For decades, climate scientists and activists have been sounding the alarm that, unless the world takes drastic action, humanity is careening toward disaster and the climate crisis is spiraling out of control. And yet, for all the public talk from world leaders about the seriousness of the situation, the world’s worst contributors to climate change have failed to even begin taking the steps necessary to curb runaway climate catastrophe. This is the backdrop for the convening of the 26th United Nations conference on climate change, also known as COP26, which will take place in Glasgow, Scotland, from Oct. 31 to Nov. 12. In this urgent interview, TRNN contributor Radhika Desai speaks with economist Peter Victor about what we should and shouldn’t expect to happen at the COP26, and about the rapidly closing (and possibly already closed) window for humanity to save itself from climate catastrophe. Peter Victor is professor emeritus at York University in Canada and author of Managing Without Growth: Slower by Design, Not Disaster; he was the founding president of the Canadian Society of Ecological Economics and is a past-president of the Royal Canadian Institute for Science.
Pre-Production: Paul S. Graham
Studio/Post Production: Adam Coley
Radhika Desai: The Heat Is On: A World Of Climate Promises Not Yet Delivered. This is the title of the latest United Nations Environment Programme report on the emissions gap. That gap is the difference between where greenhouse emissions gases are predicted to be in 2030 and where they should be to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and keep the Earth heating up to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. Few doubt that the problem is getting more urgent. The clock is ticking and the window of time we have to address it is shrinking with each passing day. Already before the pandemic, proliferating school strikes were drawing attention to the problem. The pandemic brought relief, but only a little, and emissions are mounting once again. The past summer witnessed weather events so extreme that even normally cautious climate scientists, until recently very reluctant to attribute weather events to climate warming, were forced to say that the unprecedented scale of forest fires and floods were likely connected to climate change.
Recently, Patricia Espinosa, the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention On Climate Change, warned not only of a food crisis, water crisis and migration crisis resulting from climate warming, but also from a more comprehensive breakdown of the world order, and even wars. The United Nations Environmental Report on the emissions gap reveals that on the basis of countries’ latest nationally determined contributions made in the wake of the seemingly very ambitious Paris Climate Accords for emissions reductions, the world will still remain at 2.7 degrees above pre-industrial levels in 2050. It will miss the target of 1.5 or even two degrees by a long shot without more ambitious action to slash emissions. COP 26, the 26th meeting of the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change takes place against this background. Launching the United Nations Environment Programme report, the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres blamed the emissions gap on a leadership gap.
The science is clear. So are many solutions: End fossil fuel subsidies, tax carbon emissions, create green jobs, fund the transition for the developing world. Why then are we stuck at half measures? Why are the rich countries in particular, chiefly responsible for climate warming historically, doing so little? With me to discuss all this is Peter Victor. Peter Victor is professor emeritus at York University in Canada, and a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He’s the author of Managing Without Growth: Slow By Design, Not Disaster. Peter is the founding president of the Canadian Society for Ecological Economics and past president of the Royal Canadian Institute for Science. Before becoming the Dean of the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University in 1996, he was assistant deputy minister for Environmental Science and Standard Division in the Ontario Ministry for the Environment. Currently, Peter is a member of the honorary board of the David Suzuki Foundation and chair of the Science Advisory Committee of the Footprint Data Foundation, which produces national ecological footprint and biocapacity accounts for about 200 countries. This work is done at York University. Welcome to The Real News Network, Peter. It’s an honor to have someone as erudite as you in our show.
Peter Victor: Well thank you for the invitation to speak on the show, Radhika. I’m looking forward to this conversation.
Radhika Desai: Well, let’s begin this conversation, Peter, by getting down to the background. I know that we have been hearing about the problem of climate warming and the urgency of doing something about it for decades, and the insistent drumbeat of all the different discourses about it can make our eyes glaze over sometime. So perhaps to start us off, could you please outline as clearly and briefly as possible how you see the problem and the urgency of addressing it?
Peter Victor: Well, that’s a big question. I’ll try to give a succinct answer. Climate change has a long history. It really began with the Industrial Revolution about 200 years ago, which was steam powered, fueled by coal. Coal being a fossil fuel. When you burn a fossil fuel, you liberate a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Subsequently, oil was added, natural gas was added. And even today, 80% of the world’s commercial energy comes from those three fossil fuels. And as I say, when they’re burnt, they give off a lot of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Those gases have accumulated in the atmosphere, and they act just like a greenhouse. They make the planet warmer than it would otherwise be without this concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And like your introductory remarks, what that’s now causing is a serious risk of irreversible changes to the climate on planet Earth with enormously problematic consequences.
Let me just note something about how long this has been recognized as a problem. I first read a scientific assessment of climate change in 1970. It was a document prepared for the 1972 Stockholm Conference. I still have it with me. It’s a remarkable document. It reads not that different from what we read today. The main difference is the scientists at the time were less confident about the science. Well, that has changed. There’s been this increasing level of agreement and confidence in what the science is saying. One of the indications about the fact that the scientists themselves are getting scared is how the names given to climate change have changed over time. It used to be global warming, then climate change, then global heating, and now the climate crisis, even climate catastrophe. These are the names given as we’ve come to understand the seriousness of the problem that we’re confronting.
Now, the disturbing factor for me, which I think you’ve again alluded to in your introduction, is the incredibly slow pace of the global authorities or the national authorities, if you’d like, to deal with this problem. We had the 1992 UN convention on climate change. And as you say, this is the 26th meeting of the parties. I used to say the window was closing. My fear now is that the window may well have closed and we’re yet to face up to it. I’ll just make one more closing comment on this introductory statement: Climate change is a very serious problem, but it’s best regarded as a symptom of a bigger problem. And the bigger problem is what we call overshoot. Humanity has gone beyond the capacity of the planet to support us in a sustainable way. And so there are a range of other problems, one of the most important ones is biodiversity loss. And so whilst climate change is crucially important, and we must deal with it, we have to recognize it’s part of a bigger set of issues that are going to require all the intelligence we can bring to bear.
Radhika Desai: Absolutely. Also, including, as you say, the amount of resources we are using without replenishing them, the amount of exhaustible resources we are using. And of course, there is a completely separate, but equally serious question of pollution. Absolutely, climate change is only one of this multifaceted set of problems, which really shows how we are abusing the very planet that sustains us. Now, nearly all the media, Peter, certainly, the science as you rightly say, I think we are now all sufficiently convinced that urgent action is needed. And obviously this is the 26th COP meeting, so in a certain sense we’ve been trying in a coordinated way to address this problem for a quarter of a century and more. Now, this COP 26 is practically universally regarded as a really crunch meeting for at least two reasons. Number one, the past summer and the weather events of the past summer have certainly underlined just how serious the problem is to a lot of people. So a lot of people who are here who were being skeptical are now not skeptical. But at the same time, as you say, the window is closing, it may even have been shut. So now we have this COP 26 happening. What do you expect? What sort of solutions do you think the summit will come up with?
Peter Victor: Well, we’re going to get a lot of talking. This is what happens at these events with something like 25,000 people expected to attend. There’s going to be a lot of finger pointing. There’s going to be people saying, you’re not keeping up. You’re not doing enough. You’re not making a large enough commitment. So there’s going to be a lot of that. There’s going to be a lot of discussion about who should pay, because dealing with climate change is not going to be cheap. It hasn’t been cheap to date, and it’s going to get more expensive as we move into the future, despite what some of the more, if you like, optimistic people say. It’s just the scale of change that we have to contemplate and doing it in a hurry is expensive. So there’s talk about a just transition. Who’s going to pay what? I think there will be pressure at COP for the countries participating to do more than they thought they were going to when the meeting started.
And I think that’s all to the good. And some of that pressure is going to come from the youth movement, which is going to be highly evident at the COP meetings. I think there’s going to be a strong emphasis on net zero emissions by some date. My own preference is to shift the emphasis to carbon budgets to say what each country should be allowed to, should be committed to putting into the atmosphere for all time into the future. It’s a much more sound approach, but I don’t think they’re going to touch that. I think we’ll see a reaffirmation of the Paris target, the ones you’ve mentioned. 1.5 degrees aspirational and two degrees for sure, if I can use that phrase. I think that in terms of solutions, we’re going to see a heavy emphasis on technology.
We are in a culture which seems to think that there are technological solutions to virtually every problem. And I think that’s exaggerated, no doubt about that. In terms of policies, I think we’re going to see a lot of discussion about strengthening global carbon markets and using other kinds of market instruments for giving people, giving sources, whether that’s government sources, industrial sources, or homeowners, householders, and so on, financial incentive to release fewer greenhouse gases.
There may be some discussion of trade. So the countries that go further and faster in terms of reducing emissions don’t find that they are losing out on international trade because their prices at home are higher than their imported prices for the same product. And finally, I think we’ll see a recommitment to the $100 billion a year that is supposed to be transferred from the rich countries to the poorer countries. We haven’t quite met that yet, we’re supposed to meet it this year. It’s going to be two years late, I think. But it won’t be enough anyway. The amount of funding that I think has to be transferred to the poorer parts of the world to tackle this problem globally will be considerably larger than that.
Radhika Desai: Yeah, absolutely. And so there will be a lot of, as you say, blaming. And here, of course, the question of history responsibility will be kicked around, but really never properly addressed as well. And of course as you rightly say, a lot of the discussion will actually then center around what are the ways in which big corporations can make money out of allegedly green solutions. And that’s perhaps where we make the most advance. Now, speaking of sort of… You’ve painted a very gloomy picture, and some people might say perhaps it’s too gloomy. So let me ask you about that, and then draw you out a little bit on that. For instance, the recent report that we mentioned about the emissions report from the United Nations Environmental Program, it shows that we certainly face a very steep uphill climb if we want to keep the Earth’s temperature to 1.5 or even two degrees. However, while that is true, there has also been some progress over the last decade. So what do you think accounts for the progress that we have seen? Although it may not be enough, it may at least show us what more we want to do or perhaps show us what we are not doing. How do you see it? What does this progress say about what we still need to do?
Peter Victor: Well, I think first of all, we have to establish what we mean by progress. To me, progress has to mean a steady drop in greenhouse gas emissions. We haven’t seen that. What we’ve seen is legitimate claims that things could have been worse than they have been. They could have increased faster than they have done. But we haven’t seen a downturn in global emission. So I think to call that progress is a bit of a stretch. Now, to say that things could have been worse, yes, of course. There have been programs put in place. There has been some carbon trading, particularly among the European countries and some of that in North America as well. There have been improvements in building codes. There’s been better city planning. There’s been lots of things happening. The problem is they’ve not really done anything like the job that’s needed.
And if you look at projections of global emissions that we have to achieve to avoid a 1.5 degree or two degree rise, it’s a steep, steep decline in emissions. And so clearly, what we’ve done so far hasn’t even begun to turn the corner on global emissions. And so if I’ve painted a dismal picture, I’m sorry. It’s just that’s the way I see it. And I’ve been doing this and involved in this for such a long time, it’s just draining to see how slow the progress has been.
Radhika Desai: Absolutely. Now, I want to ask you two slightly technical questions. Because you made two… Well, you made one distinction and I’ve read about another distinction. The distinction you made was between what you call the carbon neutrality approach, which will be pursued at COP 26, but then you said, actually, what we need is a form of carbon budgeting. So could you briefly explain the difference between those two things?
And the second difference I wanted you to comment on from your point of view is that there is this very influential idea of the Green New Deal, and it recommends a form of green or sustainable growth. On the other hand, there are people like you who have long been advocating a form of de-growth. So, essentially, we need to think about living without growth. As the title of your books suggests, we need to do that by design, not by disaster. So can you also explain the difference between those two concepts?
Peter Victor: Okay. So… The way this problem is often approached is by estimating how much more greenhouse gases we can as a global society put into the atmosphere and still stay within the 1.5 degree, two degree heating. So that’s, if you like, a global budget. That’s good. And then from that, we derive certain results about how fast we have to reduce emissions, net emissions, accounting for anything that would reduce what’s already in the atmosphere to zero, to stay within that budget. I think there’s a strong case to be made that each country, and this is happening a little bit in some places, should adopt its own carbon budget, which would be a small portion of the global budget. And then each year at the least, the country would have to report on how much of its share of the remaining budget it has used up.
And the advantage of this approach is that it means that if a country uses up a disproportionate part of its own budget, it is depriving the future generations of its country from access to the remaining budget. And so it’s an ongoing reminder that we have to take account of the future by being very parsimonious on our use of the budget. Setting reductions targets, 30 years, 20 years in the future, it’s not a very, for me, convincing approach to go because politicians do that so easily. They’re not likely to be around then anyway to be accountable for whether it was met or not, and so I would prefer to see the budget and a report against the budget every single year.
Radhika Desai: That’s really very interesting. I just want to say, Peter, I find that very interesting. Because really what you’re trying to say is that rather than these sort of global goals, which can be very nebulous, you’re trying to pin down essentially the responsibility, both in space and time. That is to say you actually fix the responsibility for each individual country, which is where power resides, despite all the talk of globalization. And you also pin it down in terms of like relatively short time periods, a year, a few years, rather than this 2030, 2050 type broad goal. So carbon budgeting is in that sense certainly superior. Now what about the Green New Deal and de-growth?
Peter Victor: Well, the term that you used in part of that question was green growth. And green growth, it’s really simple to understand. The idea is that the economies keep expanding, keep growing, but the environmental impact associated with the economy keeps declining. That’s green growth. Now you can use that in relation to climate change. You can say, well, we’ll have growing gross domestic product, which is the usual measure for economic growth, and declining greenhouse gas emissions. In order to have declining greenhouse gas emissions when the economy is growing, the emissions per dollar of output per dollar of GDP has to decline. Obviously, if GDP goes up and emissions per dollar stay the same, then emissions go up. So emissions per dollar have to keep declining. And you only get an absolute decline in emissions – I’m sorry if this is getting complicated – If the rate of decline in emissions per dollar is faster than the rate of economic growth. So in other words, the faster an economy grows, the faster has to be the decline in emissions per dollar simply to stand still. To go beyond that, to actually reduce emissions, you’ve got to have a very rapid decline in emissions per dollar, especially to meet the kind of targets that we’re talking about. So that’s green growth. And there’s virtually no historical evidence, certainly at the global level, of green growth. Because emissions have gone up, they haven’t gone down.
Radhika Desai: And that’s why you favor de-growth. That is, we have to think about growing less and so on.
Peter Victor: Well, let me just say a few words about de-growth. It’s not a term I use very much, although I’m very sympathetic to those who do because you spend all the time you have explaining what it means. It doesn’t just mean reduced greenhouse gas emissions or reduced economic growth, negative growth if you like. It’s first of all, a challenge to the growth paradigm. In our society, in most societies around the world, we attach undue significance to growth in GDP, the normal measure of economic growth, as distinct, say, from improvements in wellbeing, because they are distinct.
De-growth challenges that, and says we should focus our attention on what we know really contributes to human and environmental wellbeing, and that’s going to entail a move away from the societal chasing of economic growth almost for its own sake. Now I will say that for the rich countries, which is where I’ve done virtually all of my analysis, I have to say, I’ve been able to show with my colleague, Tim Jackson in Britain, that rich countries can do very nicely without relying on economic growth, can have reduced environmental impact of all kinds, have more leisure time, reduce household debt, a whole range of things that matter to people. So there is a better future out there. But I don’t believe it’s one where rich countries should be chasing growth in the, I think, false belief that the environmental problems will somehow get less as a result of that, and not increase.
Radhika Desai: No, that’s very true. And other people talk about the economics of enough, for example. And I think that’s also related to, I think, what you’re saying. Now, in terms of COP 26, I think there’s another question, which is that there is this whole issue of historical responsibility. I mean, after all it’s, I think in principle accepted by nearly everyone that among the world’s people and peoples, the rich countries have actually, and the better off classes, have historically been more responsible for climate warming. Now, what does this imply for the solutions that we ought to have, whether we will get them out of COP 26 or not?
Peter Victor: Yeah. This is a very intriguing question, because so much of the discussion focuses on current emissions and compares countries on that basis. But if you look historically, the US has been responsible for 20% of the accumulated greenhouse gases in the atmosphere now. China is second, but at only 11%, then they’re followed by Russia at 7% and so on, all the other countries getting smaller and smaller. That’s the cumulative emission. If you do it on a per capita basis as opposed to the total for each individual country, the order of the countries changes significantly. China drops out of the top 20 because on a per capita basis, its contribution to cumulative greenhouse gases is much, much less. So now the question then is, should people today and in the near future be held responsible for the emissions of those who came before? The argument that they should be would be based on the fact that those in the rich countries have benefited from all of the burning of fossil fuels in the past.
But it’s a very tricky ethical question that requires others brighter than me on this type of thing to wrestle with. What it’s going to mean though, and it has to be wrestled to the ground because it’s going to be fundamental to determining what a fair share of the efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions should be. The poorer countries are saying, we weren’t responsible in the past, we didn’t get the development that the rich countries did, it’s not fair to look to us to bear a significant portion of the cost of dealing with this problem. You have to pay our way for us. Well, you can imagine the response from the rich countries. They’ve limited their commitments at the moment to $100 billion a year. Sounds like a lot, but not when you spread it thinly among so many poorer countries.
Radhika Desai: What I find interesting about this is that they have in principle admitted their responsibility, it’s just that what they’re willing to lay out in order to address their responsibility is very limited. This is absolutely fascinating, Peter. And we should probably discuss some more about this after COP 26. And I’m sure, unfortunately, there will be lots of other reasons to continue discussing this. But let me just end this interview anyway by asking you, what is your prognosis and what do you really think it’s going to take to really address the issues? Because from what you’re saying, it’s very clear that there’s not much we can expect from COP 26. So more broadly speaking, what might work in your view? Or are you just very despairing about being able to address this at all?
Peter Victor: No, no, I don’t despair because the future is unpredictable by its nature. And I give you my best views, but I’m not saying I’m going to be right. And I’m encouraged by two things. One is the youth movement. I think it is making a difference and it’ll make more of a difference. And I do think there’s some good news about the declining costs of renewable energy alternatives, but I don’t put as much stock in that as some others who are thinking, okay, well, the problem will solve itself. My prognosis is based upon what I understand about the history of humanity. We did very well for almost all of our existence in focusing on short term problems that were local. That was all we really had to do. We’re now facing long term problems that are global. And we are not mentally well prepared for that. So what do we do?
We build institutions. We build institutions that we look to, to take a longer view and a broader view than we do as individuals. But they’ve let us down tremendously. We’ll see if COP 26 is any better. But remember, it’s a meeting of government representatives from nation states who have to pay attention by the nature of the system they’re in to the interest of their nation state. Whereas we want them to think globally, first and foremost, and long term. And I don’t know whether that’s going to happen. We’ll know that in a couple of weeks. A second thing I’ll throw into the pot here is that whatever path we take, even if it’s a very good one, will have gainers and losers. Now we already know who some of those losers will be. They will be the fossil fuel industry. I don’t see that there’s much chance that they will become key players in renewable energy.
The simple reason being is that they make their money from the fuel they take out of the ground, whereas renewables is much more a manufacturing question. It’s, you’re manufacturing equipment, photovoltaic cells, and wind turbines for example. It’s a totally different business. I’ll be very surprised if they make a successful transition, but they may. So we are going to see a lot of change in the future. It’s either going to happen by disaster, those things you mentioned yourself. The flooding, the droughts, the temperature increases, [heat waves] and so on. We’ll see much more of that if we don’t really deal with this problem well. And we’ll see very many changes if we do. I think we’ll be changing the way our economy functions and the things that people consider of value.
Radhika Desai: Well, that’s… Thank you, Peter. All of this has been very illuminating. And I already feel like I’m so much wiser than I was half an hour ago when we started this conversation. So thank you very much. And I think there are still many other questions that we could be talking about, but we’ll just have to leave them for another time. So thank you very much.
Peter Victor: You’re very welcome. Bye-bye.