In the lead-up to the United Nations' COP26 climate talks, the UN and many governments and companies have called for swift action to tackle the global warming threat — but a speaker at a Beijing energy security event this week sounded a very different note.
Gal Luft, co-founder of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS), a Washington-based think tank focused on energy security, said that energy transition and climate goals should be part of a marathon, not a sprint.
“If you rush, you are not able to make it to the finish line,” he said.
At the Global Forum on Energy Security in Beijing, Luft claimed on Monday that the current global energy supply shortage is partly due to some countries' swift moves to achieve climate goals.
Ask people in the poorest countries in the world what they think of the climate. They will tell you this is not something they are interested in.
Gal Luft, IAGS co-founder
The forum was organised by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.
At odds with UN reports
Luft's appeal for a more relaxed approach to the climate crisis was at odds with the conclusions of UN reports on human-caused global warming ahead of the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, which will begin on 31 October.
Many are seeking to sway the UN ahead of the talks, and much is at stake for fossil fuel producers. Leaked documents this week showed how fossil fuel-producing nations have been pressuring the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to amend a draft report that threatens their domestic economic interests, according to BBC and Greenpeace reports.
The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change's (UNFCCC) NDC Synthesis report last month stated that nations' available climate plans together imply an increase of about 16% in global greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 compared to 2010.
Such an increase would be "in sharp contrast with the calls by science for rapid, sustained and large-scale emission reductions to prevent the most severe climate consequences and suffering, especially of the most vulnerable, throughout the world," Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary of UNFCCC, said at the time.
“We need to peak emissions as soon as possible before 2030 and to support developing countries in building up climate resilience," she said.
Wealthier nations pledged more than a decade ago to mobilise $100 billion annually by 2020 to enhance climate action in developing countries, but they have not yet fulfilled this commitment.
"Developing countries need this support in order to act as ambitiously as possible,” Espinosa said.
Prosperity and climate change
Luft said at the Beijing event this week that in order to reach carbon neutrality, the world needs prosperity because poor people cannot do anything for the climate.
“Ask people in the poorest countries in the world what they think of the climate. They will tell you this is not something they are interested in,” he claimed, adding that poor people want basic needs such as food and energy.
China owes its prosperity to fossil fuels, Luft argued. Today, Chinese people live 20 years longer on average, largely because they are able to produce cheap electricity, allowing them to have clean food and water and to be more prosperous, he claimed.
Fossil fuels are not the enemy of humanity, Luft claimed, adding: “We should not succumb to the views even if they come from scientists, who are sometimes right and sometimes wrong.”
Luft referred to the widespread warnings from scientists and others that failing to control human-caused global warming within particular time frames will be disastrous for the planet, and he compared such warnings to a "religion... a church, which is climate change."
“The price to achieve climate targets in a hurried way is that we will destroy our prosperity," he said. "If we don’t protect our prosperity, we will not be able to do anything for the climate.”
'Relax', Luft says
Luft urged politicians to think about what they want to achieve and not to rush.
“Relax,” he said. “We really need to go back to the drawing board and think about how we can do something that I call sustainable sustainability.”
“Yes, we have to remain sustainable, but our rush to sustainability also needs to be sustainable,” said Luft, who is also a senior adviser to the US Energy Security Council.
“We now need to put our house in order, not to subscribe to commonly held wisdom just because it is politically correct," Luft said.
Luft’s rhetoric was echoed by Jin Zhijun, director of the Institute of Energy, Peking University.
Jin told the conference audience that people should never demonise fossil fuels, such as coal, which he said will remain important in China’s energy consumption mix for many years to come.
Jin said that the world should establish a renewable energy system first, before eliminating fossil fuels.
The comments came as it was revealed last week that Chinese President Xi Jinping may not attend the crucial COP26 climate talks in Glasgow.
China is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases and its emissions are expected to continue to rise in the near term, with the government currently targeting peak emissions by 2030 ahead of a net zero emissions target of 2060.
It is understood Xi’s absence from COP26 could be a setback for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson's hopes of getting world leaders to agree to a significant climate deal at the summit, which begins 31 October.
UN leader seeks 'death knell' for fossil fuels
A UN IPCC report in August urged swift action to mitigate the worst effects of global warming. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for pursuit of “the most ambitious path” to limit warming.
“The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk,” Guterres said.
“This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet.”