COP Out – How Climate Science was Captured by the Politics of “Reparations”

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COP Out – How Climate Science was Captured by the Politics of “Reparations”

What happened in Sharm-el-Sheikh and why it matters

One year ago, I wrote here extensively about what the Glasgow-held COP-26 (ie the 26th Conference of the Parties, orchestrated by the United Nations since 1994) was trying to achieve. I was accused of bias, but I thought the UK-government-organised conference under the steady leadership of Alok Sharma MP, had a very specific goal and went some way to achieving it. That goal was to concentrate minds on limiting the increase in average global ambient temperatures to just 1.5 Celsius above pre-industrial levels (the benchmark being the year 1800).

Many but not all of my readers will agree that there are huge methodological challenges in measuring that target. It is not clear that X units of reduction in the growth of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere (let alone methane and other ‘nasties’) will result in limiting a rise in atmospheric and sea-level temperatures by Y degrees. Even armchair climate scientists understand that these relationships are hugely complex and non-linear. I am not a climate sceptic: mankind has a major problem. But I admit I am a climate-model sceptic. Even estimates of sea-level rises are based on linear models which assume that all glacier melt will go into the sea, and not into the atmosphere. As I say, these things are complex and disputed.

The delegates at COP-27 have now departed Sharm-el-Sheikh in their private jets after two weeks of fine dining. What did they achieve? Not much in so far as capping the rise in global temperatures is concerned, at least according to Alok Sharma. So why were so many of them feeling smug? Because, finally, the COP machine has managed to turn the climate debate into a moral confrontation between the global north and the global south in which the north must pay the south to expiate its climate sins.

The received wisdom is now that the countries which industrialised first (that’s the UK in the late 18th and early 19th century, swiftly followed by France, Belgium and the US) should pay most to compensate the victims of global warming because they started pumping out CO2 a long time ago. Cumulatively, it is asserted, they are most to blame for the current concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere – now 421 parts per million, up from about 260 parts per million in 1800.

Ex-prime minister Boris Johnson attended COP-27, where he told a press conference that the UK was the first country in the world to industrialise, and that as a result: “People in the UK have put an awful lot of carbon into the atmosphere”. That went down well. He then added that there was no way that the UK had the financial resources to compensate for the harm caused. That did not go down well.

Nonetheless, COP-27 concluded with the establishment of a new “Loss and Damage Fund” to help particularly vulnerable countries affected by climate change. The list of damaging events includes hurricanes, heatwaves, drought, wildfires and gradually unfolding climate disasters such as rising sea levels and melting glaciers. In a typical fudge, however, the document stresses that the participants could not agree on who will finance the fund, and which countries will be able to use these funds. These issues “remain a topic for further discussion”.

The idea of climate-related investment funds is not new. Last year, COP-26 envisaged a $130trn investment fund to help developing countries roll out renewable-energy capacity as fast as possible. Moreover, the US, UK and the EU backed an $8.5bn programme to replace all of South Africa’s coal-powered plants by 2030. The country’s power grid is 75 percent reliant on coal. The Philippines and Indonesia pledged to close most of their coal-fired plants by 2030 provided that they could secure funding for clean alternatives.

But the idea that old emitters should compensate countries in the front line of climate change is new at COP. And it is unhelpful for two main reasons.

Imprecise linkage

There is no question that increased concentrations of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere are driving a greenhouse effect and that the ambient temperature on the surface of the planet is warming. There are questions as to how much and how rapidly it is warming. These aside, can we reasonably pin specific climate catastrophes such as this year’s floods in Pakistan on current climate trends? Some would say that they might have happened anyway.

Catastrophic floods do occur in Pakistan periodically. The country stretches along the valley of the Indus river – one of the most significant in Asia – the source of which is in the Himalayas (the major glaciers of which are undoubtedly melting). The country also stands in the path of an acute monsoon system that arises in the Arabian Sea.

In 1950, floods in Pakistan claimed 2,900 lives. This rose to 10,000 lives in the floods of1965. The death toll this year was just over 1,500. This indicates that there are better flood defences and preparedness (though Pakistan needs to do more work in this regard − and if British aid were directed for that purpose I for one would applaud it). So, this year’s floods were not historically exceptional. The oft-quoted statistic that one third of Pakistan’s land area was underwater in September has been disputed, not least by the ‘Undercover Economist’, Tim Harford, in BBC Radio 4’s More or Less.

In similar fashion, it is widely repeated that Australia is still experiencing exceptional droughts “due to climate change.” Except that, thus far in 2022, Sydney has had considerably more rainfall than London. So, if you are heading down under, take an umbrella. The climate evidence is that the Australian interior has been subject to long periods of drought interspersed with dramatic rainfall for millennia.

We too had a drought here in the south and east of England this year – and I was only alerted on Tuesday that Thames Water has now suspended its hose-pipe ban, given an exceptionally wet November.

The UK should be proud of its record on reducing CO2 emissions

The UK can genuinely claim to be a leading example of how an advanced industrial nation can significantly cut its carbon emissions. It is one of the few countries that has almost eliminated coal from its electricity production. As I write, on a dark winter evening with no solar power, coal accounts for 1.56 percent of UK power generation, according to the National Grid Status Monitor. That’s less than hydro power at 2.4 percent. During much of the hot, sunny summer of 2022, our national grid managed without coal entirely.

Air quality has improved accordingly. Sulphur-dioxide emissions are down by 98 percent and nitrogen oxide by 78 percent since 1970, according to the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

Successive Labour, coalition and Conservative governments have committed to a reduction in emissions since 2000 – though, in fact, the matter of global warming was first placed on the governmental agenda by Margaret Thatcher (1926-2013, prime minister 1979-90) in her last year in power. The UK’s emissions are down by one third since 2010 and are just a little over half (54.8 percent) of what they were in 1990.

What’s more, as a nation, we have become much more efficient in our electricity consumption thanks to low-energy light bulbs (which do not wastefully generate heat instead of light), more efficiently designed white goods and so forth. Petrol-powered cars and kerosene-powered jet planes are also much more efficient than 50 years ago.

The UK was the first major nation to write net zero into law in 2019. It was the first country to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030. But, in order to get even near net zero, we shall have to reduce our reliance on gas-powered electricity generation. Combined gas-cycle turbines account for 19.59 percent of UK power production as I write. Natural gas is a much cleaner source of power than coal because it generates minimal particulates; but it still breaks down into CO2 and methane which linger in the atmosphere.

On a per capita basis, UK CO2 emissions are down by 40 percent on their 1972 level and are thought to be at their lowest level since the 1850s – when Little Dorrit was published. The UK ranks 68th in terms of per capita CO2 emissions out of nearly 200 countries and territories. The US still ranks number one: each average American emits more than twice the CO2 of their British counterpart.

According to, the average British person’s carbon footprint is about 10 tonnes of CO2 per year, which is still about twice the global average. But the UK is one of only seven countries in the G-20 to have reduced total carbon emissions relative to 1990 levels. Brazil, South Korea, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, India, Indonesia, India and China have at least doubled theirs over that period. None of the latter countries is listed by COP as one of the “post-industrial nations” deemed to have historic responsibility for climate change.

In contrast, China’s emissions increased by 24 percent between 2010 and 2020. According to the Global Carbon Project, China has emitted 80 billion tonnes of CO2 since 2013. That is more than the UK is thought to have emitted from 1780 to 2020 (78 billion tonnes). In 2020, China emitted an estimated 10.7 billion tonnes of CO2 as compared with the UK’s 329 million tonnes – that’s over 32 times as much.

The historical data should not really surprise us. I can attest that no one in my family owned a car until the 1950s; they did not have central heating until the 1960s; and very few flew abroad on airlines until the 1970s. Only one of my grandfathers ever left these shores – getting as far as Flanders in World War I. It is true that my ancestors used coal to heat their homes, to propel their trains and to power their factories over the last 200 years, causing dreadful air pollution. The grandfather who drove an ambulance in Flanders died of bronchitis in the Great Smog of December 1952.

But even the poorest developing countries over that time period emitted significant volumes of CO2 from burning wood to heat their homes and cook. The Chinese, who had the most advanced civilisation for centuries, were the first to burn coal – since the 3rd century BCE, in facti − and by the Song Dynasty (11th century) China was burning thousands of tonnes annually.

Certainly, the UK’s share of historic cumulative emissions is actually declining as the UK’s share of annual carbon emissions declines. Last year, our total output of greenhouse gases was less than one percent of the global total, even though we are the fifth-largest global economy. China emits 30 percent of total global emissions. And yet the UK is talking the language of payment for loss and damage aka climate reparations − and China isn’t.

It is true that the Vulnerable Twenty (V-20) – a group of countries which are the most vulnerable to rising sea levels, such as Tuvalu (of which Charles III is king) in the Pacific – have collectively emitted less than 0.7 percent of historic CO2 emissions despite having nearly 20 percent of the world’s population. While payments by “rich” countries to the V-20 might help their citizens to relocate, they won’t stop the march of global warming.

Collectively, China (30 percent), the US (13 percent) and India (seven percent) accounted for half of total planetary CO2 emissions in 2020. China has promised to reduce its emissions after 2030 but has signalled it will not allow arbitrary targets to hamper economic growth. Xi Jinping, China’s leader, was absent from both COP-26 and COP-27.

More to do

The UK government’s ambitious commitment, announced in April 2021, is to now reduce net annual emissions by 78 percent as compared to 1990 levels by 2035. How to achieve this is now set out in the sixth carbon budget formulated by the UK Climate Change Committee (CCC).

The CCC says that: “Around 10 percent of the emission savings in our Balanced Pathway in 2035 comes from changes that reduce demand for carbon-intensive activity…Particularly…an accelerated shift in diets away from meat and dairy products, reductions in waste, slower growth in flights and by reductions in travel demand”. The other 90 percent will come from industry and households adopting low-carbon technologies (including EVs) and using energy more efficiently.

Eco-puritans will be disappointed by this equation. They want people to change their lifestyles more drastically. As a result, as Lord Lilley reported recently, the House of Lords select committee redacted the 10 percent figure from its recent report. Puritanism, it seems, is popular.

People like environmentalist and entrepreneur Sir Tim Smit, who founded the Eden Project in Cornwall in 2001, believe that sustainable agriculture is the future. That means growing more crops and vegetables under glass in optimal conditions, as in Thanet Earth in east Kent. It is amazing that the Netherlands, though a small country, is the second-largest exporter of agricultural products after the US – and that most of its produce is cultivated under glass.

The Eden Project has invested in solar and geothermal energy and Sir Tim thinks it will be entirely energy independent by the end of next year. He believes that the very term “climate change” has become counterproductive and that we should reframe the debate in terms of how we conserve our magnificent planet (what people used to call “God’s Earth”).

He believes that the ultimate form of carbon sequestration is to plant as many trees as possible. According to an estimate by Ohio State University, forests are already sucking carbon out of the Earth’s atmosphere equal to 13 percent of mankind’s total emissions. Wetlands and oceans absorb a lot more. The good news is that tree-trunk volumes are about 30 percent bigger than 30 years ago – probably because trees thrive at higher CO2 levels. There has always been a school of thought that Mother Nature is self-equilibrating.

Sir James Dyson’s farming estate, he credibly claims, sequesters more carbon than it emits, and uses renewable energy created by anaerobic digesters to power the equivalent of 10,000 homes. The excess heat and gas from the digesters is used to warm glasshouses where he grows strawberries. These are produced out of season, at scale, for British shoppers, avoiding imports and thus reducing food miles.

Something that I have previously proposed in these pages − the return of “fish on Fridays” − which was abandoned at Vatican II, has now been proposed by a group of Cambridge scientists, though not on religious grounds. Many schools across the UK have introduced ‘meat-free Mondays’. This is well-intentioned but ignores Christian practice. Monday was traditionally the day when people ate the leftovers from Sunday lunch, this being the main feast of the week, normally involving roast meat. As I wrote last week, so many social problems are related to the fact that food culture has declined. Food waste is a national scandal and would have outraged our grandparents. Good food habits will cut carbon emissions.

The politicisation of climate science

Last week, Sir David Attenborough, the 96-year old ‘national treasure’ who has done more than anyone else to raise consciousness of the natural world over the last 25 years, was accosted by eco-protestors as he ate a meal in a restaurant in Weymouth, Dorset. They accused him of fine dining while the world burns. This brought into focus for me how far delinquent eco-warriors have departed from sanity.

Arguably, Greta Thunberg did much to enlighten young people about the urgency of global warming. But, as she turns 20, she is emerging as much as an anti-capitalist as a climate activist. She thinks – as others like her do − that capitalism is inherently exploitative and racist, and that only its overthrow can save the world.

And yet it is capitalism/market economics which has lifted billions of people out of poverty over the last half century and more. In 1970, about 27 percent of the world’s population was in “absolute poverty” as defined by the UN. By 2006, that number had fallen to just over five percent, with the main beneficiaries those in the developing world.

There are certainly countries which need and deserve help, some of which have historical ties to the UK. And many of those are already recipients of UK foreign aid. But any payments of “climate reparations” based on historic “climate guilt” will obscure the need for better energy efficiency, accountability and governance on the part of nations which are often still building coal-powered plants. China and India, plus their clients who have devastated their rain forests, must be laughing behind their hands.

Nothing is settled. This argument has only just begun.

i See:,derived%20charcoal%20in%20blast%20furnaces.

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