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We must fight COP27’s capitulation to oil firms on decarbonisation

OPINION: Can people power, matched by technological advances, succeed where COP27 failed?

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
25 November 2022, 4.33pm
Direct action: a force for change on climate?
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There is a consensus among campaigners and activists that the COP27 climate summit in Egypt was a dismal failure, despite the claims of breakthrough from the PR crowd.

Carbon Brief did its usual comprehensive report on the meeting, summarising the outcome:

“In reality, the results were a mixed bag, achieving more on the impacts of climate change than on its causes.

The decision to set up a new fund for ‘loss and damage’ resulting from climate change marked the climax of a decades-long effort by small island states and other vulnerable nations. 

But the EU and its allies voiced strong concerns about an outcome that did little to advance efforts to stay below 1.5°C, beyond what had been agreed at COP26 in Glasgow last year.”

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The loss and damage deal does at last acknowledge the impact made by the ‘old’ emitters since the industrial revolution. But this has essentially been packaged as a long-term issue, whereas the attitude of just about every environmental activist and campaigner, as well as climate scientists, can be summarised in just one word: urgency.

There are major problems with COP27 on two levels, highlighted by a recent powerful analysis on openDemocracy from the former Green Party deputy leader, Amelia Womack. One is that even the loss and damage deal is riddled with uncertainties over how and when it will be implemented, especially as earlier agreements such as the Green Climate Fund – designed to assist low-emission and climate-resilient development – have had so much difficulty in raising contributions.

The second is the core issue: the urgency of decarbonisation. To keep temperature rises below 1.5°C required 7% decarbonisation every year from 2020 to the end of the decade. But emissions are still rising, to the extent that decarbonisation now needs to be closer to 10% a year for the remainder of the decade to achieve the 1.5°C goal. If that’s the case, then just what hope is there?

In an earlier column, written just weeks before COP27 began, I was more optimistic about the future of the climate crisis, pointing to the rapid rise in public consciousness on the issue, aided by the worldwide experience of individual climate disasters and the greater commitment of activists to nonviolent direct action. I also highlighted the impressive reductions in decarbonisation costs.

On that last issue alone, changes are coming thick and fast. For many years, supporters of green initiatives have asked why there has not been more investment in tidal-stream energy, given that it is highly predictable and reliable. The technologies are tricky and marine environments mean corrosion adds to the problems, but it is now a developing field with plenty of potential. In the past five years, the cost of generating tidal-stream electricity has fallen by 40%, and while it is not yet at grid-parity with nuclear power, that will come.

Meanwhile the cost of solar PV systems (solar panels) plummeted by 82% between 2010 and 2019, and wind power is undergoing yet another sea change with the new generation of turbines exceeding the size of even today’s ten-megawatt giants. The prototype of the new Vestas V236 15-megawatt turbine is shortly starting its test programme in Denmark, with serial production expected in 2024, and the Siemens Gamesa SG14-222 DD 14-megawatt turbine is on a similar schedule.

A feature of the Siemens Gamesa turbine is that one version under development includes an electrolyser unit that uses the wind-generated electricity as the energy source for hydrogen production. While hydrogen is just one energy storage system, it does have valuable functions in the wider decarbonisation process. This is because the hydrogen generated by this brand of turbine can be stored at source and removed periodically by tanker – meaning a deep offshore turbine could adopt what is termed ‘island mode’, not even requiring a pipeline connection to shore.

Some of the most significant positive social changes in the past 120 years have had strong elements of nonviolent direct action behind them

Despite these advances in technology, problems hindering decarbonisation remain, both immediate and longer term. Wind turbine competition from China is already being felt in the European industry, which is facing inflationary pressures like most engineering sectors. But the longer-term issue goes well beyond wind turbines, solar panels, tidal stream systems or other renewable energy systems.

It is the determination of some of the world’s biggest fossil carbon exploiters, especially Saudi Arabia, to continue full steam ahead with their plans to develop fossil carbon markets. As The New York Times put it bluntly this week: “The kingdom is working to keep fossil fuels at the center of the world economy for decades to come by lobbying, funding research and using its diplomatic muscle to obstruct climate action.”

Ever since preventing climate breakdown became an issue four decades ago, fossil carbon corporations and producer states have put hundreds of millions of dollars into their efforts to rubbish the whole issue. These efforts have intensified in recent years as the scale of decarbonisation needed, and the risk to their profits, has become so obvious.

COP27 showed the continuing power of the fossil carbon lobby, hence its failure on this central issue, but times are changing and a combination of so-far local and regional climate breakdown events, the decreased costs of decarbonisation and, above all, the impact of direct public action combine to make rapid change increasingly likely.

Direct action may turn out to be the most important. It’s always worth remembering that some of the most significant positive social changes in the past 120 years have had strong elements of nonviolent direct action behind them. Women’s suffrage groups, the impact of Gandhian thinking in India on decolonisation, the US civil rights movement and the citizens’ action movements across Eastern Europe in the late 1980s are all powerful reminders of what can be achieved.

Fossil carbon industries may be confident that they can carry on indefinitely, but perhaps they can’t. Perhaps the failings of COP27 will instead provoke much increased support for the obvious alternatives. If so, it must happen within the remainder of this decade.

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