5 HOW MANY MORE YEARS
If the answer is blowing in the wind as Bob Dylan once proclaimed then we are going to have to weave through a lot more trees to find it. At Cop 26 various national leaders made individual pledges that they reckoned would ease the impact on climate change. These might or might not have substance. The same people now taking responsibility for the threatened planet have a record of slippage when it comes to timetables. Few have ever overachieved. Of the five pledges that related to collective efforts the headline grabber was the commitment by 110 countries to end deforestation by 2030. There are 193 countries, so someone must have been sulking when the signatures were being added. The other four pledges included a commitment to a breakthrough agenda designed to accelerate the development of clean technologies. This could mean nothing more than a few bob here and there and the odd directive from the more alert governments. 90 leaders also agreed to collectively ensure that within their countries there would be a reduction of methane emissions by 30% below 2020 levels. The fourth pledge, only two to go, was not so strong in numbers. The world leaders agreed to create something called a High Ambition Coalition that will aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero as soon as possible. No danger of slippage with that one. Milestones without dates, what a neat idea.
The final pledge evokes even more suspicions. At a previous COP meeting a promise was made by leaders of the Western world to support the developing world with $100bn per year by 2020. The Independent Expert Group On Climate Finance, no shrinking violets there, argues in its report to the United Nations that the $100bn promised should be a floor and not the ceiling. They also concede that ‘the basis for counting remains the subject of some contention’. This sounds like a job for the accountants and lawyers. So far bookkeeping creativity or legal finesse has failed to deliver a get out of jail card for the Western World. Just $12bn has been paid to the poorer countries, that is the countries that are not responsible for this ecological mess. But the gloomy cynical Jeremiahs need to note that the big boys of US, Germany, France and the UK are all too aware of the grumbling from critics. This has to be to their credit because none of the world leaders would have read the report from those favourite modern existential heroes, our Independent Experts. The final collective pledge to emerge from COP 26 was to form an International Just Energy Transition Partnership with South Africa. This will support the efforts of that country to decarbonise their economy. This is good news for folk in Johannesburg but the neighbours in Africa might not be so impressed.
Pfeffel did his best but the inevitable happened and he was caught on camera dozing through a couple of speeches. For a man that likes his chuck the big meals and dinner table talk are no help. One of the reasons warrior Pfeffel went into politics rather than management was that he has never been comfortable looking at a graph or statistics. He was also less disciplined than most at the Cop 26 conference when it came to wearing his Covid mask. Maybe Pfeffel was being a metaphor and leaving the mathematical analysis to others.
COP 26 lacked the magic bullet that we expect to find in an apocalyptic science fiction movie, the kind that happens when Hollywood multi-million dollar budgets use more than their fair share of the resources of the planet. In what was a mediocre affair the odd dozing by Pfeffel will not prevent him having a decent night’s sleep later. He did not impress but few of the world leaders did, and the exceptions, like Mia Mottley from Barbados, are through no fault of their own not power players. His jokes failed to enthral those characters interested in numbers and process, and even at a conference of world leaders you will get folk like that. Somehow Pfeffel survived and returned home content. The man stumbled but avoided falling flat on his face.
There was even support for bold inter-government plans from next door neighbour and arch-neoliberal Rishi Sunak. Of course, carbon imprint pledges from a man that cannot even remember the number of homes he owns should not be taken too seriously. Reformed Rishi, though, has now pledged to ‘rewire’ the global finance system so that it will achieve net zero. The UK has an economy that is little more than an overdeveloped shopping mall and, because of its billion pounds balance of payments deficit, has not paid its way for decades. Nor has the UK government during the last three years collected any tax from Shell and BP on the profits those companies have made from North Sea Gas. If the good news is that at least Sunak is familiar with what zero means, it is still bewildering why the multi-international task of converting global finance to net zero emission falls to a Chancellor of a basket case economy.
Thanks to the neoliberal zeal of Thatcher the UK government winked at the private sector when gas was discovered in the North Sea. Others did more than wink at what was back in the 1980s called a windfall. Denmark nationalised its gas industry and used the extra revenue to develop its infrastructure. Those pesky social democrats created a civilised welfare state that accelerated social and occupational mobility. This human capital was a boost to its economy. The rich of Britain pocketed the cash while either watching or participating in the collapse of its industry. Without industrial jobs the workforce of the UK became unskilled. Britain lacks the skilled workers to grow a high skilled economy and without them its productivity is the weakest in the developed world. No shortage of taxi drivers, though.
The irony is that the required decommissioning of the North Sea oil and gas infrastructure is somehow beyond the resources of our free market masters of the Universe. This will have to be paid for by the British taxpayer. The latest estimate is £18bn which is an interesting figure because some years ago a paper from the Institute of Massachusetts appeared. The authors reckoned that the privatisation of public assets had resulted in a loss to the British taxpayer of £18bn. What goes round comes round or almost. The paper from the Institute of Massachusetts no longer stands alone. The subsequent academic papers have felt the initial estimate of £18bn was on the low side, someone had forgotten to mention the increasing value of flogged capital assets.
Sunak is not inclined to discuss these findings. He has his own capital assets to think about. Nor did Sunak mention that as the world leaders had already committed to net zero emissions then the finance industry and his beloved City of London will have little choice in the matter. If Sunak was saying he is willing to do what he is told, well, that is no surprise. We all know why he got the job of Chancellor. No one should expect the finance industry to lead the way on net zero and forfeit all those money making algorithms any time soon. Expect instead some fancy accounting that deletes the purchase of PCs, laptops and mobiles from the net zero accounts of banks, insurance firms, equity firms and the rest. After hearing the empty boasts of Sunak the hard hitters at Google and Apple will be sleeping just as well as a Carrie cuddled Pfeffel. These two, Carrie and Pfeffel and not Google and Apple, are the environmental heroes that let someone else pay for £150 rolls of wallpaper for the refurbishment of their apartment in 10 Downing Street. Elon Musk calls a super-portacabin his home and is always willing to save on wallpaper. Musk has promised to donate his $6bn Tesla stock to fighting world hunger providing the United Nations can explain how his money will be spent. ‘The basis for counting remains the subject of some contention’ said those experts in another context. Musk is no stranger to contention and he will have more than his share of accountants. Right now no one is counting on Musk sharing his fortune. His walls may lack expensive wallpaper but they have plenty of electric wall sockets.
After personal disaster had been averted at COP 26 and the herd of elephants in the room that haunt any debate on the future of the planet sidestepped, Pfeffel must have thought he was doing rather well. Indeed there were good times for him after COP 26. Unfortunately they failed to last more than 24 hours. People were again talking about money but this time the amount was a lot less than the trillions needed to avoid destruction of the environment. Right now not just the planet but the political class of the UK is overheated. Pfeffel has admitted that on his holiday he did not pay homeowner Zac Goldsmith any rent for the £25,000 per week villa in Marbella. Goldsmith is a man that has not just stumbled but fallen flat on his face more than once. The incompetence of Goldsmith has not prevented Pfeffel nominating Goldsmith for the House of Lords. We must not worry, says Pfeffel. With hand pressed somewhere around his heart Pfeffel has insisted that there is no conflict of interest. And for him there is none. Goldsmith, Pfeffel and before them Cameron and Osborne all share the same ambition, which is to look after themselves and worry about the votes later. The Treasury has been the willing accomplices in shifting cash from the poor to the rich. So far these Tory mates are doing rather well. This leads us to another mate of the prime minister. Owen Patterson has also been doing well for some time but for him the good times are over. The Patterson and Pfeffell bull in a china shop sleaze scandal broke the day after Carrie and hubby returned from COP 26. Right wing critic Peter Oborne has predicted it could be the beginning of the end for Pfeffel. Here, though, we will not rush to judgement. Instead in PFEFFELS AND PIFFLES Number Six there will be a visit to the jungle room that some people call the Conservative Party.
Howard Jackson has had eleven books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories, travel books and collections of film criticism. His latest book Offended Shadows is now available here.