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Photo illustration: Bryan Gee/The Globe and Mail. Source images: iStock

John Rapley is a professor at the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study.

Opinion divides over how much progress was made at the COP26 climate conference. Nevertheless, most observers would probably concur that the final agreement fell short of hopes. As one former British minister put it, given the consensus view that future global warming must not exceed a further 1.5 degrees, they kept 1.5 alive, but only just, transferring it to the intensive care unit.

Many activists thus lament that our political leaders are fiddling while Rome – or in this case, the planet – burns. You might say our leaders resemble bickering parents dealing with a child who’s been suspended from school: Neither wants to be the unpopular one who lays down the law, so they both dance around the problem and blame the other for their child’s behaviour.

So what is the law that needs laying down? Well, let’s stick with that family analogy. Let’s think of humanity as a big one. We’re all born with certain rights, and we all have certain responsibilities to the rest of the family. In this case, we’re entitled to live off the planet’s bounty, but only to use our fair share, leaving enough for everyone else to do so as well.

When it comes to our greenhouse gas emissions, a simple exercise can help us calculate that share. Scientists estimate that from the dawn of humanity, the amount of carbon dioxide that the Earth’s atmosphere could absorb without warming more than 1.5 C has been about 3,000 billion tons. If we then take that figure, and divide it by the total number of humans who have ever lived on this planet – maybe 100 billion – we’d each get a lifetime allocation of 30 tons.

Sounds like a lot, right? And in fact, for almost all of human history, it was plenty. But then around 1850, after 50,000 years in which humans lived well within their means, we kind of went to town. Between then and now, we burned through more than four-fifths of the total planetary allowance. And when I say we, I mean we here in the West. Most especially, those of us living today. Take the average Canadian. Today, we blow through our lifetime quota in about two years.

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So where do we turn for the rest of our lives? Well, over the last generation, we and the other citizens of the West have mopped up all the unused quotas of every human being who ever lived. Then, when that ran out, and without asking their permission, we used the unused quotas of people living today in poor countries. But even that couldn’t cover our expensive tastes. So now we’ve begun dipping into the quotas of all future generations. No wonder Greta Thunberg and her peers feel so miffed.

One can debate the math and the estimates. However, the fundamental point stands. As if we’d sold all the family silver then begun living on credit, intending to pass the bill to our heirs, we in the West have produced the vast majority of historic carbon emissions. Now, with the bill coming due, everyone – people in the developing world, and the younger generation across the globe – is looking angrily at us and asking what we’ll do to settle it.

At first, faced with this question, we effectively proposed dividing the remaining quota among us. You can guess how that went down. When you go to the family silver cabinet and find one of your siblings took everything without asking anyone’s permission, and worse is now running a tab with your name on it, you’re hardly minded to look kindly on their offer to split the bill. That’s why India, which will suffer severely from future climate change, but is suffering even more severely from present-day poverty, nixed the idea of phasing out coal. Their message was, if it was good enough for you, it’s good enough for us. In other words, if humanity is to prevent catastrophic climate change, it will have to fall on the citizens of the West to foot the bill – because we’re the ones who ran it up.

The challenge is undeniably huge. Individually, we’d have to eliminate about nine-tenths of our carbon emissions. Moreover, the solutions we hear the most about, like switching to efficient fridges or driving electric cars, barely make a dent in that figure. That’s because most of our carbon emissions come not from how we use energy, but from what we consume. You just have to compare, say, the average Canadian house, with its hot tub and home-theatre system, to the average Japanese home, to know that even by developed-world standards, we’re profligate buyers.

There’s a lot we can do individually to lead more sustainable lives – eating less meat, driving and flying much less (one transatlantic flight alone uses up about three years’ worth of our lifetime allowance), redecorating our homes less often or turning off the air conditioning in all but the most unbearable weather. We’ll also need to build completely different cities from those we currently live in: more intensive development, excellent public transit, planning that integrates shopping, industrial and living areas so as to make walking and bicycling more sensible modes of transportation. And we’ll need much steeper carbon taxes to steer investment into an energy transition. Moreover, some of the proceeds of carbon taxes would need to be given to developing countries, so that they in turn could make the transition through decarbonization without inhibiting their own development.

Technology will help smooth some of this. Renewable energy will make a big difference, while the development of something like metaverse might enable us to substitute some virtual for material consumption. A visit to Rome, for instance, may no longer require a flight there. But there’s no getting away from the fact that the lifestyle changes demanded will be substantial. Not a worse life, but a very different one.

Change is unsettling, and the temptation to do nothing abounds. But most scientists reckon that the violent storms, floods and murderous heat waves we’ve recently seen are a mere sample of what lies ahead. Typical estimates are that the cost of action now will be less than what we’ll have to pay later if we let things slide.

Our leaders thus face a choice of their own. They can continue to be the popular parent, let the child drop out of school and leave them to pick up the pieces later in life. Or they can lay down the law, make themselves unpopular now, but receive gratitude later. As any parent will agree, the wiser course requires courage and self-belief. Are any of our leaders up to it?

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