It seems to come around earlier every year – the season of the climate change conference is upon us once again. And, just as at Christmas, promises are everywhere. In Sharm El-Sheikh, politicians, business people and others met for the 27th annual UN Climate Change conference.
In the UK, the biggest conversation in domestic politics was whether Rishi Sunak would attend at all, or allow Boris Johnson to steal the stage.
Johnson was keen to call himself the “spirit of Glasgow”, but last year’s Cop26 in Scotland didn’t leave much of a mark on environmental policymaking around the world. Conference president Alok Sharma cried on stage as the event ended, apologising for the gathering’s failure to meaningfully step up its planet-saving plans. He said: “May I just say to all delegates, I apologise for the way this process has unfolded and I am deeply sorry.” Perhaps its not the legacy we should look to.
The only success at Cop26 was a bold new deforestation plan. World leaders promised to put a total end to deforestation by 2030. Not only that, they said – the effects of deforestation will also be reversed by the end of the decade.
Unfortunately, it did not take long for this apparent success to turn into failure. By February, the plan had missed its first deadline and it was already behind schedule. Giant global conferences are great at setting targets and making the right noises, but when attendees fly back to their home countries, reality sets in. The planet suffers when leaders virtue-signal like this because real action is side-lined in favour of headline-grabbing big-picture plans which neglect detail and are almost never realised.
Setting targets is easy. But we are at risk of repeating the same mistake. That would delay progress on deforestation further and increase the risk of knee-jerk policies like meat taxes and product import bans, which cause harm in the short-term and do little to help tackle deforestation.
Nonetheless, Cop27 seems to have stoked an appetite for yet more ill-thought-out plans to tackle deforestation along with unachievable targets. Already, key players in the food industry have voiced a desire to “eliminate deforestation from their supply chains,” without really explaining what that means.
The usual subjects like beef, soy and palm oil are in the firing line. Leaders appear to be following in the footsteps of the EU’s Due Diligence Proposal from earlier this year, which severely restricted imports of those products to Europe – increasing costs for businesses and consumers and, in some cases, forcing manufacturers to switch to alternative ingredients which cause more, not less, deforestation.
The only real solution to deforestation, of course, is innovation. In the case of palm oil, for example, 72 per cent of companies have made deforestation commitments, and deforestation from palm oil has already fallen to a four-year low.
Undoing technological progress, actively increasing costs, restricting access to goods and worsening quality of life for millions is no solution to the environmental impact of industry, no matter what eco-socialists might say. Solutions to environmental problems must be compatible with, not diametrically opposed to, capitalism. On deforestation, it means allowing industry to update its processes while keeping prices down for the benefit of consumers, free from politicisation, which warps those outcomes. Independent industry-driven change is how deforestation will end, not through global UN conferences.