C3 Solutions spent the last two weeks in Glasgow, Scotland for the United Nations climate meeting known as COP26. Throughout the two weeks, several notable observations stood out, including:
- The problem solvers were well represented. Many policymakers, activists and the general public who desired to see a successful outcome in Glasgow rested their hope on what policies might come out of the two weeks of negotiations. But the real problems solvers were mainly outside of the negotiating room. Out of the nearly 40,000 participants, thousands were entrepreneurs and companies from around the world. The innovative ventures included companies that represented nuclear, renewables, manufacturers, recycled plastics, farmers, landscapers and much more. These are the people that are going to mitigate the risks of climate change while at the same time improving peoples’ well-being. The cynic may argue that large corporations came to greenwash, and businesses came solely to lobby for subsidies and other preferential treatment. There’s no denying some of that takes place. However, many came to showcase their talents and offer economically viable products and be a part of the solution. From morning to night, international climate summits are packed with events and meetings, many of which can lead to thought-provoking discussions. The innovators on the ground, offering bottom-up solutions, are where the most productive climate change action is happening.
- Large gaps remain between talk and action and between the rich and the poor. The world has made progress on climate change, and the United States has been a global leader in emissions reductions, largely through private sector actions. As a result, the worst-case scenarios for future climate change are becoming increasingly unlikely and that’s good news. That said, the long-standing roadblocks of international climate negotiations were no different in Glasgow. For instance, there was talk to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies (a worthwhile pursuit), but no real plan of action to do so. Practically speaking, the international framework is powerless against state-owned fossil fuel companies. In fact, as President Biden called for urgent action on climate change, he simultaneously called on OPEC to pump more oil, much to the dissatisfaction of domestic producers. Another longstanding divide during international climate talks is how much developing countries want in financing and what richer countries are willing to pay. This year in Scotland was no different.
- Climate solutions should expand economic freedom. Several outcomes at COP26 are worth highlighting as signs of progress. There are efforts to solidify greater transparency in reporting, more committed financing for climate adaptation and pledges to stop deforestation (again, action speaks louder than pledges). Noticeably absent from these discussions are ways to expand economic freedom. One way in which international agreements could be greatly improved is to share best practices on permitting, access to capital, removing trade distortions and barriers and increasing foreign investment. Doing so would empower the private sector to expand low-carbon energy resources, build more climate-resilient infrastructure, deploy more natural climate solutions and stretch any publicly allocated dollars even further.
- China’s noticeable absence. President Biden was right to criticize China (as well as Saudi Arabia and Russia) for not sending their leaders to COP26. The world’s largest emitter by a wide margin, China is producing more coal than ever. Since most future emissions growth will come from developing countries, any actions taken by the U.S., Europe and much of the developed world will have minimal climate impact. While China tried to salvage its absence with a joint declaration on climate action with the U.S., the declaration is hollow on details. Perhaps the deal opens the door for meaningful action, but given China’s terrible environmental record, there’s good reason for skepticism. Further, the U.S. cannot ignore China’s human rights abuses, including using forced Uyghur labor to make solar panels, in the name of fighting climate change. Appeasing China is a losing strategy.
- Energy affordability and reliability remain essential. While tens of thousands gathered for two weeks to urge actions on climate change, families around the world are dealing with rising energy prices, energy shortages and energy poverty. A lack of affordable heat in the winter or affordable air conditioning in the summer can literally be the difference between life and death. When energy bills and prices at the pump increase, the higher costs disproportionately harm the poorest people who spend a greater portion of their budget on energy costs. We can transition to a low-carbon energy economy, and we can decouple emissions from economic growth, but affordability and reliability must remain a priority.
- Urgency and optimism over desperation and catastrophism. For two weeks, protesters flooded the streets of Glasgow with messages of climate alarmism and a condemnation of capitalism. While their passion is commendable, climate catastrophism is not grounded in what the science says and is counterproductive. Summarizing the thoughts of Brian O’Neill, director of the Joint Global Change Research Institute, Emma Marris writes, “all the paths, even the hottest ones, show improvements in human well-being on average. IPCC scientists expect that average life expectancy will continue to rise, that poverty and hunger rates will continue to decline, and that average incomes will go up in every single plausible future, simply because they always have.” There will be costs and some regions will be harmed more than others, but O’Neill says, “we’re generally in the climate-change field not talking about futures that are worse than today.” That is something that is not always well understood in discussions about climate change, and it is important why the proposed policy cures cannot be worse than the disease itself. We should attack climate change with a sense of urgency, but also with a sense of optimism.