How to have your COP and eat it

Will the summit translate into meaningful mitigation of the climate crisis? According to Chris Nash, it doesn’t look like it. Whilst ‘capitalists play at being eco-activists’, he outlines a green future in which there is no need for a COP.

Leaders on stage at COP26

UNFCCC_COP26_2Nov21_Forests_KiaraWorth-8 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Chris Nash

If you want to understand the tragedy and futility of COP2, try a simple visualization exercise. Instead of Glasgow, transport the COP circus to the shorelines of the Solomon Islands in the Pacific. Five of the islands that make up the homes and eco-systems of the Solomons have already disappeared under rising sea levels. Six more are under threat. Sea levels are rising a third of an inch every year on average. Now take the spectacle to the tropical forests of Sarawak in Malaysia where the Penan people are struggling to protect their ancestral lands from deforestation taking place at the rate of 142 square kilometres per year. Now project onto these scenes an image of Johnson, Ashok Sharma or Rishi Sunak emerging waving a piece of paper entitled ‘COP26 Climate Finance Plan’ – climate emergency peace in our time. 

For us Greens, in solidarity with communities and species around the planet threatened by climate change, COP26 can be nothing but an empty spectacle. For two weeks, while the destructive machinery of consumption and GDP whirl incessantly in the background, the great and the good come on stage to sign documents as momentous and meaningless as tomorrow’s headlines or yesterday’s pop sensation. For two weeks, we’ve been invited to the spectacle of capitalists playing at being eco-activists.

The simple and heartbreaking fact is this – if there was any sincerity at all about the climate emergency, none of this empty charade or spectacle would be needed. Agreements could be signed, sealed and delivered by people of good faith working together as ‘Team Earth’, not by political dinosaurs with myopic eyes focused on avoiding extinction at the next election. 

Of course, every Green will want to stand up for an end to deforestation, if and when it happens. Of course, every Green demands a redistribution of funds from economies bloated by their exploitation of natural resources and cheap labour to support projects in parts of the world that have been asset-stripped in the process. But what no Green can possibly accept is the deception behind every carefully composed communique, ‘Trust us, the world is safe in our hands’. Can’t you hear the sub-tones of desperation in their stage-managed voices, ‘trust us’, spoken with the conviction of the captain and crew of the Titanic, to their passengers as the tragic reality of their fate started to dawn on them?

What is the Green position on COP? First and foremost, I believe that with the increasing power of green politics around the world, shallow circus shows like this will no longer be the way we go about saving the planet. In the meanwhile, on the behalf of the climate-vulnerable we must be realistic… and demand the impossible! We want everything discussed at COP and more, but we need it now. I’m sure you must know about the ‘Limits to Growth’ document written by scientists and other experts that first shone a light on the climate emergency discussed this week at COP – in 1972, yes 1972 – that’s four decades of kicking the can, sorry the planet, down the road. 

The word that jumps out to me over and over from the reports on COP is ‘plan’. One example is a ‘Climate Finance Plan’. These were first agreed as part of the Paris Agreement in, wait for it... 2015. Then the issue next emerged at the COP in Poland in 2018, where there was agreement on what information should be included in a Climate Finance Plan. And the outcome of COP26 will be to review and update the information provided by the Climate Finance Plan…in 2023!

So the great and the good can fly back home with great news for the financiers and corporations, ‘Don’t worry, we bought you more time, more time to try to work out the capitalist swindle of ‘green growth’, so we can have our resource cake and continue to enjoy the profits’. Even as I write, Rishi Sunak’s smug face is appearing all over the media boasting about the net-zero plans every UK company must publish by 2023, as if this was some kind of firm and decisive leadership. But the truth about these plans is that 2023 is just the publishing deadline. There is absolutely no deadline for the actual transition to net-zero!  Every boardroom in Britain will be able to post its green credentials on its corporate website. Hurrah! The Titanic is unsinkable! 

I wonder what kind of leadership this looks like to the northern white rhinoceros or the Eastern Gorilla or closer to home the Small Tortoiseshell Butterfly – all critically endangered right now. ‘Hang on guys, don’t slip into extinction just yet, we’ve got a climate finance plan’. What kind of leadership does it look like to the 30,000 people in southern Madagascar who right now are struggling with famine conditions produced entirely by four years of drought caused by climate change. Are they breaking out the COP26 bubbly?

At the root of it all is this. Since the Industrial Revolution and the beginnings of consumerism in the eighteenth century, western economies have been linear, extractive economies fueled by ‘single use’ resources. Burn the oil, burn the coal and it’s gone. Since the 1950s and the beginning of ‘the American era’, these economies have grown rich on the unsustainable promises of unlimited consumption. This is the world that COP26 defends with all of its plans to ‘keep business as usual’, for the delusion of ‘green growth’. 

There is a green alternative that has no need for a COP. This alternative is to move from extractive economies to what are called ‘regenerative’ economies. The difference can be easily understood. Let’s take deforestation as our example. At COP26, the great and the good have agreed to stop destroying forests by 2030 – um, let’s see, that’s nine more years of extraction. Regeneration tells us that right now we need to start ‘putting back, not just taking less’. So rather than deforest, we must re-forest. Project after project demonstrates that regeneration restores biodiversity, revitalizes local communities and leads to real improvements in health due to better quality air and water. True, regeneration doesn’t do an awful lot for profit margins or shareholders, but it will provide meaningful employment for many of our people and quality of life to our communities.

The climate crisis will end when we transition to such regenerative, circular economies. A circular economy will aim to actually reduce levels of resource consumption and waste output by getting more value from the resources we use and keeping value in the economy for as long as possible through designing out waste. Circular economies work in harmony with communities and species, not financiers and corporate CEO’s. 

COP26 looks to take us not one step closer to an authentic Green future.