Last year at COP26 in Glasgow, emotions and excitement were sky high. In-person attendance skyrocketed. Events were piled on top of each other. It was quite the circus, but in retrospect the extreme optimism may have been more related to the release of pent up frustrations from previous years’ COVID travel restrictions and concerns. In reality – and as we look back – COP26 may be best described by borrowing a phrase from former Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan: “irrational exuberance.”
This isn’t something that came to me just now. As part of updating my book Killing Sustainability last year, I was tracking reports, studies, papers, etc being published in advance of the Glasgow meeting. I noticed the dramatic spike in the number of companies that jumped on the Net Zero bandwagon. It concerned me that many hadn’t given due thought to what they were committing to, what it meant or what it would really like. There was an overwhelming aroma of marketing and PR gone amok and I couldn’t see that it would end well. It wasn’t just me – there were many who saw through the irrational exuberance and asked what was really going on. I wasn’t there in person, but this article from one COP26 attendee is a particularly amusing view of his time there.
What Happened in Glasgow Stayed in Glasgow – Mostly
Lots of promises, statements and commitments were made in Glasgow, but most started falling apart only weeks after the hammer fell on the meeting. The credibility of promises made by sovereign nations was muddied as developing nations and those most vulnerable to climate change pointed out that a 2009 promise of $100 billion of climate finance still hadn’t been achieved. Negotiations about whether coal was to be phased-out or phased-down went until the very last few hours of the conference with China, India and other top coal consumers forcing changes to key language of the pledge. Multilateral cooperation on number energy and climate risk mitigation issues was to start. Then Russia invaded Ukraine, sending the global energy system and balance into disarray and dashing many hopes out of Glasgow.
At the same time, one practical development that has aged well in the intervening year – Larry Fink’s vision for the transition economy (I wrote about that here.) Like him or not, his comments gave a jump start to certain realities of a transition economy. There was some success on methane emissions and although that could be seen as just another pledge, the US took action with EPA proposing a methane emissions rule from the oil and gas industry and including a methane emissions fee (starting in 2024) as part of the Inflation Reduction Act.
This Year is a Different Year
Going into Sharm El-Sheikh this year, the mood has been quite different. I find little sign of irrational exuberance – or any exuberance. From my seat on the outside (I am again not attending) I see more recognition of the seriousness of the matter on the part of companies. The amount of marketing and PR is notably reduced. I take that as a sign that companies are seeing the seriousness of climate risk and that it requires more consideration than just making public statements and commitments that haven’t been researched and analyzed internally beforehand. The general atmosphere appears more subdued than last year – another positive development in my opinion in that I expect more attention will be paid to solutions and mechanics and less on celebrations and aspirations. Fewer studies and reports were published this year that add distractions and set problematic expectations. Finally, the world has seen what really happens when an unplanned shock to existing energy infrastructure occurs – possibly dulling calls for a rapid unplanned (and disorderly) discontinuance of fossil fuels.
There are certainly challenges and criticisms about COP27 already, but I am cautiously optimistic that the more subdued general tone/mood this year will be beneficial for the participants – allowing them to focus on the work that needs to be done, not the excitement, emotion, parties and distractions that permeated Glasgow.