Sharma’s COP26 challenge: plan to follow Greta’s lead

There are signs of progress of sustainability – saving our planet – in many walks of life. However, only with a sense of history can we judge if the Climate Emergency is truly being addressed.

Those judging whether humanity is making progress don’t have to have lived through the attempts or to have been old enough to make value judgements for all that time, either.

Greta Thunberg, the Swedish climate activist, has been pretty vocal for a number of years. Having only just turned 18, on January 3, she has started the year and her adult life being outspoken and caustic. Just as outspoken and caustic as she was when she shot to fame as the girl who went on strike from school to highlight climate change.

Shouting from that modern rooftop, Twitter, she has roundly condemned political leaders. They have, she said, failed to achieve any of their ambitious biodiversity goals, set in 2010 and agreed at a conference in Aichi, Japan.

Quoting the Guardian’s story on the release of the United Nations report which outlined these failures, she wrote: “In 2010 our leaders signed “ambitious goals to protect wildlife and ecosystems”. By 2021 they’d failed on every single one. Each day they choose not to act. Instead they sign more “ambition” non-binding future goals while passing policy locking in destructive business as usual.”

Partial achievements

Some targets, the UN report stated, had been partially achieved. But coral reefs and other natural habitats had started to disappear. Species remain under threat. The natural world remains in deterioration. Failure to act could mean the goals set at the Paris Agreement between nations in 2005 become impossible to achieve.

In the UK, Alok Sharma has been appointed as President of COP26 in the past few days. His brief is to concentrate fully on leading the climate conference in Scotland in November. He has his work cut out trying to herd the cats of nations to make a difference.

Of 20 biodiversity targets agreed at Aichi, broken into 60 elements, seven have been achieved, said the UN report. It adds that there has been progress in 38, while 13 have seen no progress.

Greta is angry. She has perhaps awoken sustainability pangs in many people – and organisations – in the few short years she has been an activist.

Investments and wider world

Campaigners like her are motivated. Many were around before Greta started shouting, but 2020 seemed to bring a sense of focus and empowerment. “A green recovery from Covid-19” seems a well-worn phrase.

Organisations such as the Climate Group try to address issues such as carbon emissions in transport and energy sectors. This is through business and Governments. Another example, ShareAction, targets institutional investors. They ask people who invest money – from shareholders to pension pot holders – to consider if the companies in which they invest are fuelling climate change. Should banks, for example, loan money to companies for fossil fuel projects? The UK Government recently said it would stop its £500million funding of overseas fossil fuel projects, in the run-up to COP26.

Many of us probably take little notice of where our pension managers invest our money. But when we retire and set up an annuity, will we ask questions and go for simply the best deal, or consider the future? If we choose incorrectly, will the investments we choose have enough longevity to pay us to live for two, maybe three decades? What will be the standard of living anyway, if global temperatures rise beyond the “dangerous” 2.5 degree limit by 2050?

Winds of change

Governments appear, on the one hand, to be interested and making progress to ensure we have a sustainable future. On the other, are they making empty promises?

Our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, says he wants wind power to be capable of energising all UK homes by 2030. The National Grid recently announced that in 2020 wind and solar fuelled our power at record levels. Even on Christmas Day we didn’t use coal, in any way and, last year, Britain’s grid gave off record low carbon emissions.

But it doesn’t take a teenager, recently coming to adulthood, to work out that promises mean nothing when they are full of “non-binding goals” and get out clauses.

Facile declarations of “Climate Emergency”?

Look at that broad brush statement of “declaring a Climate Emergency”. The UK Government did so in 2018. Surrey County Council has also done so, like many councils across the UK. But to what effect and end? What can they achieve?

Drill or Drop, an independent journalism website on fracking, has charted the case brought by Sarah Finch, which challenged UK Gas and Oil’s application for 20 years of oil production at Horse Hill. Ms Finch sought a judicial review against Surrey County Council granting planning permission. Her application to overturn the decision failed because the judge felt the council had acted within the planning laws of the country.

The council had considered the environmental impact on the plot of land where the drilling took place. However, in his judgement of December 2020, the judge said the councillors were not obliged to consider the wider environmental damage that would be caused by the oil.

COP an opportunity

So how, exactly, are the planet’s needs to be balanced with mankind’s, if declaring a Climate Emergency remains misaligned with a nation’s laws? Until the planning laws are brought into line, the Climate Emergency cannot begin to be addressed. Carbon emitting fuel – as UK Oil and Gas point out – is part of the mix to “transition” to a cleaner economy. Perhaps, then, the planning laws could at least be adjusted, in the short term, to ban new exploration sites, while the use of oil is phased out.

Imagine if Mr Sharma could take such an example of changed law to COP26 in November. Just think what reaction and respect he could command, by giving that example. Imagine if he could hold up a banner and declare to the conference: “We don’t have time! After a lost decade of action, we must make 2030 the decade we tackle climate change.”