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The blind spot of COP27 

Among the political leaders from every continent present at COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, one can currently detect the same desperation that climate activists have displayed for several years in countless demonstrations. Words like 'poly-crisis' and 'system adrift' crop up. And the mutual criticism (greenwashing) of the path taken is becoming considerably sharper.

Does not this desperation have as its cause that there is a complex tangle in their thoughts that they are unable or unwilling to unravel? I see that tangle extremely clearly highlighted in António Guterres' opening speech.

First he states:

We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator.”

Ok, this far I think it's pretty accurate. But then comes his directional road sign to move off that highway, because then he says more or less reproachfully:

"The world has the tools it needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in clean energy and low-carbon technology.”

This second statement makes no sense if he implies that we can very easily leave the 'highway to hell' by using those tools. If you present this in such a condition-free way,

  • and by doing so creates the impression that humanity can continue to produce and consume according to everyone's freely determinable needs, that countries (companies, governments, regions) can continue to develop, weaponize, and expand (economically/demographically) as they please (i.e. according to their current national laws, procedures, international agreements and mores);
  • without making the side note that it will require drastic interventions in order to quickly scale down the demand for energy to the level where that demand can be liquidated by the limited supply of relatively clean energy that we can now get going infrastructure-wise with the remaining carbon budget;

then I think you're talking shit (i.e. not realistic and not clear), with the potentially severe consequence that you are yourself causing the 'acceleration' you now signal as fatal. It will require a totally different tune in the lifeboat that remains us, if we want to get through this in one piece and limit the damage to a few centuries of extremely cautious manoeuvring to save the viability of our atmosphere.

The climate-solution reasoning presented by experts and politicians has been wrong for years. First, all that can-do thinking is far too risky because you are going to get too close to irreversible processes, making you increasingly vulnerable to trouble ahead. For example: One more wrong president in Brazil or in the USA, and humanity is going to hell. Secondly, within that solution reasoning, one talks like a salesman in a showroom who mainly plays on the fact that the buyer loses sight of his limited budget and bites (i.e. proceeds to application). Yes we have 'tools' to generate energy quite cleanly. But within a few years to everyone's 'needs', to everyone's free-determinable daily demands? No way! Large-scale application of renewables is a very long fuzzy road with many limiting independent variables, and chock-full of fossil emissions to make it happen. It is precisely the industrious implementation of all those supposedly clean promises that has become the highway on which we are working our way ever closer to the abyss.

The same baseless optimism also reigns around the climate effects of the Ukraine war. All the scare and mobilization around it, triggers nowadays a reckless arms race. Look at the frightening increase in planned military budgets in all EU countries and the UK, and look at the gigantic investments that USA (e.g. in hypersonic missile systems), Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and AU are going to undertake on their military bases around China, The resulting increase in the production of fossil fuels, steel, concrete, aluminium, cables, and chemicals is going to be the deathblow to the planned emission reductions of all countries involved. Nick Buxton: "We cannot tackle climate change, and save our collective future, while increasing military spending".

In short: This COP27 once again manifests the tenacity with which the established powers (owners) continue to try to keep their economic infrastructure (despite increasing climate chaos) alive and expandable. They are placing the wrong markers. And do not indicate a safe right direction.

One who does face our situation head-on is Jancovici: a French engineer (and founding president of the Shift Project) who has been through all the energy scenarios from all sides dozens of times. His downside is his speaking in French, and then also at a speed like he is being chased by the devil. But he should be forgiven. Janco is gold because he does not shy away from any consequence in his climate solution thinking. In this recent confrontation between his expertise and the inquiry committee of French Assemblée Nationale (say House of Commons), a constantly repeated pattern occurs. When asked by committee members how society's demand for clean energy can be met in the future, he elaborates for each type of renewable energy about the volumes of raw materials available and the fossil burden of building the corresponding infrastructure, only to conclude invariably that 'sobriété' will have to be a major part of the solution (see for example his reasoning between t = 13min and t = 17min). In the short term, he envisions (t = 1h51) some leeway in using nuclear power to bridge the gap but, according to him, implementing a much simpler way of life is absolutely the only way to reach the net-zero emission state in time.

Beware though: That sobriété-concept has a much broader meaning in French than elsewhere. It refers not only to individual behavior but also to the collective organization of simple low-carbon lifestyles, and is thus close to the French concept of décroissance (degrowth economy).

In France, a degrowth preach may meet with much less disapproval than in anglo-saxon countries ‒ look for example at the nuanced way CNN recently tried to pull open the iron curtain around degrowth ‒ but even in France it still sounds like swearing in church and no one (except Batho and all those who walk her talk) gives in.

Janco himself never goes deeply (see from t = 1h40) into how one might organize a transition to simple living. It is not his specialty, but of course he also knows that tinkering together ‒ after all, limiting requires regulating and allocating ‒ with each other's behaviour area (in many fields) requires from each of us a leap in the dark. Close together, open and honest negotiation of downsizing behaviour space; that's going to be real sweat and toil during a long and rough hike. To get people massively and properly aligned (even-mindedly) on that track, it would help tremendously if the luminaries at COP27 would loudly question the feasibility of implementing a net-zero in time with the current tools, instead of sending people into the abyss any longer. Guterres can learn from Arjen van Veelen (see his open letter to Transavia in the NRC) why it's not a big deal if not everything is possible anymore. And that a blind spot disappears by itself, if you dare to cut your losses.

Jac Nijssen, 2022
This article has been written November 2022.
See French version here
A Dutch version was published on at 13 November 2022




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