COP26 and climate change


COP26 and climate change Nigel Bunce

Today, I want to talk about COP26, the international conference on climate change that began today in Glasgow, Scotland. COP26 stands for the 26th Conference of the Parties. The ‘Parties” are the countries that signed a 1994 United Nations treaty on Climate Change.

COP26 could turn out to be the most important event ever in global cooperation. Or a complete bust.

Greenhouse gases (GHG) and climate change

We have all heard – till our ears are ready to fall off – how global warming threatens to make our planet unlivable, and that it’s essential to limit the average rise in temperature to 1.5 °C.

The focus is on curbing the emissions of greenhouse gases, notably carbon dioxide (CO2). CO2 and other GHG warm the atmosphere (and indirectly everything else). They trap infrared radiation (heat rays) leaving the Earth’s surface.

CO2 levels determine whether the planet is in an ice age (low CO2) or warmer (more CO2). With no CO2, average temperatures would be -30 °C, not +15 °C. More CO2 = higher temperatures. CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have doubled since the industrial revolution (200 years).

Why COP26 is important to Christians

Since this is a church homily, let me cut to why this matters for us as Christians. First, as we just sang, This is God’s wondrous world. Not ours. We are merely its stewards. That’s why today’s service is Creation-oriented.

Indigenous people speak of caring for the earth on behalf of our grandchildren’s grandchildren. Seven generations. For the long term, not just our lifetimes.

Right now, the need is for immediate action. By 2030. Because of what are called tipping points. When change accelerates and becomes irreversible.  One tipping point is ice cover in the Arctic. Open water absorbs heat from sunlight, whereas ice reflects sunlight. But recent research  revealed that open water also increases snowfall. That insulates the ice from the cold winter air. So the ice doesn’t get as thick in winter.

Another tipping point. Rising Arctic temperatures could also melt Arctic permafrost. That would release vast amounts of stored methane, a GHG much more powerful than CO2. Right now, reducing industrial methane emissions could be a relatively easy jump start on meeting 2030 targets.

The science is clear, but the politics are murky

Can COP26 succeed? Meaning, is international action actually possible? It has done before. Acid rain in the 1970’s, stratospheric ozone depletion in the 1980’s. But those were easy wins. Regulation of industry fixed those problems. They didn’t really affect individuals.

Climate change is different. The bad stuff – heat domes, forest fires, damaging wind- and rain-storms – will affect every one of us. But so will mitigation. We will have to reduce our collective use of fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) sharply. How will that affect transportation? Home heating?

It’s easy to say, “Go electric”. Or, “Leave all the coal, oil, and gas in the ground.” But that means no coal or natural gas to generate the electricity. At least, right now. The recent huge price increase of electricity in Europe has been called the first energy crisis of the ‘renewables era’.

Realistically, it will take time to wean ourselves off fossil fuels

Does that mean that we have to give up on “saving the planet”? No. It actually means that we have to redouble our efforts for the longer term. And that, in turn, means planning. Let’s go back to the recent federal election.

It was like an auction sale. The Conservatives bid 30% reduction of emissions by 2030. Liberals, 45%. NDP, 50%. Greens, 60%. But no party presented a defined plan for how they would reach their target. And what that would mean for ordinary Canadians. It was just talk.

Canada’s record on emissions

We in Canada have an appalling record of big talks but missed targets on reducing our emissions. Since 2005 (the base year for COP26 discussions), Canada has made essentially zero progress. Reductions from electricity generation by phasing out coal have been more than balanced by increased oil exports.

Equally, it’s no good pointing the finger at (e.g.) China. To say, “There’s no point in acting now because they aren’t. We’d just make our lives painful for no reason.” From the Christian perspective, that’s the same as saying, “It’s OK for me to steal or commit adultery because the guy down the street does.”

COP26 itself isn’t free from hypocrisy

And let’s not overlook a piece of major hypocrisy over COP26 itself. The total cast of delegates (government officials and their staffs, journalists etc) – what I call the hangers on – will be around 25,000!! Just imagine how much CO2 25,000 people flying to and from Scotland will emit. No Zoom meetings for them!!

Mitigation of climate change will be personally painful

So what’s to be done? I don’t think that ration books to give each person an annual ration of fossil fuels is practical. Would we really let the family that splurged in May on a destination wedding freeze to death in December because they had used up all their ration and couldn’t heat their home? I doubt it.

No. The only way forward is a big price on carbon. Big enough to dissuade families from that destination wedding or far-flung vacation. Gas expensive enough to persuade people to buy smaller cars, or electric ones. That’s what I meant at the beginning when I said that if we are serious about climate change, it will be personally painful.

Should we view atmospheric pollution as an environmental sin?

So, I repeat. Do we really see ourselves as stewards of God’s wondrous world? I’m sorry that I have to sound so preachy. But. When Moses gave the ancient Israelites the Ten Commandments, I doubt very much that murder, adultery, theft, and lying were just hypothetical issues.

In fact, reading the Book of Genesis makes it very clear that they were not hypothetical at all. They became what we now call sins. Perhaps we have to start thinking that wasting the Earth’s resources, especially fossil fuels, is a 21st century sin. Just like those old 3000 BCE- era sins.

As individuals, as well as, vaguely, Canada. Otherwise God’s wondrous world may become God’s unlivable world. Amen.