COP26 And Why The Path Dependency Of Fossil Fuels Must Be Broken

COP26 And Why The Path Dependency Of Fossil Fuels Must Be Broken

Photo Credit: Jane Barlow/AP

Fixing the climate problem will take more than a conference.

Samantha Hamilton, Photo Editor

At the beginning of November, climate scientists, policymakers, environmentalists, and the public watched as delegates shuffled along the rainy, cobbled streets of Glasgow, U.K., choosing between carbon-counted meals and whether finally to accept the downfall of the fossil fuel industry. To be clear, the overarching goals of the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) were to commit countries to net zero emissions by 2050 and limit a rising global temperature. But according to the BBC, the fossil fuel industry itself surpassed the U.S. and the U.K. in sending the most delegates to the COP26. So what’s the deal?

Over the course of a few decades, we have seen successes and failures arising from International Environmental Agreements (IEAs). One success that comes to mind is the Montreal Protocol of 1987, which sought to limit and eventually ban the production of chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) gases that were creating a hole in the ozone layer. Concerns rose over increased UV radiation (a result of the ozone hole) being linked to cancer in humans and weak agricultural production. Ultimately, the success of the protocol relied on its requirement of few actors for ratification; the existence of a cheap solution; the involvement of the U.S., a large producer of CFCs; and its use of trade sanctions to incentivize those who initially didn’t agree to reduce usage. Agreements on CO2 emissions, however, are a whole lot more complicated…

The International Panel on Climate Change has released its most harrowing report to date on the effects of anthropogenic carbon emissions. A panel of climate change experts agreed that limiting our global average temperature increase to 1.5°C or 2.0°C will likely be impossible without “rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.” Past agreements, like the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, Kyoto Protocol, and Paris Agreement, have failed to create such a response to curb fossil fuel production and consumption that has fueled (no pun intended) rising temperatures. Furthermore, China and India have increased their emissions substantially under the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, which allows higher emissions from developing countries so that they can catch up economically to industrialized, developed countries before also curbing their emissions.

Why have we thus far been unable to produce successful IEAs to tackle climate change? The answer is carbon lock-in. The basic premise of carbon lock-in is that fossil fuel infrastructure investment is intended to create lasting production sources. If we invest in fossil fuel infrastructure in the year 2021, it is expected that this machinery will last until 2050, when Canada expects to reach its goal of net-zero emissions. Developed countries have been locked into carbon-based energy systems for decades. And developing countries in Asia and Africa continue to invest in fossil fuel production to support ever-growing populations and accelerate the path dependency of carbon.

Unless countries can ax current infrastructure plans that include building more fossil fuel production facilities [3] tomorrow and slow down production from current plants over the next few years, a 1.5°C world appears to be about as realistic an option as my receiving a Hogwarts invitation was on my 11th birthday. As a public, we cannot continue to wait for more conferences and more promises from behind our phone screens while money is funneled into projects that increase the odds of Vancouver being swallowed up by the Pacific Ocean. More must be done at a domestic policy level. Forget about international collective action and do your part, Canada. The money made from our oil and gas sector is massive and investing in carbon-intensive products in hopes of raising our GDP in the short term is not only bad for the health of our planet but also bad as an investment decision.

Thank you, COP. This was a wake-up call. I mean, sure, you plan to end international public financing of fossil fuels, but you failed to make credible and enforceable commitments to end domestic fossil fuel subsidies, never mind committing to a transparent timeline of what that would look like. Sounds to me like a whole lot of morale-boosting pomp and circumstance to appease the great number of fossil fuel lobbyists you allowed into your conference while true leaders of environmental change fought for a better future outside your gates.