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What a dying climate negotiator has to say to the world

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What a dying climate negotiator has to say to the world

Pete Betts is not famous but he is part of an influential group of people who in recent years have worked on international negotiations to try to solve the biggest problem of our times, namely the climate crisis. He is a British diplomat who participated in the climate negotiations organized by the United Nations – the COPs – in roles of great responsibility in the delegations of the United Kingdom and the European Union and then as a consultant to the International Energy Agency (IEA): among other things, he was one of the people who worked on the historic Paris Agreement of 2015.

Betts is 64 today. She surely will never know what results her life’s work will have in the next few decades and most likely she won’t even see the next climate conference because she has a serious brain tumor. When he was diagnosed he was announced to have a life expectancy of 15 months – it has been 14 months since then. Betts has spent much of that time writing a book about where we are with tackling climate change, the sense of the COPs, which from the outside are often seen as difficult to understand and all in all useless, and on the failures of international policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He also talked about these things with the reporter of Financial Times Pilita Clark, who summarized them in a recent article.

«The decisions that will be taken in Beijing matter more than all the others», Betts said for example, explaining that China is the country on which the possibility of significantly limiting global emissions depends most today, as « largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions. Betts goes on to say that the lack of international agreement on the interventions to be done by 2030 mainly depended on China, for which the objective of keeping the increase in the average global temperature below 1.5 °C compared to the pre-industrial era has in fact vanished .

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«I’m not saying this to point the finger at Beijing: developed countries outside Europe, especially the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan, have done nothing for decades, at a time when they could have done it cheaper manageable. But now the reality of the facts is this ».

Not exceeding the limit of 1.5 °C, which is getting closer and closer, would have been important in order not to increase too much the probability of disastrous events, such as floods and prolonged periods of drought at the regional level, and to avoid some “no-points” return”, i.e. crisis situations of the climate and ecosystems that cannot be solved simply by lowering the temperature. “Many will try to take advantage of this moment to say that we must give up the 1.5 °C limit”, Betts commented again: “But only the same people who prevented us from reaching the goal”.

Betts then added that even if we exceed the 1.5°C increase we should not give up, but rather redouble our efforts.

Still with regard to China, Betts said that he is always struck by the criticisms he receives from some leaders of non-governmental organizations when he says that the fate of the climate depends on China, but also that there are good reasons why NGOs “are reluctant to put pressure on Beijing”. “Doing so risks aggravating tensions between China and the West, which are worsening. And it makes fun of those who claim that China is doing nothing, which is false. The NGOs working in China also have legitimate fears of suffering consequences if they are too critical”.

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Betts believes that, given that today most of the emissions are produced by emerging economies, it is important to encourage richer countries to financially help poorer ones to switch to energy sources that do not produce greenhouse gases. Great resources are needed to start the so-called ecological transition and “current funds are dramatically insufficient”.

Speaking of the diplomatic mechanisms behind international climate agreements, Betts instead said that for him it is always very frustrating to see how little most people understand what is done at the COPs and above all what is not done: «The NGOs and the media they didn’t understand how things changed after the 2015 Paris Agreement. Now the decisions that really matter are made months before a COP is due to start. It happens when countries announce their national commitments to reduce emissions, as foreseen in the Paris Agreement.

Concerning those promises, or more precisely ai Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC), in Italian “Contributions determined on a national basis”, the COP negotiators made a serious mistake in hindsight, Betts believes today:

When we made that agreement, we thought that civil society would pay close attention to those promises and therefore countries would feel pressure to set ambitious goals, and adjust them if they were judged insufficient. We were wrong. For one thing, NDCs are not done in time. And then nobody criticizes the commitments unless they are those made by developed countries. There should be much more attention to the failures of countries like China (…), it should be more evident that countries like Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil have reduced their commitment. Instead much more attention is paid to the words about fossil fuels that are used in the final documents of the COPs, which do not oblige any country to do anything.

Betts and Clark also spoke about climate activism and he praised the work of Greta Thunberg, who he believes has put climate change “back on politicians’ radar” when it was in danger of being forgotten. Groups like Extinction Rebellion, on the other hand, seem to him to be ineffective in choosing the recipients of their campaigns. «I agree, however, that my generation has wronged today’s young people: I don’t think it’s the fault of the individual negotiators, but I take my responsibilities. I think I had a wider scope than others to make a difference. But collectively we failed, it’s true.”

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Betts also shared a few anecdotes about specific politicians and negotiators that help understand what happens at the COPs. Among other things he compared the work of several British prime ministers at conferences and said that at COP26 in Glasgow in 2021, Boris Johnson and his aides were mainly busy making the headlines feature the conference – which was indeed hosted by the UK – such a success. “Johnson lambasted COP chairman Alok Sharma because he shed a few tears after a last-minute intervention by India and China that weakened commitments to phase out coal as an energy source. He thought he would make the COP look like a failure.’

Today Betts is working on her book on COPs and climate also to accept that she is about to die: she hopes it will show that her life has been worthwhile.

– Read also: What exactly is done at climate conferences

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