The distance between Cairo and Qatar is about 2,000km. The carbon footprint of Egypt is about 220 million tons per annum, 27th highest in the world but with a population of about 94.5 million the annual footprint per capita is 2.32 tons of CO2. Qatar has a footprint of about 99 million tons pa, 40th in the world, but its 2.65 million inhabitants (of whom only about 11% are Qataris) are each responsible for 37.3 tons CO2 on average, the highest in the world.
We in the UK rank 17th in the world, our 66.3 million citizens being responsible for 5.6 tons each, but Scotland as a major oil and gas producer ranks with the other oil-rich countries as a force driving climate change. We Scots have absolutely no cause for complacency, being responsible for almost 13 tons of CO2 annually each, not far behind Saudi Arabia and USA.
I guess that few Scots have exacerbated climate change by flying to Qatar to support the English or Welsh football teams in the World Cup, though a huge aeroplane to and from that country flies over my house daily from Edinburgh Airport. If you do make this 12,000km round trip to Doha, you will add 1.3 tons of CO2 to your personal footprint. You may not even find a hotel room when you get there, so will have to fly in and out daily from another state in the Gulf.
It is expected that over a million people will be going to Qatar for the event, so there's another million or two tons of CO2 dumped in the atmosphere for worthless and unnecessary journeys as the games will be televised. To avoid heatstroke, everyone will be in air-conditioned accommodation. In Qatar, 99.98% of the electricity is generated by fossil fuel combustion, despite the abundant sunlight that is used to produce the 0.02%.
I have never been to Qatar but its rapid and understandable development and associated influence shows how difficult it will be to arrest climate change. The capitalism we invented and that made us rich is very tempting to all developing nations, as it has been to all developing sporting endeavours like World Cups and Olympic Games. It is easy to understand why the people who run football decided to risk heatstroke among their players by holding the World Cup in that desert outpost – oil and natural gas money.
It is harder to understand why, apart from vanity, the Qatari Emir who runs the place wanted an invasion of football supporters and players to spend a couple of weeks there. But what is easily understood is why those labourers from further east and south are tempted to go and work there under appalling conditions to build the stadia, and why many Western companies were so eager to build these white elephants – fossil fuel money again. The climate cost of this sportswashing project in terms of concrete, construction and combustion, in a country which is likely to return to uninhabitability with increasing global temperatures, must be enormous.
Egypt is almost the opposite of Qatar. It is home to one of the world's most ancient civilisations and has few natural resources other than the genius of its people, the best of whom sadly have often been required to migrate to flourish. Meanwhile, the majority struggle to eke out a living in an environment which they have shown the world how to adapt to over millenia. Although at present under repressive military rule, it was at least symbolically a good place for CoP-27. The very history of the country from Pharonic times is of a battle for survival against a hostile climate. So, these two places, Qatar and Egypt, exemplify exactly what CoP-27 is about. On the one side, excessive consumption of the Earth's resources and, on the other, the struggle to survive the consequences of this.
You cannot have failed to notice the abundance of World Cups going on recently. Football, Rugby League and Union, Cricket, male, female, disabled. Most readers, like me, will have enjoyed playing one or more such sports. The British genius for writing rules has led to their adoption in all parts of the erstwhile Empire, something that can be quoted on the positive side along with our language, railways and the civil service ethos, perhaps to count against our enormous and previously unappreciated negative contribution through the Industrial Revolution and exploitation.
Sport has helped many otherwise culturally and financially poor people out of misery and has brought wealth to some of the most talented. However, many popular sports have embraced the worst aspects of capitalism, and professional football is an egregious example, egged on by the popular media, sucking money from fans in order to enrich the top performers, owners and administrators. We need look no further than the World Cup in Qatar to understand the mountain that needed to be climbed by the climate negotiators in Egypt. So much for Cups: light entertainment for many but far from harmless in terms of their effects on the climate and social equity. What about CoP-27?
There have now been 27 annual Conferences of the Partners under the UN 1994 Framework Convention on Climate Change. The aim has been to get political agreement across nations on the actions required to slow down and eventually halt adverse climate change from rising temperatures, in line with recommendations of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
In Paris and Glasgow, real progress was made in terms of agreement to limit the rise of CO2 to not more than 1.5⁰C above pre-industrial levels, to phase down coal use, to set up a fund for aid to counties affected by climate change, and to stop deforestation and reduce methane emissions by 2030. Since then, I'm afraid there has been no obvious progress on the 1.5⁰C target, and the indications are that the rate of increase in CO2 and methane suggests that we shall be lucky to avoid 2⁰C unless we take dramatic action. Agreement is one thing, positive action is another, and there are many excuses, including war and pandemics. But all these things run together, as I keep saying, so there was much pressure on the negotiators in CoP-27.
The headlines from Egypt have concentrated on getting agreement on funding for those countries suffering loss and damage, and this has been achieved with various reservations about who should pay and who should benefit. To me, it is apparent that as the burden of disaster increases (and it will) all of the wealthier countries will have to step up their aid packages to those hit by floods, fire and storms, and that we shall all have to play our part in accommodating the refugees.
As for agreement on targets for CO2, methane and forests, the power of the fossil fuel industries and their owners, shareholders and producing nations is such that progress remains painfully slow. Self-interest rules, and if you find it hard to understand how politicians find it difficult to address the truly frightening scientific facts, look about you or even look at yourself.
The sad reluctance of some nations, almost exclusively those dependent on fossil fuels for their economies, to sign up to commitments on reducing further use of coal, oil and natural gas points to a scenario of climate change acceleration with increasing demands for reparation from the poor world, while many countries do indeed continue to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels and develop carbon-free economies. It is open to speculation what will happen to the countries that continue to rely on oil and gas, especially as many are very vulnerable to further climate change themselves from rising temperatures and water shortages. However, it is becoming clear to me that the best insurance against economic disaster is independent development of renewable energy supply, and this is a path that Europe and the USA are beginning to tread.
A couple of weeks ago, I again joined a march of thousands around central Edinburgh to protest at lack of action on climate change. Many people feel as strongly as I do and have modified their lives accordingly but we need to do more. We need to influence others to change and to urge change. Fossil fuels and unsustainable agriculture, fishing and forestry are making our planet uninhabitable in many places and this is affecting us already, even in these islands.
Cups and CoPs are all very well, but they have huge carbon footprints themselves; we and our offspring are collectively responsible for paying the price of climate change. In times such as these, recession gives the better off an incentive to look where lifestyle modifications can be made and perhaps do a little more to help those less fortunate. Let's do what we can to reduce further damage and eliminate fossil fuel combustion from our nations and ultimately from the planet. Despite the failure of CoP-27, it is still possible, but only just.
Anthony Seaton is Emeritus Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Aberdeen University and Senior Consultant to the Edinburgh Institute of Occupational Medicine. The views expressed are his own