The Star’s Heather Scoffield is travelling with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to the G20 Summit in Rome and the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, covering Canada’s role in the shifting world order and the global fight against climate change.
ROME—As world leaders and thousands of activists and businesses descend on Glasgow for the next UN summit on climate change, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was seized with the gravity of the moment.
The climate talks, he said Sunday, will be “the world’s moment of truth” on global warming.
But that epiphany actually came earlier, before the COP26 summit had officially begun, in Rome.
There, leaders from the G20 biggest economies in the world not only struggled to harness more ambition on fighting back warming temperatures. From the other side of their mouths, they also agreed to do what they could to stabilize oil and gas prices — which implies increasing production.
The near-term problems of inflation and supply-chain disruptions are as pressing on these leaders as the warming planet. And the bottom line is, people and companies whose welfare is undermined by higher energy prices don’t have many choices.
If there’s anything the sustained rise in energy prices shows us, it’s that we are nowhere close to ready with better alternatives — and that’s bad news for climate change.
Canadians are experiencing this “moment of truth” first hand.
They’re feeling the pinch at the pumps, where the price of gas has surged since the end of September. If they don’t want to just pay the higher price, they have some limited options: they could take the bus or try to cut back on their driving. But buying an electric vehicle to replace the gas-guzzler is only a solution for a minority of drivers these days. For most drivers, zero-emissions vehicles are either too expensive or don’t work for Canada’s long distances or they’re simply not available.
So we’ve been sucking it up, and the resulting inflation cuts into our wallets, throws commercial production into conniptions and undermines our national ability to grow and run the economy smoothly. The pace of inflation has been running above four per cent in Canada, Europe and the United States.
The G20’s response on Sunday was akin to calling on oil and gas producers to quit messing around with production, and instead ensure the world could get a steady supply of fossil fuels at affordable prices.
“We are committed to maintain energy security, while addressing climate change, and guaranteeing just and orderly transitions of our energy systems that ensures affordability, including for the most vulnerable households and businesses,” the final communique stated, committing the G20 to “intensive dialogue” with Big Oil.
Indeed, U.S. President Joe Biden was so worried about the impacts of inflation and supply chain disruption on the economic recovery, he summoned leaders to a special supply-chain brainstorming session in Rome on Sunday afternoon.
There, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau positioned Canada as a reliable exporter of oil and gas, and stressed the need for fair and free trade.
And French president Emmanuel Macron said the G20 needed to stabilize energy prices or risk a supply breakdown this winter, jeopardizing the economic recovery and social cohesion to boot.
“What we expect is to have co-ordination to avoid soaring prices,” he told the Financial Times.
All those points underline just how important fossil fuels are to our economy — and how unprepared we are to adopt alternatives.
To be sure, the G20 also put climate front and centre, with negotiators up all night haggling over wording.
When it came time to pull all the strands together and produce a final G20 communique, the countries’ commitments on climate change fell short of the hopes of so many people around the world — mainly because large emitters and developing countries feel they can’t move fast enough to find more sustainable sources of energy.
Yes, the G20 members that account for 80 per cent of the world’s emissions said they would strive to move toward a net-zero world — some time around the middle of the century.
They also said they’d try hard to cut back on coal consumption “as soon as possible.”
But the timelines on those commitments are fuzzy, meaning a weak hand-off to the Glasgow summit where countries need to show how they will limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Clearly, the best way to square this circle is to dramatically ramp up the invention and production of clean energy alternatives. Trudeau acknowledged this, and every politician knows this. But to make it happen, they need trillions of dollars, a fountain of innovation and a dynamic private sector willing to bankroll the efforts.
There’s activity on that front. Prince Charles, who was invited to address the leaders because of his work on sustainable development, begged the G20 to work more closely with the private sector and create the conditions for massive investment. And former Canadian central banker Mark Carney has been crusading hard to persuade the world’s banks and investment funds to declare a commitment to decarbonization.
But concrete solutions won’t be put to work fast enough to provide alternatives for today’s energy-induced inflation. Perhaps next time.
As the United Nations’ Patricia Espinosa said in her opening remarks to COP26 in Glasgow on Sunday, “we either choose to recognize that business as usual isn’t worth the devastating price we’re paying and make the necessary transition to a more sustainable future — or we accept that we’re investing in our own extinction.
“It is about much more than environment, it is about peace, stability and the institutions we have built to promote the well-being of all.”
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