Enough of the COP26 paralysis

| 12th April 2021 |

Alok Sharma is the minister in charge of Cop26. 


The biggest enemy, in the run up to COP26, is the atmosphere of vagueness and promise. We need to blow it away with facts and arguments.

The real problem is - the kind of capitalism we would need to acheive zero net carbon is not acceptable to capitalists. 

I have often wondered if a government hosting a United Nations COP conference, might actually propose a plan commensurate with halting climate breakdown out of sheer embarrassment. Sadly, that will not happen at COP26. 

Read our COP26 coverage

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While Boris Johnson cranks up the rhetoric - adding the word "green" to almost every conventional, carbon intensive policy initiative -  the actual amounts committed to climate change mitigation are puny: £12bn in the Spending Review for offshore wind; a further £12bn for a Green Investment Bank, with £15bn of "green gilt" debt issued. 

For comparison, Labour's 2019 manifesto committed the party to borrowing £250bn over ten years to invest in insulating 27 million homes, building 9,000 extra wind turbines and 22,000 football pitches worth of solar panels.


And yet even this came nowhere near meeting the party's aspiration to achieve zero net carbon by 2030. Indeed, Corbyn's Labour would not have achieved net zero until 2039 for energy alone - leaving aside industry and transport.

But the electorate rejected Labour's 2019 programme. The new Labour leadership seems unwilling to think in numbers significantly larger than what the Tories are offering, for fear of scaring socially conservative voters in small towns.

But no matter how jaded we feel about politicians, the primary task in environmental politics remains forcing them to speak and think about outcomes, not aspirational inputs measured in tens of billions.

So long as they are only at the stage of pledging vague spending amounts, they are never forced to think through the synergies and radical disruptions needed actually to achieve the zero net target.

In turn, so long as politicians are allowed to inhabit a mindscape where climate mitigation measures are seen as "nice to have" or "we're doing something so let's see how it goes", all the other players - from the fossil addicted businesses, to the unions who forced Corbyn off the 2030 target, to individual consumers, can adopt the same mindset.


Changing the mindset from hit and hope measures to legally binding outcomes will require several offensives at once, ranging from polite lobbying to arriving en masse at COP26 to stage a dramatic re-enactment of the Prague demo 21 years ago.

There are a few signs of hope. The new generation of Labour left politicians do not look content with the 2019 solution the party offered - a form of Green Keynesianism that purported to solve by spending money a problem that, in reality, requires the re-engineering of society.

Last month shadow business secretary Ed Miliband called for interest free loans and car scrappage schemes to boost the numbers of electric vehicles on the road. But what we really need is the mass reconfiguration of transport and work, so that most people can walk or cycle to their workplace, and those that can't could social modes of transport, designed not just for zero carbon but for circularity.

The real problem is - the kind of capitalism we would need to acheive zero net carbon is not acceptable to capitalists. 

It's one of the tragedies of modern politics that such effects based solutions, which will seem like a no brainer to the people of the mid-21st century, are too politically scary to talk about for this generation of politicians.

I don't think, in theory, that we have to abolish capitalism to reach zero net carbon. Technically it could be done in single country over a ten year time frame - though the quick and dirty solutions needed to achieve it would, themselves, have to be dismantled and replaced with more sustainable modes of housing, work, transport and consumption. 


The real problem is - the kind of capitalism we would need to achieve zero net carbon is not acceptable to capitalists. 

So it's going to need a mass movement. As a lifelong activist in the labour movement I've seen it convert from a position where - for understandable reasons - it fought to defend the most damaging form of fossil energy production, to a position where it is committed to zero net carbon, and moving quickly at the grassroots towards solutions which, ten years ago, were identified with radical Greens.

The Tories see COP26 as a grandstanding opportunity. For me, it's the opportunity not just to protest, but to present - through protest - a grassroots and international alternative to the inevitably inadequate agenda of the summit itself.

There is really only one question for policymakers: how will what you are proposing acheve the effect of zero net carbon, and when by. The studied climate illiteracy of most broadcasters means this is the question they are never asked. 


What defines the new generation of policymakers is the seriousness with which they take the climate chaos threat, and the concreteness of their proposals.

The explanatory power of the Ocasio-Cortez/Markey Bill (the original Green New Deal) lay in its concreteness. It said: we will do X, Y and Z to achieve the following quantifiable goal. Though I remain critical because it envisaged basically the 'greening of American individualism and mass consumption'.

Anything less than that coming out of COP26 and the world should do much more than howl into the faces of the assembled politicians. We need a single, authoritatitve, peer reviewed transition plan to zero carbon - and to start commiting councils, regional governments and every possible stakeholder to achieving it. 

The biggest enemy, in the run up to COP26, is the atmosphere of vagueness and promise. We need to blow it away with facts and arguments. And the arguments might have to get quite loud.

This Author

Paul Mason is a journalist, film-maker and writer. His next book, How To Stop Fascism: History, Ideology, Resistance is published by Allen Lane this summer. 


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