human activity: catastrophic droughts and floods from rising sea levels and the mass extinction of vast numbers of species.
So far human activities have raised the temperature by around 1C on average. If current pledges on emissions are fulfilled, that figure is expected to rise to 2.5C. That, it’s believed by most scientists, would mean destruction on a scale that is hard to imagine – and we are already seeing some truly frightening developments including, most recently, devastating floods in Pakistan and extreme heatwaves around the globe.
It is three years since a new law was voted for by Parliament in this country. It says we must achieve the target of net zero emissions by 2050. That means, in very simple terms, emitting no more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than exist already. When we burn fossil fuels like oil or gas or coal or produce methane from farming or landfill we must remove from the atmosphere an equivalent amount. It’s not only Britain committed to net zero. Under the climate change agreement, reached in Paris in 2015, 197 countries agreed to try to keep the inexorable rise in temperatures below 1.5C.
As things stand, there is not the remotest prospect of that happening. More and more carbon is being emitted and across the world rapid deforestation is happening, so there are fewer trees and plants to absorb that carbon and balance out new emissions.
Britain, of course, is responsible for a very small proportion of emissions on a global scale: just over 1.6%. But supporters of our zero carbon commitment say that’s not the point. The most simplistic defence of the goal is that every ton of carbon makes a difference but in any case we have an absolute moral obligation to set an example to others. It is we who have contributed most to global warming since we embarked on the industrial revolution in the 19th century but it is the poorest countries on the planet who will suffer from it most. And anyway, it's the law. We have no choice in the matter.
The Net Zero group of Conservative MPs and peers (the NZSG) is not persuaded. They have produced reports questioning the logic behind the net zero strategy. In a nutshell they argue that the price of reaching net zero is too great, the plans too hasty, and that Britain in 2022 is not in a position to afford it.
Craig Mackinlay, the group’s leader, told the BBC "it would be more sensible to 'backload' Net Zero closer to 2050 than 'frontload' now as we're attempting to do.” The Treasury's Office for Business Responsibility says that delaying decisive action on climate change by ten years could end up doubling the total cost.
The NZSG says it does not question the science of climate change. Its role is to "scrutinise" and to focus on "energy security, affordability and practicality” and ask "whether the vulnerable are protected and is there a better way?"
There's also the question, of course, of how Britain is going to keep the lights on when the wind doesn't blow and the sun isn't shining. The technology does not yet exist to store sufficient amounts of power. Most agree there needs to be a back-up, such as nuclear or gas, at least in the medium term for when the output from renewables falls.
And how much will all this cost us? Obviously it’s impossible to do more than make educated guesses at this stage, but the figures appear to be huge. In July last year the OBR costed the government's "Balanced Net Zero Pathway" and came up with a figure of £1.4tn (at 2019 prices). But that would be spread over three decades. When it’s combined with savings from things like more energy-efficient buildings and vehicles, the OBR says the net cost to the state up to 2050 will be £344bn in real terms. The Treasury reportedly estimates the cost at about £50bn a year.
But in the harsh world of Westminster politics the only talk from our leaders today is about what to save rather than what to spend. The nation is facing a cost of living crisis and, as we are about to learn from the Chancellor’s statement, there are massive cuts on the way.
The message from COP27, though, will be a simple one. The cost of doing nothing to halt the relentless march of global warming will be infinitely greater. Two prominent studies have projected losses of between 7% and 23% of global GDP by the end of this century if emissions are not rapidly cut. And anyway the real price of global warming cannot be measured in dollars and cents. Nor can it be expressed in the effect it will have on those of us in the rich world, many of whom will be able to find ways to escape the real horrors. Already we are seeing credible reports of the very rich eyeing up boltholes in cold countries where they will build new lives for themselves in suitably protected mansions while the rest of the world suffers.
The world leaders in Egypt will hear from many who are already suffering. Carlos Fuller, the Belize ambassador to the UN, has given a graphic description to The Guardian of what is happening in his poor country, once famous for its rain forests and pristine jungles: “Loss and damage is already occurring. Severe erosion is altering communities; drought and floods [are] affecting farmers and causing infrastructure damage; [there is] coral bleaching; salt water intrusion is affecting the water supply.”
From the catastrophic recent floods in Pakistan to the ongoing drought emergency in Kenya, similarly disastrous impacts are blighting developing nations across the globe. Many lack the economic resources to cope with the new climate threats, which are overwhelmingly the consequence of historic carbon emissions by the world’s richest countries. And this is how the UN secretary-general, António Guterres put it: “The damage already being done is a moral imperative that can no longer be ignored”.
The poorest countries can rightly claim to have been ignored by the richest. In the 2009 COP conference in Copenhagen rich countries promised to deliver $100bn a year to countries like Belize. The promise, they said, would be met by 2020. It has still not been and nobody is taking any bets on when it will be. And when the rich do sign cheques, say the UN, it tends to be in the form of loans rather than grants and directed at middle-income countries rather than the very poorest.
It’s true that private finance and institutions such as the World Bank have funnelled money to projects designed to reduce emissions – but that’s invariably directed at projects likely to make a return on the investment.
It’s also true that a few rich countries are, in the language of the UN, waking up to their responsibilities. Denmark has become the first party to the COP negotiations to offer funding related to “loss and damage” – defined as the destruction caused by climate-related disasters so extreme that no protection is possible against them. They’ve offered $13m to the Sahel, a desperate dust bowl of a region in north-west Africa, Britain, it is pointed out, has moved in the opposite direction by cutting its overseas development aid.
The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has described COP27 as a “litmus test” of how seriously developed nations are willing to take the growing toll on vulnerable nations. The initial reluctance of Rishi Sunak to attend suggested to many that his assessment is “not very seriously”. His own environment secretary Therese Coffey called it “just a gathering of people in Egypt” and Sunak sacked from his cabinet the minister who led COP26 in Glasgow.
Most experts take the view expressed by Guterres and summed up by this leading article in The Guardian: If present trends are not halted very soon, and emissions cut back and eventually halted, the world will experience, in a few decades, a meteorological catastrophe. Wildlife species will be eradicated in their thousands, droughts will spread over continents and famine will kill millions of people. We will have created a planet that has been stripped of its habitats and biological riches, a scorched and depleted world that we will pass on to our children and future generations. Only urgent action to cut carbon emissions, the prime driver of our climate woes, will stop this happening.
My question for you this week is a simple one. Do you share those fears or not and, if you do, what should Britain do at COP27?
Let me know.