Democracy is proving to be bad for the planet.
If that seems like a bold claim, consider the facts, as the 28th UN climate-change conference prepares to get underway in Dubai next month.
The key item on the agenda at COP28 is to carry out the first “global stocktake”, to determine what progress has been made toward meeting the goals of the legally binding 2015 Paris Agreement.
Spoiler alert: Not only is the world hopelessly off-target when it comes to reducing emissions, but the combined national commitments fall far short of what’s actually needed to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The UN has acknowledged that even if every one of the 193 nations that has issued a Nationally Determined Contribution sticks to its promises, instead of the 45 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions required by 2030, we would still be on course for an increase of 10 percent.
And, of course, few are meeting the commitments. Why? Because, says the UN, “quality and ambition vary, for many reasons, including … insufficient political commitment.”
In many of the G20 nations, collectively responsible for 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, progress in meeting targets is being held hostage by politics.
When it comes to climate change, elected governments are fighting ignorance and self-interest, stirred up by political rivals, vested commercial interests and libertarian ideologues, all with something to gain by persuading voters that global warming is a myth and that any attempt to mitigate it should be resisted as an assault on personal freedom.
Disturbingly, there is increasing evidence that governments faced with this type of opposition are sacrificing the greater good and rowing back on their internationally agreed commitments to remain in power.
The most egregious example of this is currently unfolding in the UK.
There, the Conservative party, which has been in power since 2010 and is struggling badly in the polls, has taken desperate inspiration from a minor by-election victory in London’s suburbs.
Expected to be ousted, its candidate instead retained a slender majority thanks to opposition to an expansion of London’s clear-air zone at the expense of motorists in the area. Now, grasping at the possibility of an election-winning wedge issue, just two years after the UK hosted COP26, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has begun to chuck green policies out of the basket in a bid to keep his balloon afloat.
Among them, a ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles has been pushed back five years, plans for tougher energy-efficiency ratings for privately rented homes have been shelved and a pledge to enforce the installation of only low-carbon new heating systems by 2035 has been abandoned.
While he was at it, Sunak announced that his government was offering 100 new licenses for companies to drill for oil and gas in the North Sea.
The UK government is far from alone in exhibiting climate-change cowardice. This summer in Germany, which has pledged to be climate-neutral by 2045, the coalition government came close to collapsing over plans to ban the installation of new boilers running on less than 65 percent renewable fuels by 2024. To save its skin, the government has delayed the deadline to at least 2028.
In France, plans for a carbon tax on cars introduced in 2018 triggered widespread demonstrations, leading to the scheme being dropped.
In Italy a study found that, regardless of previous voting patterns, owners of polluting vehicles banned in Milan were significantly more likely to vote for the populist right-wing party League, which opposed the ban.
The reality now facing every elected government hoping to introduce green policies is that, no matter how committed people might be to recycling plastic, most will draw the line at imposed measures that hit them directly in their pocket.
Even among voters who accept “something must be done,” human nature means many will baulk at making personal sacrifices. It takes a particularly selfless type of individual to trade immediate personal costs for intangible society-wide benefits in a distant future.
This is, perhaps, down to a failure of communication – or a product of green fatigue, induced by endless warnings of impending doom.
Either way, this is the dangerous state of play that COP28 will have to address head-on next month if the world is to stand even half a chance of hitting its climate targets.
Politicians who are serious about confronting climate challenges, rather than simply hanging on to power, must deliver persuasive incentives and convincing answers to tough questions.
It is no longer enough to talk about saving the planet. What governments need now is a better approach to selling environmental policies to dubious electorates.
The slogan for COP28 is “Bringing the world together.” Quite how that can be achieved remains to be seen – it can be only hoped that the UAE has a viable, radical plan for doing so.
But do so it must. The struggle is too big, and too important, to leave to the mercy of the sort of petty politics that has, disgracefully, caused the UK to turn its back on the green commitments it has made.
Jonathan Gornall is a British journalist, formerly with The Times, who has lived and worked in the Middle East and is now based in the UK.