I believe COP26 asked the wrong question: it asked how to reduce greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere? We will never get these down unless consumption is reduced: it is a mass balance problem. The more we consume, the more pollution we create. And part of that pollution consists of greenhouse gases.
The flow of natural resources into the economy (domestic extraction) is accelerating. At the same time, material productivity is declining overall and there is increasing evidence of resource exhaustion. In effect, humanity is paying more to run faster and go backwards. In Scotland (and it is much the same for the UK and Europe) each person consumes on average about 18 tonnes of raw materials a year. That must reduce to below eight tonnes to be sustainable. So, this is not just about greenhouse gases, but about the way humanity manages the resources of the planet, while reducing pollution at the same time.
Now, that creates a policy problem. A recent update to the Limits to Growth scenarios from the early 1970s produced some plausible scenarios for the globe, run on the data that we currently have including population change, but also resources and rapidly rising pollution. In the ‘Business As Usual’ scenario, the update shows industrial output falling rapidly over the coming decades. This can, I think, be looked upon as a reasonable worst-case scenario – which is what those in Government should be planning for. Are we doing so? Absolutely not.
Logically, innovation and investment in technology might change this, but not enough to resolve the scale of the challenge of this kind of scenario. In the current policy context, there are a wide range of supply-side policies: the focus is on market solutions, deregulation, subsidy (which includes fossil fuel subsidies). There is a relatively small number of demand-side policies, about regulation, fiscal measures and incentivisation. Demand-side policies are hard to implement. Politicians do not like implementing them. This is because it means saying to people: “You may want this, but you can’t have it.” But that is what is needed. It is not a matter solely of reducing the supply-side policies: some of them are very good. However, they must be balanced on the demand side. We need to internalise the environmental costs. I personally think the machinery of government needs to change in order to achieve this. Finally, sustainability is more than just net-zero carbon. Even if we get to 2050 and achieve net zero, it will not have completely solved the sustainability problem. It will just be there in another form.