A 2.7 degree wake-up call

The UK government’s response is woefully inadequate. So keep your expectations about Cop26 really low, advises a worried Eddie Ford

Clearly, the upcoming Cop26 conference in Glasgow is bound to be a failure in terms of what is objectively required to prevent runaway global warming. It will almost certainly be a failure even when it comes to what nearly 200 countries signed up to in April 2016 after the Cop15 conference in Paris - keeping the rise in mean global temperature to “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and preferably limit it to 1.5°C - hoping to reach net-zero by the middle of this century. As things stand now, there is absolutely no chance of meeting these targets. Boris Johnson himself has said it is “touch and go” whether Cop26 will achieve its aim of agreeing the emissions cuts for 2030.

Indeed, things are steadily getting worse. According to the World Meteorological Organization’s annual bulletin this week, the build-up of warming gases in the atmosphere rose to record levels in 2020 despite the Covid pandemic and the subsequent restrictions - which saw an overall decline in emissions of CO2 of 5.6%.1 The WMO calculates that CO2 reached 413.2 parts per million in the atmosphere in 2020 and is now 149% of the pre-industrial level, pointing out that the last time our planet underwent a comparable concentration was three-five million years ago, when temperatures were 2-3°C warmer and the sea level was 10-20 metres higher than it is today.

Then on October 26 the UN Environmental Programme published its annual ‘emissions gap’ report, entitled The heat is on.2 The world is squandering the theoretical opportunity to “build back better” from the Covid-19 pandemic, says the report, warning that countries’ current pledges would reduce carbon by only about 7.5% by 2030 - way below the 55% cut needed to limit global temperature rises to 1.5°C. This means that the world faces disastrous temperature rises of at least 2.7°C if climate pledges are not met. More than 100 countries have promised to reach net zero emissions around the mid-century, notes the UN study, but in practice many of the pledges are vague. Unless there are stringent cuts in emissions this decade, we could experience potentially catastrophic global heating. António Guterres, UN secretary-general, described the findings as a “thundering wake-up call” to world leaders just before the Glasgow summit.


The UK government has committed itself to slashing emissions by 78% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels, bringing Britain more than three-quarters of the way to net zero by 2050.3 Also, for the very first time, the government’s sixth ‘carbon budget’ incorporated the UK’s share of international aviation and shipping emissions - before they had only left ‘headroom’ for them. Whilst emissions are going up globally, as we have just seen, in Britain they have gone down - in no small measure due to the trashing of the British coal industry by the spiteful Margaret Thatcher government. There has also been a fairly substantial shift to oil and gas since 1990, and then over to solar panels and - more importantly - wind power.

Either way, regarding emissions, the general curve downwards in Britain has got shallower and shallower, with the government’s latest measures not exactly filling you with hope that the overall trend might be reversed. In other words, while there are plenty of totally unobjectionable UK proposals like heat pumps or insulating houses - the real debate is whether those measures will make a massive difference or not (obviously they will make some difference).

Then there is the larger question of the government’s useless philosophy. The overwhelming lesson of Covid-19 is that those governments which have been the most effective in combating the pandemic did so by marshalling state power. Conversely, those that failed to do this have seen massive deaths. Confronted by the climate crisis, Boris Johnson’s idea that you can rely on the invisible hand of the market is a recipe for disaster. So with heat pumps and insulation, after a little bit of government priming, the market will then take its course. But the Energy Saving Trust estimates that a typical air-source heat pump installation will cost you around £6,000-£8,000, and a ground-source installation can cost £10,000-£18,000, depending on the amount of heat required. Obviously, this is a substantial amount of money for most people. But, with a slight government push, or so the theory goes, the price will start to go down - becoming increasingly affordable, and indeed preferable. The same argument goes for electric cars and a host of other measures.

Talking of electric cars, they will not make a substantial difference, however the ‘green capitalists’ might try to convince you otherwise. Even if you go over to 100% renewable sources of power, you still have the plastics, metals, glass, computer chips, batteries, etc. Electric cars are not the solution, but actually part of the problem, because the wider car-economy - however powered - is a very big part of it, along with the aviation economy and the meat and dairy economy.

Going by the latest media reports, both Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin will not be attending Cop26 - perhaps because they fear being a target for sanctimonious governments like the UK and US, pointing the finger at China with its coal-reliant power generators or Russia for being a major oil and gas exporter. Yet again, this shows precisely the problem with the climate crisis - which by necessity requires an end to thinking in terms of distinct national units: rather we need to focus on the necessary global solution. However you think China should be defined in terms of political economy, there is no doubt that it is locked into the global capitalist economy. Hence what used to be produced in Britain or the US that created methane or CO2, is frequently now being produced in China. We are dealing with a global climate and a global economy, to which all countries are ultimately subordinate.

Unsurprisingly, the leaking of more than 32,000 documents shows that there has been systematic lobbying by various states to tone down or amend the language used in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sixth assessment report that came out recently. And language matters when debating climate change. Major fuel producers/consumers, including Australia, Saudi Arabia and Japan, sought to remove the “recommendations” about the world needing to phase out fossil fuels. The Opec countries - which include Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, the United Arab Emirates and Venezuela - have also backed weakening the report’s recommendations on fossil fuels. Meanwhile, large meat and dairy producers, such as Brazil and Argentina, reportedly attempted to change messages about the climate benefit of promoting plant-based diets. The assessment report argues that “plant-based diets can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 50%, compared to the average emission-intensive western diet”, which especially upset these two countries.

All of this is entirely expected. Take the three countries named the most in the leaked documents. Australia, now hoping that “technological breakthroughs” will help it meet its new 2050 net-zero-emissions plan, produces lots of coal, large amounts of which being exported to China. Nothing more really needs to be said about Saudi Arabia, despite the recent greenwashing announcement about going carbon-neutral by 2060. It is the world’s largest exporter of oil (though not producer, which is the US) and, whatever Mohammed bin Salman might be saying now, expect that to be the case for an extremely long time - you can bet money that the target will not be met. As for Japan, it relies heavily on imports of coal and oil, especially given the post-Fukushima state of its nuclear industry. In fact, you can take it for granted that virtually all countries will have been lobbying to one extent or another - some more discreetly than others, some more successfully than others.

Captain Kirk

Though at first it might seem purely a tangential question, it is worthwhile thinking about Captain Kirk - ie, the 90-year-old Canadian actor, William Shatner. You obviously have to admire his health and physique for such an age - getting into a small capsule and then shooting off into space.

As an individual, this is all fine and dandy. The problem is that there is a tendency in our class society for what is a luxury at one moment to become a necessity. One part of capitalism is about selling things to people, so ‘department two’ within the system hires advertising agencies that work 24 hours a day to influence us to consume aristocratic or elite products - which now include the emerging space tourism industry.

As he got out of the capsule, ‘Captain Kirk’ talked about the thrilling experience he had just had. Call me a cynic, but it is difficult not to be sceptical about those comments. Those old enough will remember the era when air travel still had a glamorous association with the ‘jet set’ - a lifestyle you were meant to envy. Yet flying for most of us - when, for example, we go abroad for our holidays - is the very opposite of glamorous: miserably queuing for hours and then packed like sardines into a horrible tin-can. But if you had gone up in a plane in the 1920s then undoubtedly it would have been very exciting - with the burgeoning aircraft industry using such experiences to sell this product to the aristocrats, bourgeoisie and upper middle classes - then eventually to the masses (at least in the so-called first world). Inevitably, air flight became a major source of greenhouse emissions.

The idea now being heavily promoted by an acquiescent media and others is that being launched into space is the most incredibly exciting thing that can ever happen to you. But this is simply because very few people have actually experienced it, when in reality there is no fundamental difference between going into space and bungee jumping. If I told you that bungee jumping is the most wonderful experience imaginable, you would rightly think that I was a bit weird. Space flight in itself is not particularly glamorous or exciting. After all, you are not piloting the damned thing - it is all done automatically.

Most importantly of all, in the midst of a global climate crisis, you should not ignore what is pumped out into the atmosphere in terms of CO2 - purportedly one space launch is equal to 395 transatlantic flights. Yet it is almost considered bad manners or Luddite to raise such issues when discussing space travel, particularly if it concerns the much-loved Captain Kirk.


  1. bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-59016075.↩︎

  2. unep.org/resources/emissions-gap-report-2021.↩︎

  3. gov.uk/government/news/uk-enshrines-new-target-in-law-to-slash-emissions-by-78-by-2035.↩︎