Climate change: we need a new argument

Politics and climate. Two inseparable world’s that should be poles apart.

Prizing apart these two subjects is the major hurdle facing 150 world leaders that are attending the United Nations (UN) Conference on Climate Change this week at the 21st summit of its kind also known as COP21.

It is widely anticipated to be the most significant climate meeting since Koyoto in 1992, the first definitive commitment from countries to reduce greenhouse gas output, and most notably carbon dioxide emissions.

Many commentators saw China and the US as the key nuts to crack on carbon output, after all, the world’s biggest economies and carbon emitters have not played ball in any real way since Koyoto.

Granted, China, as a developing nation, was initially omitted from the agreement as its carbon contributions in the atmosphere to date were nothing compared to industrialised nations. China was just getting started.

Meanwhile, as the agreement didn’t become international law until well into the second half of the 1992-2012 timeframe, the US went into carbon output overdrive, wiping out any cuts other countries made.

With China – the new contender to the global economic throne – not having to adapt to any legislation, why should the US? It was a fair argument and one that politicians have never really overcome.

And with that, the failures of Koyoto became apparent and the climate change issue became more about politics and less about the environment.

We now stand on the cusp of 2016 and climate change is more controversial than ever before.

Each participant now seems to have to take a side: “yes, man-made emissions are causing irreparable change to our climate” or “no, it’s not man made and part of a wider natural cycle”.

This will again no doubt be the premise of the Paris seminar. Similar politicians to 1997 arguing the same issues. Different year, same story.

At COP21, more than 175 countries have given carbon cut pledges to keep the rise in average global temperatures under 2.7 C. The UN has an even more bullish target of 2.0 C, while a secret target of 1.5 C is where the negotiations will start.

You will be forgiven for thinking this is starting to sound like a TV episode of The Apprentice.

Whether you are a believer, skeptic or indifferent, the argument over the climate has become so convoluted and loaded that we are seemingly further away from change than ever before.

Therefore, the argument needs to change in order to get the wheels turning.

It needs to be less about global warming and more about introducing low carbon technologies in a major way.

After all, surely petrol or diesel emissions being released into atmosphere is not good in any way, regardless of whether it causes the climate to warm. Thus, the role of electric and hydrogen based propulsion should increase on this basis as a minimum.

And our energy needs over the next 30 years must pave the way for mainstream solar and wind power as a legitimate, economic source… regardless of their green credentials.

Furthermore, the widespread adoption of what are now lower cost, advanced and efficient technologies to harness and store energy –  such as solar photovoltaics and lithium-ion batteries – are becoming so low cost that they must nearing serious consideration for the mass market.

The icing on the cake for the world’s leading economies (and carbon emitters) should be that these technologies can create significant new industries at a time of uncertainty with traditional ones.

While the focus of the UN’s summit will no doubt be the age old argument of global warming and negotiating on dubious percentile points of a degree Celsius, it should be zeroing in on technologies that can make it happen.

The focus should be on the means to the end. And not the end itself.

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