[Column] Climate change, COP26 and wealthy nations

Posted on : 2021-08-30 18:07 KST Modified on : 2021-08-30 18:07 KST
We can only hope that not only European floods and droughts but also North American wildfires will remind political leaders from the rich world that we are running out of time
Timo Fleckenstein
Timo Fleckenstein

By Timo Fleckenstein, associate professor of social policy at the London School of Economics

COP26, the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference, is fast approaching. From Oct. 31 to Nov. 12, political leaders and experts will be coming to the Scottish city of Glasgow. The global pandemic might have "robbed" climate change headlines over the past 18 months, but the urgency of radical carbon dioxide emission reduction in order to prevent a climate catastrophe has not disappeared.

Experts leave no doubt that the next 10 years are critical for limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to the pre-industrial era. A monumental effort will be required across the globe, but in particular from the rich. A recent IPPC report estimated that the wealthiest 10 percent of humanity cause between 36 and 45 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. This represents approximately 10 times the climate "damage" of the poorest 10 percent of the globe's population, where development is imperative to lift them out of poverty.

The United Kingdom, holding the presidency of COP26, is keen to show global leadership after exiting the European Union, and the US President Joe Biden seems equally keen to show the world that American climate crisis denial of the Trump era has come to an end. Within hours of coming into office, Biden's America re-joined the Paris Agreement. Also, in Europe, there can be no doubt of the urgency to achieve a breakthrough in Glasgow, as it is difficult to ignore the consequence of ongoing climate change in the European continent.

This year, the small Sicilian city of Floridia recorded Europe's highest ever temperature of 48.8 degrees Celsius. The South of Europe is boiling, and the excruciating temperatures challenge not only human life but also livelihoods, with the agricultural sector struggling from droughts. A different picture in the Northern part of the continent where massive rainfall caused unseen floods and devastation. Germany was shaken to the core — more than 180 people died in recent floods, and the pictures of large-scale destruction are difficult to forget.

Germans are called to the ballot box on Sept. 26; unsurprisingly, climate change has become a critical election topic. Parties across the political spectrum, except for right-wing populists, accept the need to tackle the challenge of climate change, but differences between the political parties can be observed.

As one would expect, the Green party, which has grown out of the environmental and anti-nuclear movement, pushes most aggressively for net-zero emissions. Not only does the party call for a speedier expansion of renewable energy, but also for advancing the closure of coal-fired power stations. The end of coal is currently penciled in for 2038, but the Greens press for 2030.

Both center-right and business-friendly Christian Democrats (CDU) and center-left Social Democrats (SPD) object to this Green initiative. The CDU chancellor candidate is currently Minister-President of the North Rhine Westphalia — the industrial heartland of the country with a strong preference for delayed closure of coal-fired power plants. The SPD candidate for the top job, on the other hand, does not want to be seen as jeopardizing industrial jobs. Trade unions might have lost influence in German politics, but they remain a relevant political force one does not want to upset in an increasingly uncertain electoral outcome.

The Green party hopes to benefit from the climate crisis gaining prominence — a much-needed boost after a recent drop in opinion polls. Still, the party has excellent chances to be part of the next government. So, the conflicts in the election campaign can be expected to present an important conflict line when forming the next coalition government. This is a conflict line that can be found in many other industrial economies — environmental protection versus current economic interest. And here, we often see "old" cross-class coalitions between business and organized labor.

It is much easier to agree on boosting job-creating solar energy, but it is not quite the same when questioning "cheap" but polluting energy for the industrial sector. It is thus difficult to perceive how to reconcile the "old" growth model with a new "green" growth strategy that is immediately needed to save the planet.

COP26 is around the corner, and developed countries cannot have it both ways, especially if they expect further emission reduction commitments from countries like China and India. We can only hope that not only European floods and droughts but also North American wildfires will remind political leaders from the rich world that we are running out of time and that we need a new model of economic prosperity. You can't have your cake and eat it.

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