Reactions to Climate Change Summit COP26: Too little, too late, small steps only
Will the climate change deal of COP26 get us anywhere? Tilburg researchers agree that the results do not match the urgency of the problems, that are getting bigger and bigger. After examining the small print, they have discovered a few bright spots: procedures have been agreed to keep countries more focused. However, the Dutch government and the EU need to make every effort, and soon, too. The problem of climate change can only be solved collectively.
“We aren’t sufficiently listening to our young people,” is the first reaction of Reyer Gerlagh, Professor of Environmental Economy. “I support recalcitrance these days. I agree with Greta: ‘Blah blah blah’.” But according to Gerlagh, we cannot expect the world leaders to look at the long term: “They are under the pressure of large corporations run by old white men looking to their own glorious past, and less to the distant future. And those who do look to the future are primarily concerned with their own corporate profits.”
I agree with Greta: ‘Blah blah blah’
Bert Willems, who studies the organization of energy markets, also refers to ‘a mere talking shop’ in Glasgow with many vague promises and few hard agreements. “Perhaps this also reflects the existing political landscape: the weakness of the US, Australia that clings to coal, the EU that did not put up one front, a small delegation from China, and Russia that isn’t too keen to agree on taking measures either.”
What made it to the media was mainly the phasing out of the use of coal and a stop to deforestation. However, Professor of International and EU Environmental Law Jonathan Verschuuren points out that even those agreements are not legally binding and therefore not very effective. Disappointing results, that is also Professor of Economics and Environmental Policy Herman Vollebergh’s conclusion: “The developed countries continue to drag their feet where taking responsibility is concerned – if you look at the cumulated emissions, the ball is in these countries’ courts – and the ambitions of the rapidly developing countries like China, India, and Brazil are not a lot to go by, given that they have promised action very far into the future.”
There is no escaping the fact that the problem of climate change is a collective problem
This is what the problem boils down to, Professor of Sociology Peter Achterberg explains: “Many of the problems can only be addressed if we perceive them as a collective problem rather than an individual behavioral problem. Of course you as an individual can decide not to fly. To make your home more sustainable. To reduce your meat consumption. But this is a collective action problem: it only works if everyone does it and there are no free riders, so if there are no governments that continue to stimulate behavior that is detrimental to the climate – for instance, by subsidizing air lines, or similar hogwash that defends the interests of fossil fuel-consuming industries. We simply cannot escape the need to see the problem of climate change is a collective, institutional problem, if we want to find an integral solution.“
Tiny bright spots
Professor of Climate Law Verschuuren was mainly interested in the practical implementation of the agreements of the Paris Climate Accords that are legally binding, namely, that countries themselves must decide on their targets (the so-called NDCs, Nationally Determined Contributions) and which they must achieve to limit the temperature rise to two degrees. Some progress was made on that front, he observes: procedures have been adopted and a decision has been taken about how countries must report on the CO2 emission reductions achieved. The transfer of emission reductions among countries has also been clarified: country X investing in emission reduction in country Y may use the reduction achieved to contribute to its own targets.
In addition, progress was made in setting up a market instrument for companies investing in climate-related projects that contribute to sustainable development: a new ‘Supervisory Body’ will develop methods for the projects, as well as rules to prevent abuse. “This has revived the Clean Development Mechanism from the Kyoto Protocol,” Verschuuren says. The credits obtained under this mechanism can be used, subject to certain conditions, in the new system of the Paris Accords.
The new agreement about methane emissions is also encouraging, Vollebergh says, although implementing it will not be easy, and China has opted out. The US and the EU (‘Fit for 55’ package) have firm ambitions, although the focus is again mainly on own industry first and not on collaboration around innovation with developing countries. In his opinion, the reappearance of nuclear energy is remarkable: “Nuclear energy is the only energy source that has become increasingly expensive in the past decades. Whereas the sun is still becoming increasingly cheaper and wind has long been competitive with fossil fuels.”
Capping global warming at 1.5 degrees not binding
Nevertheless, a lot has remained the same, Verschuuren echoes: “Although it has been acknowledged that we had better aim for a maximum temperature increase of 1.5 degrees, the Paris Accords stating that 2 degrees is the legally binding final goal has been reaffirmed in Glasgow.” A working group may have been set up to discuss scaling up the ambitions in this decade, but no joint planning has been made: it has been agreed that states are ‘encouraged’ to set an NDC (Nationally Determined Contribution) in 2025 with 2035 as a final date, another one in 2030 for 2040, and so on. “In sum, we must conclude that not a lot of progress has been made in the negotiations on all kinds of topics relating to supporting developing countries.”
The Dutch government mainly wants to prevent upsetting potentially complaining citizens
The experts are not impressed by the Netherlands’ contribution to COP26, nor by the Dutch policy. “Woolly and inconsistent,” according to Professor of Real Estate Economics Dirk Brounen. Gerlagh compares the Dutch climate policy to its corona policy: “There is no forward thinking on policies that are robust in the event of potentially less optimistic scenarios. The government mainly wants to prevent upsetting potentially complaining citizens. (…) We are a country that has been very reluctant to take action, that gives every financial support to the fossil fuel industry. If the EU had not forced us to have a climate policy, our government would have shelved the whole subject entirely and wouldn’t have made any policy until the catastrophes become big and unambiguous to ignore.”
Vollebergh is slightly more optimistic: “It is a good thing that the Netherlands is finally making some progress on a number of aspects, such as– after an unexpected about-turn – suddenly endorsing the ban on export credit insurance, in particular for fossil fuel extraction, although I fear that this, too, may turn out to be merely gesture politics. The initiative for a ban on diesel trucks is useful, but the deadlines are rather distant dates. On the other hand, we cannot move too fast because the clean energy simply isn’t available yet.”
Climate neutral now
As scientists, the Tilburg experts take the long-term view. But it means that we must act now: in the Netherlands and the EU to start with. We need to raise the bar and ditch the non-committal approach, Brounen says. Willems also argues in favor of regulations that bite: “For instance, you could make international trade conditional on achieving climate goals. If countries that are unable or unwilling to comply are hampered in their ability to trade, things may suddenly be possible after all.”
Gerlagh: “The focus must clearly be aimed at becoming climate neutral as soon as possible. All too often, the argument is that measures may not cost too much and must not hurt companies and citizens. It is true that budget is limited and the transition needs to be affordable. But it is give-and-go. Citizens adapt their norms to regulations; the no-smoking policy is a case in point.”
“We should have a fair and open discussion in the Netherlands on agriculture, the climate, and meat consumption. The new normal should become that meat on the menu is the exception. At the moment, the government is trying to slow down rather than accelerate that development. All homes and businesses should be energy-efficient and be heated, directly or indirectly, by clean energy. That is a major task, that requires more active intervention than the government is currently exercising.”
According to Brounen, reducing CO2 in cities is feasible in all countries but to achieve it there must be a credible regulatory threat, and that big stick has not been put in place in Glasgow. “Which is strange, because as an industry, real estate is responsible for more than 30% of global carbon emissions.”
Vollebergh points out that, as regards climate finance, it is good news that the Netherlands also wants to be in the frontline but here, too, the focus is again on the self-interest of the Dutch business community in adaptation projects.
Saskia Lavrijssen, Professor of Economic Regulation and Market Governance of Network Industries, also argues in favor of urgency: “The Netherlands must really put its nose to the grindstone. A clear and sustainable legal framework is required to accelerate the energy transition. Hopefully the Energy Act and the Collective Heat Supply Act will be published soon. It is vitally important that the duration of decision-making procedures for integrating and constructing new energy infrastructure and new sustainable energy projects is shortened.
Europe will have to lead, out of self-interest
However, the legal experts warn us, accelerating the procedures must not lead to just displacing the problems. There is a great risk that procedures for energy projects are accelerated to the detriment of nature and thus exacerbates the biodiversity crisis, says Professor of Environmental Law Kees Bastmeijer. Examples are the great damage done to bat populations as a result of negligence in large-scale home insulation projects, and the construction of wind farms along bird migration routes. The government’s approach is often too fragmented, often concentrating on one problem only.” The shortage of network capacity also requires an integrated approach, according to Lavrijssen: legislation should stimulate smart solutions to sustainable energy projects, with an integral look at the development of sustainable energy, energy consumption, storage possibilities, and the necessary infrastructure.”
Nevertheless, sociologist Achterberg argues: “We are one of the richest countries in the world. If we cannot do it, who can? Socially there is a task here, since there is still a considerable number of citizens who find climate measures pretty much nonsense. Anyway, if they see their energy bill go down, I think they might be open to dialogue.”
Vollebergh: “We need to find good ways to contribute very concretely to collaboration: with collaboration on innovation rather than technology transfer, as Ambuj Sagar referred to it in an OECD session” (see OECD https://oecd-events.org/cop26/session/a4962b71-f42b-ec11-ae72-a04a5e7d345e with a contribution by Vollebergh).
And Europe will have to lead, out of self-interest, Gerlagh states. “Europe is the only continent where there is sufficient awareness of the climate crisis among citizens to take action. We need to cherish and harness this momentum. We need to develop the technology in Europe and bring down the cost, so it can be used in the rest of the world.”
And what if that isn’t enough?