Updated: December 7, 2021 7:41:31 am
I did not intend to write about COP26. Much has already been written about the subject and I am no climate change expert. But I changed my mind after reading Ashlee Vance’s biography of Elon Musk. The book triggered the reflection that the current gap between the ambitious rhetoric of climate change summitry (“blah blah” in Greta Thunberg’s words) and action can only be bridged by shifting the loci of responsibility and authority for climate change governance from those fixated on the short-term and, in the larger scheme of matters, inconsequential details like the next elections, to those who have a track record of bringing about radical change in the face of adversity. I know this reflection goes against the structure of the present international order and I will be critiqued for engaging in an academic parlour game. But I believe, on occasion, there is merit in arguing the counterfactual. That is why I share my thoughts.
After 26 meetings, it is clear COP summitry can make incremental progress. The world has, however, run out of time. It must accelerate the implementation of the action plan towards net zero. For that, it must redesign the nature of climate change governance.
COP26 was not all “blah blah”. Ninety per cent of the world committed to a net carbon zero target; 23 countries agreed to stop financing fossil fuels by the end of 2022; 100 countries committed to end deforestation; the accounting systems for calculating carbon emissions were finalised and notably, the phase down of coal and inefficient fuel subsidies was accepted. On the substantive issue of climate finance, however, it was still “blah blah”. The earlier pledge by the developed world to channel $100 billion to the less developed was not met; they committed a lowly $346 million to the climate adaptation fund. PM Modi’s call that $1 trillion be raised for climate mitigation and adaptation was not taken up seriously.
The NGO, Climate Action Tracker, has analysed the consequences of COP incrementalism. They calculate that were there no climate change policy, global temperatures would rise by between 4.1 and 4.8 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. This would be existentially catastrophic. Were, however, every country to implement their non-binding nationally determined commitments for 2030, the temperature rise would be 2.4 degrees C and, if over and above that, they met their binding commitments including net zero targets, the increase would range between 1.8 and 2.1degrees C. Their message is: The increase can be kept within a “sustainable” range but further prevarication in the implementation of the action plan towards net zero carbon will push the increase above an acceptable threshold with devastating consequences.
There is broad consensus on what must be done to get to net zero. Many people have written on the subject but John Doerr’s recently published book, Speed and Scale — A Global Action Plan for Solving our Climate Crisis Now provides a particularly compelling account. Doerr lays out a six-point action plan for bringing carbon emissions down from the current annual amount of 59 GT to zero by 2050. I summarise the plan below. (The number/comment within brackets is the carbon reduction from the action /the key factors for success).
Electrification of transport (6 GT; battery technology); decarbonisation of the grid (21 GT; 50 per cent of electricity from solar and wind; no new oil and gas plants after 2021; retirement of thermal power); fix food (7 GT; no nitrogen-based fertilisers; contain methane/nitrous oxide emissions from rice farming); protect nature (7 GT; net zero deforestation and elimination of deep sea trawling); clean up industry (8 GT; reduce carbon intensity in cement/steel/aluminum); remove carbon (10 GT; nature-based and engineering solutions).
Doerr is not breaking new ground. Most countries have already commenced the journey. But no one country can singly address the systemic challenge of global warming. It requires collective action. And, therein lies the rub. The current institutions of governance have created a forum for collaborative effort but the rules of engagement reinforce separateness. This is the reason institutions need to be redesigned. This is why I am engaging in this “Muskian” parlour game. Why Musk? He is hardly a likeable character. Certainly his biographer does not sketch him out to be so. But the answer is this game is not about Musk. It is about the qualities required to break with incrementalism. It is about the imperative of making things happen.
Musk is today amongst the richest persons in the world. His wealth comes from three companies renowned for their engineering, technical, operational and human resource excellence. Musk created these companies in the face of extreme odds. There were many who thought his vision was between “daft” and “bat s**t crazy”. This is not surprising. How can one take seriously someone whose life mission is to create an alternative habitable colony on Mars because our planet is at risk? But Musk was not deterred and he proved his critics wrong. The reasons for his success are manifold but in my view the most important are his uncompromising commitment to his vision, his “all or nothing” approach and his determination to achieve the “impossible upon the impossible”. (One example: He had his people build a space avionics system for $10,000 when the cheapest external quote was $10 million).
Musk’s career story and qualities are the pegs on which I hang my larger point that climate change governance needs leadership that can pull teeth from stone. There must be many like Musk. They need to come together. The leadership of COP27 should be handed over to such people: A collective of technocrats, environmentalists, financiers, sectoral experts unshackled by sovereignty and politics and capable of driving technological change, catalysing green investment and forging global collaboration.
This column first appeared in the print edition on December 6, 2021 under the title ‘Leaders for COP27’. The writer is chairman and distinguished fellow, Centre for Social and Economic Progress