COP26 in Glasgow is all about making promises. Less methane, net zero in the year two thousand x, less deforestation, no more funding of coal, et cetera.

All part of the game, so the experienced negotiators tell us. What happens behind the scenes is more important than what is happening on stage. We are heading in the right direction, aren’t we? And of course, these sorts of processes never run in a straight line.

All true. But we should be able to measure the steps forward in kilometres, instead of in millimetres. What we need is a transformation, not a transition. There is no time for incremental piffle.

I increasingly get the feeling that we are decorating a sacred cow with all sorts of bows and ribbons, while the animal keeps blocking our way. The real problem is not being discussed in Glasgow either.

We need to accept that economic activity may diminish in the short term in order to increase and maintain prosperity in the long term.

So, let me do that here. What I am referring to is the sacred cow called economic growth. More economic activity and still meet our climate goals, is that possible? The answer is no. The reasoning is so simple that no one wants to accept it. Emissions of greenhouse gases and the destruction of our planet's lungs are due to economic activity: from growing food and keeping animals to making products and providing services. Services - from flying to data centres - also entail energy consumption. So unsurprisingly, last year, during the Covid lockdowns, CO2 emissions diminished.

In virtually every scenario economic activity continues to grow. Partly because of population growth and partly because of increased prosperity. Of course, growth helps to alleviate the poverty of the poorest of the poor. But at the same time, the richest 1% of the world is responsible for half the CO2 emissions.

And nevertheless, all the agreements that are reached - all the bows and ribbons - are based on the idea that we can continue to grow whilst reducing emissions. There is no proof whatsoever that this is possible on a global scale. As long as agreements are non-enforceable, the outlook is certainly not promising.

Just to be clear: I am not against economic growth.Why would I?But if there is no proof whatsoever that it is possible to grow the economy and at the same time become more sustainable, then you have to choose.Because the climate goals are achievable. But only if we stop decorating the sacred cow and shove the animal aside. We need to accept that economic activity may diminish in order to increase and maintain prosperity in the long term. It is the narrow margins of politics that prevent the implementation of policies that will keep us within ecological limits. So give us targets for CO2 emissions that are really binding, requiring transparency about their realisation, pricing, changes in tax systems and redistribution. It is possible. But it is not happening.

And so the sacred cow, with all its bows and ribbons, continues to block the crossroads of progress.

This is a translation of Hans Stegeman's column in Het Financieel Dagblad, published November 9th, 2021.

Read Hans’ previous column ‘If nobody acts, everyone is to blame’.