As most of our readers will be aware, the COP 26 summit on climate change started yesterday in Glasgow. There was a time when it was considered debateable whether the climate was changing at all. Those times have we sensed passed – the succession of ever hotter summers, ever more extreme weather patterns has shown that whatever is happening is real, and not just a figment of eco-scaremongers’ imaginations.
That was followed by a period where many argued that yes the climate might be changing, but this was a natural phenomenon (“the Earth has had ice ages and warmer periods in the past”) not the result of human activity. We sense that these times have passed too; there may be those who continue to deny that man has had anything to do with the changing climate but they are becoming a small and shrinking minority.
The next stage was a period where there was general agreement that climate change was happening, and growing consensus that it was at least partly man-made, but the hope was that there was still sufficient time for mankind to solve the problems in a leisurely and (by implication) not too costly way. One could characterise this phase as a categorisation of the challenge of climate change as Important, but not Urgent.
Politics is full of problems which are Important but not Urgent. And politicians are very bad at solving them, or even seriously addressing them. There is always something else, something more pressing to preoccupy them. Indeed in democratic societies, politicians will almost always prioritise the Urgent but not Important over the Important but not Urgent.
This explains the main debate, the main battleground at COP 26. The ecologists and scientists sense that they have largely won the battle over whether the issue is Important, and are now turning to persuading the politicians that it is also Urgent. For it is when something is deemed both Important and Urgent that politicians can find the energy to act – and the money to pay for the necessary solutions.
There is however a further and deeper question, beyond how urgent action is, and beyond even how much it will cost. And this is the question of not what the solutions to climate change are and how urgently we need to find them, but whether there is any solution at all that allows everyday life to continue much as it currently is, that will not require wholesale changes to society and the way people live their lives.
This question, which so far has been debated more by activists outside the government conferences than by the politicians themselves, is a much more emotive and difficult subject, because whereas many people will agree that “things have to change”, too many will add (even if only under their breath) “but not at the cost of my lifestyle”. In other words, “Something must be done … by someone else”.
An extreme example of this reluctance to contemplate the fact that current practices may be unsustainable is the current thinking in the airline industry. The industry is very aware of its contribution to global CO2 emissions – depending on what data one reads it is between 2 and 4% of all emissions – and to counter this it is currently placing considerable hopes on “sustainable jetfuel”, a form of biofuel. It is hoped that by 2050 this will help the industry become carbon neutral.
And – to great fanfares – sustainable jetfuel based on biofuel technology does exist. The world is on course to make 100 million litres of it this year. Which sounds wonderful, until one factors in that the aviation industry is projected by 2050 to need 450 billion litres of the stuff every year to meet that carbon neutral target.
At this point the plan runs into the problem that we also have to feed 8 billion and rising humans. And there is nothing like enough agricultural land to do both. The plan to run aeroplanes on biofuel thus directly pits first world (“I need to feed my lifestyle”) against third world (“I need to feed my children”) – not likely to be a sustainable or long term acceptable solution. And that is before one factors in that any saving from using “sustainable jetfuel” is totally negated – and then some – by the destruction of forest land necessary to create the land to grow the biofuels.
The awkward truth for the airline industry is that unless they can develop electric aeroplanes – and the evidence is that with current technology they can’t – then their main contribution to combatting global warming will be to fly less. Much less. Probably 95% less. Possibly 99%.
This is not something the industry wants to hear, nor something any politician is at the moment brave enough to tell them.
And this is just a single small example of the real problem politicians have, because beyond the considerable change they are being asked to make at COP 26 (viz from treating the issue as important to also treating it as urgent), and beyond the discussion over the cost of paying for all the necessary changes (which has barely even started, and where the sums are eye‑wateringly large and the conflict between first and third world is intense), they have to start a conversation with the public about some things for which there may not be a sustainable solution at all.
It is one thing for politicians to adopt a heroic stance and compete on how quickly they intend to ban combustion-engine cars from our roads. This is largely virtue signalling. It is very much more difficult for them to explain where all the electricity to power the replacement electric cars will come from, how we will build the extra power stations (and how they will be run, what generation system they will use), who will pay for the creation of the charging infrastructure and so on.
But even that may not be the real test. What if the answer is that private car ownership is no longer sustainable at all – not enough rare earths for the batteries, not enough carbon-free energy to power them?
And if private cars are an emotive subject, food production is even more so. The question of whether the livestock industry (a major emitter of methane gas) can continue in its present form in a world where greenhouse gases have to be radically reduced leads directly to whether we need to change people’s eating habits and diets. As far as we are aware, not a single government anywhere in the world is willing to open that particular debate.
The press, and to an extent the politicians themselves, have downplayed the chances of any major breakthrough at COP 26. This might just be expectations management, so that we all feel uplifted by whatever does eventually emerge, though with China’s Xi Jinping, the leader of the world’s biggest polluter, conspicuously choosing not to attend it might also be more realism than anything else.
But even if, against the odds, the conference is a huge success and governments commit to serious action, the hard work of convincing ordinary people that many aspects of our lives, many things we take for granted, are going to have to change has barely begun.
 I am indebted to my friend Gary Smith for this example. Gary advises Haven Green Capital Partners (www.havengreen.eu), an investment firm who specialise in sustainable investment processes, and he writes extensively on green issues.
 The issue is the power to weight ratio of current generation batteries. Even the most advanced batteries are still too heavy to power commercial flight, as all the energy they can deliver is needed to lift the batteries themselves, with none left to carry the payload. It is an echo of the challenge those developing powered flight 120 years ago faced – engines with the power required to fly a plane were too heavy. The solution adopted was biplanes – more wing area and so more lift. It will be interesting to see if electric biplanes make an appearance.