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COP26, James Bond, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk - Gökberk Bilgin

The long-awaited climate meeting of the world began at Glasgow on Sunday. More than 120 countries are attending to discuss how the world can cooperate on controlling climate change. The COP26 stands for the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference or Conference of the Parties 26, and the meetings have been held since 1995. The growing concerns on climate change and global warming helped meeting to gain popularity worldwide. Many world leaders, business people, international institutions, and climate activists are participating.

Alok Sharma, the president of the COP26 meeting, introduced three goals for the meeting, which are keeping a 1.5˚C – degree limit on temperature rises in reach, consigning coal power to history, ending deforestation, and providing financial support for green transition to vulnerable nations. In the opening speech, the Prime Minister of Boris Johnson stated that “world leaders are roughly in the same position with James Bond and dealing with a doomsday weapon with a red digital clock tick down remorselessly." All of the speakers emphasized that this meeting is the last chance to take action to control global warming.

But, why does keeping temperature rise at 1.5˚C matter so much? In his recently published book How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and Breakthroughs We Need, Bill Gates explains that marginal changes in temperature create a major impact on the planet. Gates claims that we are only 6˚C hotter from the ice age and 4˚C colder from the environment where crocodiles were in the polar regions. Therefore, each marginal shift in the temperature takes us one step away from the world we know. According to the World Meteorological Organization projections, keeping our lifestyle as it is may cause a 4 to 7˚C increase in temperature by 2100. This would mean that some cities near the shores will be flooded by the increasing water levels, changing fertile areas will create massive immigration movements, and we will have to deal with the new diseases that come with the heat. If these are the best-case scenarios, what is keeping us from taking action right away?

Soon, the world population will hit 10 billion. Most of these newcomers will be the citizens of developing countries that lack clean energy technologies. With their economic growth, their consumption and hence carbon emissions will also go up. The main challenge will be to help these countries to convert to green energies so their development will not cause additional carbon emissions. We have developed two different solutions up to now: to force these countries to give up fossil fuels, and second throw money into the problems.

The first solution does not work for several reasons. First, it is way cheaper to use fossil fuels. We are not only using them for fuel but also in our daily lives. When you look at the things you use, you can tell that more than 90% of them contain oil-based refined products. Secondly, these sources are more reliable on electricity production since they do not rely on weather conditions as much as wind and solar in a world where we do not know how to store our energy sufficiently. Finally, the structure of the oil, gas, or steel industry does not favor rapid and constant transformations due to high sunk costs. Even if you have developed better technology, the cost of implementation becomes too high for these facilities to convert.

Under this framework, what is being asked from the developing nations is to increase the burden on their citizens for the green transition, buy green technologies, which will get cheaper every year from today, and reshape the industry as soon as possible. And this seems the correct way to do it for the long term. However, when you ask all these from the politicians who are determined to win the next elections increasing the burdens on citizens, becomes seems like political suicide. Therefore, in these meetings, they set goals that require them to take minimum action. One of the main challenges of the COP meetings is to understand whether all the countries are taking action against climate change or are they pretending.

The opening speech of Boris Johnson can be a good example to see the mentality of the world leaders on the climate issue. Johnson gives the example of James Bond because the way Bond works are perfect for the politicians. In most scenarios, Bond saves the world at the very last second before the bomb explodes by doing only one major operation. It is an approach designed for the long-term with a very short-term mentality which allows politicians to postpone their actions that would create marginal improvements at the expense of their political capital on the situation.

The second solution they have offered is to finance developing countries to invest more in the green transition. Almost every day, one developed country announces that they are ready to spend some billion dollars to help global energy transition. Here I see two problems. First, these countries do not trust developing countries to spend it for the energy transition, so many limiting regulations come with it. Second, the governments of the developing countries do not have the incentive and know-how to use that money efficiently.

We see a similar situation in Elon Musk’s recent dialogue with World Food Programme (WFP). When WFP asked Elon Musk to donate $6 billion to save 42 million people from hunger, Musk asked whether they had a proper plan to end world hunger that they could show. As I write this article, I have not seen a proper plan presented to him. Many criticized Musk for his greediness, yet if WFP had done a good job up to now, would they lack the money? I do not think so. The organizations succeeding in what they are claiming they are doing are already receiving enough donations to reach their goals. Other organizations, on the other hand, always ask more even to be able to operate themselves. When Elon Musk first introduced his idea of making an electric car, he did not have many supporters. Yet, the results built confidence in the company, and Tesla eventually became more valuable than all car companies combined. This did not happen with green incentive packages. Think about nuclear energy. After the Fukushima incident in Japan, most of the governments turned back to nuclear when financing them meant losing political support. However, the idea of building safer and cleaner nuclear power plants developed by the business people and with the investments of Bill Gates, technology on smaller nuclear reactors that have fewer risks and less pollution developed promisingly. The governments and the market could not ignore these developments, and investments in nuclear energy began increasing again; what I see from these examples is that money does not work well with the problems. It works well with the solutions. We are not good at finding solutions to our problems through spending money. However, if our ideas work, they overcome financial constraints themselves.

On the climate issue, what we are having is a lack of technology that is efficient and affordable at the same time. So, the focus should be on improving this area. We cannot change the nature of politics, but we can update our expectations from the politicians. Governments could be responsible for protecting nature from further destruction, providing basic education to create awareness for the next generations, and regularly updating their regulations according to the needs of incoming companies. Solutions will come with the people who are only interested in building better technologies, and humanity will overcome this problem.


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