You are about to see a graph that explains why Greta Thunberg gave a deserved earful to global leaders in advance of the COP21 climate summit in 2021, calling their promises to address the climate emergency “blah, blah, blah”.
Despite international agreements, accords, protocols, frameworks and conferences going back to the 1970s and national-level promises, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have continued to rise.
It is worth remembering some of the headline commitments
UN Framework Convention on Climate Change signed by 154 states at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), often referred to as the Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992, created an international environmental treaty to combat “dangerous human interference with the climate system”, in part by stabilising greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.
The treaty called for ongoing scientific research and regular meetings, negotiations, and future policy agreements designed to allow ecosystems to adapt naturally to climate change, to ensure that food production is not threatened and to enable economic development to proceed in a sustainable manner.
The first measure under the UNFCCC was the Kyoto Protocol, signed in 1997 that ran from 2005 to 2020, where 192 state parties agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions based on the scientific consensus that global warming is occurring and that human-made CO2 emissions are driving it. The details of commitments and the geopolitics of who did and didn’t follow through are for another time. The graph tells us what happened.
In 2009, countries representing over 80% of global emissions engaged with the Copenhagen Accord that endorsed, without any legal obligation, the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol. It included emission reduction pledges and raising funds to help developing countries cut carbon emissions and for adaptation.
The Paris Agreement, negotiated and adopted by 196 parties at the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference near Paris, France, covers climate change mitigation, adaptation, and finance. The Agreement changed the rhetoric to a long-term temperature goal rather than a set of emissions targets. Keep the rise in mean global temperature to well below 2 °C (3.6 °F) above pre-industrial levels, and preferably limit the increase to 1.5 °C (2.7 °F), recognising that this would substantially reduce the effects of climate change.
A handy sleight of hand because the CO2 concentration graph is unequivocal. It represents the evidence from a continuous direct recording of the CO2 in the atmosphere from a remote and isolated location with precise measurement tools.
Global temperature averages are less easy to determine.
The blah, blah, blah merchants at the Paris UNCCC in 2015
Blah, blah, blah merchants
At age 15, Greta Thunberg parked outside the Swedish Parliament to call for stronger action on climate change by holding up a sign reading Skolstrejk för klimatet (School strike for climate).
Her no-nonsense calling to account resonated, made her world-famous and put her in line for a slew of awards, including multiple Nobel Peace prize nominations. She was 17 years old when she gave her blah speech in Gasgow.
All the while, she has tried to walk her talk, often literally.
The blah, blah, blah merchants and their extensive entourages have rocked up to numerous conferences in the last 50 years. Almost 40,000 registered for Glasgow’s 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) climate summit.
Let’s assume the average flight distance per delegate was a Paris to Glasgow round trip (1,800km) with emissions of 0.4 tCO2e per passenger. In flights alone, the representatives caused emissions of 16,000 tCO2e.
A typical passenger vehicle with an internal combustion engine emits about 4.6 tCO2e per year. That one conference added the emissions equivalent of 3,500 to the global fleet.
And this is the problem.
Promises are all very well, but the machinery of modern life is a massive guzzler of fossil fuels and emitter of greenhouse gases—it has delivered a 30% increase in CO2 concentrations since the 1960s.
Let’s see the graph again.
An exponential rise in CO2 concentration has maintained its trajectory through the GFC, COVID and all those emission reduction commitments.
What sustainably FED suggests
Of course, Greta Thunberg is right. Diplomacy has failed to deliver on its promises. The hands that signed were overtaken by the immediacy of the economic system, the politics and the dissonance that comes with it.
Contrarian economist Steve Keen is convinced that international agreements are useless. He suggests that the best we can do is national agreements and perhaps at the next level of governance down from countries. Local is better than global even for an atmospheric problem.
We recommend listening to Nate Hagens talk Mythonomics with Steve Keen on The Great Simplification podcast.
Greta said blah, blah, blah because it is true.
Blah has done nothing to slow us all down.