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COP26: No more empty talk, we need climate change action

October 8, 2021 GMT

At the end of this month, the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26) will begin. Expectations are high that something will be done to improve the Paris 2015 commitments.

Last week, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg threw down the gauntlet in her opening speech at the Youth4Climate summit in Milan: “We can no longer let the people in power decide what hope is. Hope is not passive. Hope is not blah blah blah. Hope is telling the truth. Hope is taking action”.

Climate action optimists welcome US President Joe Biden ’s commitment to double US aid to developing countries on climate action. Chinese President Xi Jinping has agreed to stop financing new coal projects abroad.

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This week, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor promised in her policy address to spend HK$240 billion (US$30.8 billion) and create an Office of Climate Change and Carbon Neutrality to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. This is welcome news.

Climate activists like Thunberg are justifiably disillusioned. They feel betrayed by public leaders who repeat electoral promises that widen social inequalities, and leave growing debt and planetary damage for coming generations. They see businesses pushing planet-destroying consumerism.

More corporate leaders have moved from denial to greenwashing their corporate strategies through environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) reporting. Funeral directors see calamities and deaths as profit opportunities.

During the Covid-19 lockdown, I held Zoom meetings with six experts in epidemiology, finance, complexity science, urban planning, water and food disciplines to think through how we can help the young tackle the climate crisis.

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The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changereport made clear that time is running out. If no serious action is taken by 2030, the global average temperature will rise by 2 degrees Celsius or more, with poorer countries bearing the brunt of losses.

The faster the planet heats up, the greater the losses, the less time to mitigate and adapt to worsening conditions. Climate damage has moved from crisis to catastrophic proportions, with the melting of Arctic permafrost, loss of Amazonian rainforests, and rising sea levels.

By 2040, 700 million people could be facing droughts for at least six months a year, double the historical average. The world would have another 1.4 billion people to feed.

Our group therefore focused on Buying Time for Climate Action, a forthcoming book to map out the key barriers to climate action and think through how to act. Given the complexity of the climate change challenge across different geographies and national and local conditions, there is no silver bullet or one-size-fits-all solution.

But the general principles in tackling complex problems must be simply understood for effective implementation. Finding solutions is therefore all about experimentation and practice through diversity, exactly how nature copes with profound change.

We must learn to live with Nature and fight less with each other.

The worst pandemic in a century required mobilisation at all levels of government and society. With more disasters and conflict likely to come, we must stop fighting each other and mobilise for the common war against climate change. Everyone, especially the young, should be motivated to change their consumption behaviour.

The stumbling blocks to action that we identified ” finance, talent, vested interests, bureaucracy and political will ” can be overcome.

Many climate activists complain that money and talent are in short supply. Yet central banks were able to print US$9 trillion in 2020 alone, and there are millions of young people willing to work passionately to innovate towards a green and inclusive future.

We simply need to build the social media platforms able to deliver the technical know-how and resources (crowdfunded, if need be) to the thousands of grass-root projects and programmes to help deliver change.

The vested interests that stand to lose are resisting action, and bureaucracies designed for the status quo are reluctant to change. Change cannot come without political will and public support. Brexit and the pandemic showed that scientific solutions are not enough when a significant proportion of the population are emotionally opposed to change.

In short, technology, science and know-how exist for technical climate solutions. Money is also available, but not channelled to where it is needed because, as economists say, climate change creates market failures.

The state needs to work with markets, namely businesses and the community, in a whole-of-society effort. Getting the political will and support is a mindset barrier.

The book’s conclusion is that we should think globally within the concept of “One Earth” but act locally now. Climate mitigation and adaptation projects are implemented locally but may need national technical assistance and resource allocation, supplemented by global aid.

The British Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, who wrote the opening chapter of the book, understood well that “we can be technological optimists, but the intractable politics and sociology engender pessimism”. The young will not wait for fatalistic pessimism. They want action today.

Thunberg is right. No more time for blah, blah, blah. It is up to leaders such as Biden, Xi and Lam to prove that she is wrong, fast.

Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

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