Autumn is on its way again. Nights are getting longer, leaves are falling from the trees, and birds are migrating back to warmer climes. Such cycles are ubiquitous to nature and part of its neverending charm.

However, the shifting timings of these cycles are just one example of the many impacts climate change will have. You know, alongside the significant economic and ecological disasters that many experts predict. That’s why next year the UK is hosting a summit in Glasgow aimed at making significant international commitments to combat climate change before it’s too late.

Of course, the summit was originally going to be this year, but COVID changed that script. Instead, the UK is now hosting a preliminary event in December dubbed ‘the sprint to Glasgow’, where the commitments planned to be made next year will be initially drawn up in an endless chain of bureaucracy.

It’s summit season again! Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

This is likely why many government’s rhetorics on emissions have been brought into focus in recent days. It’s always good to go into a summit with public opinion on your side. That’s probably why China recently announced its commitment to becoming carbon neutral by 2060, and whilst that isn’t as soon as many other nation’s targets, including the UK, it’s a significant promise for one of the world’s largest economies to make. That’s not to say other richer nations haven’t been doing better. Germany has managed to decrease it’s emissions by 36% from 1990 levels and has plans to go even further.

With all of these plans and achievements to boast about, it’s clear how world governments can spin climate policy communication in their favour. But with a little bit of scrutiny, it becomes painfully obvious that these summits can amount to nothing more than a performance of who can shout the loudest without getting anything done, ignoring some critical technicalities that will likely determine the fate of our climate.

A Tendency to Bicker

Anyone who’s followed past climate conferences will know that they are notorious for having severe limitations, with some even going as far as suggesting they’re completely ineffective.

This can certainly be said of the Kyoto Protocol. The 1992 summit was one of the first major attempts to bring the world together and tackle the growing climate crisis. In the end, an agreement was made to reduce emissions by around 29% by 2012 from 1990 levels. Yet, the agreement didn’t become legally binding until halfway through its lifespan, didn’t mandate China and India to reduce emissions, and the USA never ratified the agreement as a result. Unsurprisingly, this lack of participation ripped the teeth out of Kyoto and emissions significantly increased.

Another more recent summit also had no firepower, so much so that a formal agreement signed wasn’t even signed. The Copenhagen Conference held in 2009 and was mired in political deadlocks. As a result, the only deal that was made was that we should limit temperature increases at 2 degrees and that financial mechanisms in place to aid less productive nations in adapting to climate change. No deadline, no legal requirements, nothing but a vague commitment that disappointed activists.

2 degrees was the maximum amount of warming allowed by Paris; 1.5 degrees was the best-case scenario. Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

Nevertheless, the 2-degree requirement did make its way into the Paris Agreement in 2015, which was the legally binding deal to keep warming below said threshold to avoid catastrophic climate damage. This was widely and rightly regarded as a key breakthrough for such summits, and emissions continued to rise. Temperatures are now on track to rise by 3 degrees at least, which is predicted by some to cause £480 trillion in damages by the end of the century (current global GDP is £67 trillion).

Why isn’t the agreement effective? Well, the USA pulling out hasn’t helped, and many countries just aren’t putting their money where their mouths are regarding their commitments. China and India’s emissions are increasing; Russia doesn’t even have a target to aim for. Whether it’s an inherent aversion to change or a lack of political pressure from citizens, something isn’t working and the climate is suffering.

Long Road to Neutrality

A possible explanation for this ineffectiveness may lie in the targets many nations have set for carbon neutrality; a point in time where emissions will be offset by other activities resulting in no net increase of atmospheric carbon.

As mentioned previously, many nation’s climate strategies are fundamentally tied to these targets, such as China’s 2060 neutrality goal, and they’ll likely be judged on whether they can meet them on time.

However, the problem with setting targets so far into the future is that during the period up to the deadline atmospheric carbon will increase without being taken out of the atmosphere (carbon sequestration technology is a long way off). So by the time China reaches neutrality in 2060, there still would have been 40 years worth of emissions being added to the atmosphere. Without a significant portion of emissions being taken away by other means, atmospheric carbon will increase and worsen the effects of climate change by the time many nations reach their neutrality goals.

Furthermore, when it comes to emissions, you have to look beyond national borders to reveal some key issues, specifically resulting from the functioning of the global market. Continuing looking at China, various Chinese companies have invested billions into carbon-intensive infrastructure in Africa to secure trade routes with the resource-rich continent. Such development will likely boost emissions which may not be attributed to China if you solely analyse the issue by national borders. Therefore, these investments could be regarded as a workaround to boost China’s economic growth whilst domestic emissions are limited so that they can declare carbon neutrality earlier to score some PR points.

Of course, this isn’t solely a Chinese issue. Many richer nations like to say that environmental standards are their top priority whilst ignoring their international operations. The UK, for instance, will relish the positive reactions gained from announcing their target of protecting 30% of domestic lands by 2030, but will also conveniently hide the fact that British imports can be linked to 500 sq.km of yearly deforestation in Brazil.

So whilst carbon neutrality and other environmental targets may look good on paper, the length of time needed to achieve them and the complexities of international capitalism raise significant doubt as to whether they can be wholly achieved.

Wicked Benefits

Lastly, there’s a point to be made about what I believe is the fundamental problem with climate summits; state sovereignty. Before you click away, I’m not arguing that all nations should band together in one giant superstate, but that there’s an inherent contradiction in the way international law works which limits the effectiveness of summits like this. Whilst an optimist will argue that issues such as climate change demand that all nations come together and compromise for the greater good, the fact is that the UN is fundamentally limited by the rights of sovereign nations to govern their territory how they like. Like it or not, the UN is largely toothless, and can’t force a country to do anything it doesn’t want to no matter how many summits you hold.

Thus, when it comes to the negotiation table, in the back of every single delegate’s mind the guiding question “How can I get the best out of this deal for my nation?”

Indeed, there are several benefits to be reaped from the earth warming, such is the complexity of climate change, and delegates will always be looking to grant these benefits to their governments rather than to the globe. Whether these may be the physical benefits of an ice-free Arctic for shipping and colder nations becoming more arable or the structural benefits of an increased market for renewable energy and batteries, every delegate is looking at this likely future determined to maximise its positives for their nation alone.

We can do away with this for a shipping lane, right? Photo by Tapio Haaja on Unsplash

It is in this wrangling that important issues become concerningly obscured, seemingly the acceptable cost that some nations are willing to pay for said goods. Indeed, global mass extinction has been brewing for decades without any meaningful action against it, and many island nations will be completely lost to sea-level rise within the century, but these issues never seem to matter as long as a worldwide economic bottom line is assured. I don’t understand the math that these nations are doing, because the destruction of the environment and the loss of whole archipelagos in exchange for a secure market for Tesla’s batteries isn’t a deal I would necessarily make. I wouldn’t want to trade economic security for moral bankruptcy.

And in the end, the benefits that many nations want to receive won’t last long anyway if the problem gets out of hand. For instance, increased warming will likely release the billions of tonnes of carbon stored in permafrost, which will again warm the atmosphere and oceans, potentially releasing the billions of tonnes of methane stored in hydrate deposits on the seafloor, further warming the planet in an endless loop which could make Earth completely inhospitable. But as long as we have the money to make it to Mars we’ll be fine, right?

A Summit to Remember

This is an important conversation to have. The battle to save our planet has to move beyond typical political PR and engage with the flaws and technicalities of the global system that has got us into this mess. Climate summits can be incredibly ineffective, but the fact that environmental concerns are becoming much more of an issue, demanding every country coming together to create solutions, is proof that we’re on the path to greater action.

Therefore, whilst I would take any climate action committed to in December with a big pinch of salt, it’s likely that whatever issues are discussed and agreed upon will set the tone for much more significant measures to hopefully be announced in 2021, Therefore, the “sprint to Glasgow” is one to watch and remember, as it could be critical in determining the future of our climate.

Geography graduate based in the UK. Writing on geography and current events to get me through this uncertain time. Email — jontycoles@gmail.com

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