Wolfgang Knorr – Why COP26 really was all blah, blah, blah

An epilogue to the COP26 show

Wolfgang Knorr is a Senior Research Scientist for Physical Geography and Ecosystem Science at Lund University

Key insights can sometimes come from unexpected sources. In 2006, nobody had heard of TSG Hoffenheim, a third class German football club, which had a local fan, the owner of e-commerce giant SAP. Once Dietmar Hopp started to pump money into his home town’s club, it quickly rose to the country’s top league, where it is now firmly established, with regular appearances in European tournaments. Alas, such a stellar rise to the top league does not only happen in sports. Around the same time, Imperial College, so far an unknown entity in the world of climate science, set about to found the Grantham Institute with the help of a private endowment of the tune of 12 million pounds.

To illustrate its membership in the top league of climate science, the new institute quickly set out to establish an annual lecture series with truly illustrious speakers – among them Paris Agreement architect Christiana Figueres, his Serene Highness Prince Albert II of Monaco, former Irish President Mary Robinson, and former US Vice President Al Gore – the only one whose lecture you cannot watch on Youtube because he has a firm policy of collecting considerable speaker fees. All that impressive line-up, however, wouldn’t have paid back its money worth, hadn’t it been for one humble journalist called Martin Wolf giving the 2011 annual lecture, during which he kept excusing himself for having been invited in the first place.

So here are my two key insights I owe to his lecture from ten years ago – which I find to be still valid and which we can most usefully apply to the recently held 26th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change (aka COP26). Martin Wolf said basically two things: First, that there are a lot of people out there who would like to have a similar standard of living as Europeans or North Americans, and second, that we should judge politicians by their deeds and not by their words.

Unfortunately, Martin’s wise words have been thoroughly forgotten and ignored. Because when we look at it, his analysis could have pretty much predicted the course and outcome of the Glasgow climate talks. First, the meeting almost foundered because rich countries were predictably reluctant to talk about anything that reeked of wealth transfer, and as a consequence powerful developing countries – China and India – refused to forego the type of economic development that the rich countries had been enjoying before talk of a climate emergency had surfaced.

And second, well, we just need to remember that the US’ climate special envoy, John Kerry, used to be a fervent champion of the fracking industry to understand that the Biden administration’s actions fall squarely into the category of ‘words’. Indeed, approvals of new drilling on public lands are now higher than they ever were under Trump despite promises to the contrary. For the rest of the Western world, it does not look better: Germany continuing to displace villages in order to expand its coal mines, Macron’s fondness of new oil pipelines, or continuing fossil-fuel subsidies of 11 million US$ a minute]. If you want a full run-down on the continued zeal with which the fossil fuel industry is being cajoled and pampered by our leaders, read the recent opinion peace by my Lund University colleague Andreas Malm. And of course, we always knew what it means when Bolsonaro promises to end deforestation in the Amazon.

The real crisis does not come from a lack of nice words – but from an unwillingness of the fortunate ones among us to give up our entitlement to a high-consumption life style. This unwillingness is deeply rooted in the narrative of our mainstream media. Did you see any headlines saying something like “US / EU / UK unwilling to help out the poor, putting COP26 in peril”? Instead, the newswire was running hot at the last minute of COP, blaming India’s refusal to “phase out coal” for the near failure of the talks.

A similar picture emerges for corporate climate pledges. Of 167 companies assessed for their climate pledges, representing 80% of corporate emissions, none had allocated any future funds with the aim of supporting the Paris Agreement’s temperature goal. And when courts finally demand corporate responsibility, corporate headquarters are being swiftly relocated to more friendly jurisdictions.

The question is – are current “policies and action” words or deeds? Are they being followed because of a conscious decision to protect us from rapid planetary heating, or do they rather reflect, at least to a large extent, economic realities which can change quickly? A projection by the consultancy firm McKinsey, which starts from a projected rise in global energy demand – exactly what Martin Wolf was talking about to the audience at the Grantham institute – and explicitly builds in a scenario of rapid uptake of renewables, still predicts 3.5 degrees warming by 2100.

Another perilous path is that we are pinning our hopes on number tricks based not on real action, but on mere words. According to the Climate Action Tracker, which really should be called the Climate Announcement Tracker, current pledges could in some best case scenario get us close to two degrees warming, something that is more and more frequently called the “upper limit” of the Paris Agreement’s goal. (There isn’t such “upper limit” in the agreement, the goal is “well below two”). A cursory glance at the Tracker’s website  will tell us that even at current “policies and action”, we are heading for a temperature rise by the end of the century that has a 2 in front of the decimal point. Looks like we’re definitely on track, even if falling a little bit short of the “ideal” Paris goal of 1.5.

We urgently need to pay close attention to the deeds of politicians and corporate leaders, and stop being seduced by their words. We need to understand that the systematic disregard of politicians’ own words devalues what has been said at COP26 as mere … ‘words’. So let’s simply ignore them and start looking exclusively at the real action of politicians and corporations. And so far, what you find is – nothing.


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