he first two decades of the 21st century have been dispiriting in many ways. Global terrorism on an unprecedented scale, endless wars, the rise of populist nationalism, waves of financial crises – and now the worst pandemic in a hundred years.
Many of those trends are interlinked – and dangerously so – with the climate crisis often exacerbating their effects. Life itself on this precious, unique planet Earth remains in jeopardy; and the destruction of habitats, trashing of the oceans and burning of fossil fuels continues apace. The stakes could scarcely be higher.
The climate crisis is both the transcendent issue of our times, but also one where there is some of the greatest grounds for hope – even optimism. The people of the world increasingly comprehend what is going on, and want to meet the challenge: individually and collectively.
Independent Climate is our latest contribution to promoting that understanding and catalysing change, at the level of international organisations, governments, corporations and households.
The influence and persuasive power of figures such as Greta Thunberg, Sir David Attenborough and Mike Berners-Lee have turned the tide, as have high-profile peaceful protests by groups across the world. There is much to be done, but the planet can still be saved, and it is never too late to start to make a difference.
The climate of public opinion has shifted dramatically in recent times. More people want to play their own small part; whether that is through recycling, reducing their meat consumption, thinking about their choice of an energy-efficient home or fridge or, soon, switching to an all-electric car.
Companies and engineers have responded to oil crises and consumer choices by radically reducing the energy intensity of mass production. The internet and new technologies have provided new answers to urgent problems: from smart home energy meters to paperless offices.
Governments, too, have responded to the weight of evidence and the demands of citizens, even in countries where democracy is weak. Donald Trump, probably the last of the big climate deniers, was ejected for many obvious reasons – but his obstinate defiance of the science, and his obstruction of efforts to tackle the climate crisis had plainly gone too far for many voters.
American citizens, whose health and living standards are being threatened by pollution, hurricanes and wildfires, decided enough was enough. In electing Joe Biden, America has the most environmentally ambitious president since Jimmy Carter: for the first time, green growth prevailed over “big oil”.
The great industrial blocs in North America, Europe and East Asia are committed to the targets set in the Paris accords five years ago. The proportion of energy now produced by wind and solar technologies would have been thought impossible, not so long ago.
Every retailer and manufacturer is searching for ways to eradicate plastic and waste. Taxes, subsidies and schemes such as carbon pricing have nudged economic actors into doing the right thing, and “pricing in” the environmental impact of their decisions.
There is much more to be done, particularly in safeguarding globally important habitats and biodiversity in Brazil, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Compared to 20 or 30 years ago, say at the time of the first “Earth Summit” in Rio in 1992, the stakes are far higher now. Yet, the intellectual and scientific arguments have been won, and some action has followed. There is basis for hope, but the political struggles are far from over.
Soon, the world will gather (physically or virtually), for another Earth summit, in Glasgow towards the end of this year. As a great city in a global empire built on heavy industry and driven by fossil fuels, it is a fine setting for the rich world to think about how they can help emerging and developing economies achieve a better life for their citizens without inflicting the same scale of damage as the West’s first industrial revolutions.
Called Cop26, it is the direct descendant of the Rio summit; the 26th Conference of the Parties – being governments, international bodies, NGOs and so on – mandated by the original United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
The UNFCCC process could easily have disintegrated into a succession of bad-tempered talking shops, where more CO2 was generated by the delegates flying in than was saved through agreement.
Sometimes that seemed true, yet the Kyoto, Copenhagen and Paris accords have all played their part in restraining the growth in greenhouse gas emissions, and in shaping and motivating world opinion.
The Glasgow summit represents another chance to press on and make a difference, by tightening targets and locking in progress already achieved through so-called ratchet mechanisms. It deserves to succeed, and The Independent is proudly a part of that movement.
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