The Glasgow climate conference represents a strategic defeat for the West, and for Britain in particular. Boris Johnson unleashed everything he could muster. The royal family hosted receptions for multibillionaires. The Foreign Office sent climate envoys around the world.

Glasgow would show the world that Britain could outdo France’s performance six years ago at the Paris climate conference.

Wrong. Whereas the French knew what they were doing in Paris, the British were at sea in Glasgow. The result was a display of the rank amateurishness of the British state.

If Boris Johnson and his ministers had done their homework, they would have known they were on a road to nowhere. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol failed because it exempted the developing world from cutting its emissions. The West attempted to remedy this at the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009 with a climate treaty that would bring the major emerging economies under a multilateral regime of emission targets and timetables. The attempt was sunk by China, India, South Africa, and Brazil acting in concert.

The West accounts for a declining share of global emissions. “This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal,” Barack Obama had boasted in 2008. Obama and the West were desperate for a climate agreement to justify increasingly punitive domestic climate policies. The Paris agreement is the climate equivalent of Mikhail Gorbachev’s Sinatra Doctrine, under which the captive nations of eastern Europe could do it their way. It signalled that the Soviet Union had lost the Cold War. In similar fashion, the Paris agreement signalled that the West had accepted its defeat and had given up its attempt to create a multilateral regime of emission cuts. Instead, the Paris agreement is based on nationally determined contributions. Each party to the agreement would do it its way.

After Copenhagen, small island states lobbied intensely to tighten the temperature target from 2 degrees above industrial levels to 1.5 degrees. Their islands, they claimed, were in danger of sinking beneath the waves. The West swallowed the sinking island sob story, which is how 1.5 degrees came to be included in the Paris agreement as a subsidiary ambition to the 2-degree target. It was fake science, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) later confirmed. “Observations, models and other evidence indicate that unconstrained Pacific atolls have kept pace with [sea level rise], with little reduction in size or net gain in land,” the IPCC said in its net zero report.

Because Paris included 1.5 in its text, the IPCC brought forward the indicative timetable for net zero from the second half of the current century to 2050. In the waning days of her premiership in 2019, Theresa May decided to make net zero her legacy. It was incorporated as a binding target under the 2008 Climate Change Act after a ninety-minute debate in the House of Commons, even though MPs had no idea how much it would cost or whether it was remotely feasible. But one thing is clear: whatever net zero costs Britain, it is pointless for Britain to decarbonize if the rest of the world doesn’t follow suit. The regulatory-impact assessment accompanying the Climate Change Act signed by Ed Miliband as climate and energy secretary could not have been clearer: “The UK continuing to act while the rest of the world does not, would result in a large net cost for the UK.” The benefits of UK climate action would be distributed around the world, but the UK would bear all the costs.

The Climate Change Act was passed in the runup to the Copenhagen climate conference, which was supposed to produce a binding climate treaty. “Showing leadership through the Climate Change Act, the UK will help to drive a global deal,” Miliband asserted, showing that climate hubris is embraced by all Britain’s political parties. Now, for a second time, a UN climate conference has produced a dud. The fantasy that Britain would lead and the rest of the world would follow has been exposed. The question mark over net zero has been answered. After Glasgow, we now know that net zero is all pain for no gain. With Britain’s political class committed to the disastrous, dead-end path of net zero, bring on the referendum.

This article originally appeared at Real Clear Energy


  • Rupert Darwall is a Senior Fellow at the RealClear Foundation.