Thousands of delegates will amass in Glasgow, Scotland, in the coming days for the annual UN climate conference, where they’ll spend two weeks squabbling over a lengthy list of action items that add up to a single question: How much faster will the world move to prevent catastrophic warming this century?
If history is any clue, it won’t be by much.
After 25 such summits over the last three decades, global greenhouse-gas emissions have continued to rise, aside from a few dips during economic downturns. Climate pollution is expected to sharply rebound in 2021, to nearly the peak levels of 2019, as the economy surges back from the pandemic.
Six years after nations adopted the landmark Paris climate agreement, countries haven’t committed to, much less enacted, the necessary policies to reduce emissions anywhere near as much as required to achieve the accord’s stated goal: preventing 2 ˚C of global warming this century while striving to limit the increase to 1.5 ˚C. And rich countries are still tens of billions of dollars short of the $100 billion in annual funds they agreed to provide to help developing nations address climate change.
If countries do no more than fulfill the loose pledges they’ve made for 2030 under the agreement, the planet is likely to heat up by around 2.7 ˚C this century, according to the UN Environment Programme’s “emissions gap report,” released earlier this week. If all they do is abide by domestic climate policies already in place, temperature increases could exceed 3 ˚C.
In a 3 ˚C warmer world, coral reefs likely disappear, the ice sheets begin to collapse, hundred-year droughts will occur every few years across vast stretches of the globe, and sea-level rise could force hundreds of millions of people to relocate, according to various studies.
“If the goal is to maintain a safe, livable climate for the majority of the world’s population, the grade is an F-,” says Jessica Green, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto who focuses on climate governance. “We’re not there; we’re not even close.”
Given the near-term calculations of geopolitics, which are dominated by considerations of political strength, international advantage, and domestic growth, the lack of progress isn’t terribly surprising.
Any treaty that involves nearly all the world’s nations, from the Kyoto Protocol to the Paris accord, has to be watered down to the point that it simply doesn’t demand much. Under the 2015 Paris agreement, emissions targets are self-determined, voluntary, and nonbinding. There is no real penalty for failing to set ambitious goals or achieve them, beyond international tsk-tsking.
National leaders and their people are being asked to voluntarily pay now for benefits that will largely accrue decades later—and won’t come at all if other nations fail to follow through on their commitments. The climate agreements also ask poor countries that have produced small fractions of the emissions generated by rich ones to tamp down their growth and curtail their citizens’ access to energy and a higher quality of life, with only vague, unaccountable promises of assistance.
As leaders and negotiators gather in Glasgow, many observers hold out hope that the world will rebuild momentum behind and faith in the Paris agreement. But at the same time, there’s a growing school of thought that the loose international framework will never drive major emissions reductions, and may even be pulling attention away from other models that could do more.
We might soon know who is right. As the US climate czar, John Kerry, recently told the BBC, the UN conference is the “last best hope for the world to get its act together.”
To be sure, the world has achieved some progress on climate change, as more nations shift away from coal and embrace increasingly cost-competitive renewables and electric vehicles. Global emissions do seem to be at least flattening, which could allow us to sidestep the worst-case warming scenarios from a few years ago, of around 4 ˚C or higher.
But countries need to make much faster progress from this point forward to avoid still extremely dangerous outcomes. The conference will be a revealing test of the international resolve to do so, because most nations are supposed to raise their Paris commitments for the first time this year.
In April, President Biden stepped up the US’s target, from 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025 to a 50% to 52% reduction by 2030. Similarly this summer, European Union nations formally approved the European Climate Law, creating a binding requirement that members cut emissions 55% by 2030, with the goal of becoming “climate neutral” by 2050.
All told, nearly 90 countries plus the EU had submitted new 2030 targets as part of the UN process as of mid-September, according to Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific research group. More than 70 nations, however, had not at that time.
Meanwhile, Russia’s Vladimir Putin pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, joining a list of now more than 100 countries that have pledged to zero out emissions from at least the primary greenhouse gas by around midcentury. China previously committed to hit the same 2060 mark, recently announced the nation will stop building coal plants overseas and reiterated its plan this week to achieve peak carbon dioxide emissions by 2030. Over the weekend, Saudi Arabia announced plans to achieve net-zero emissions by 2060 and plant 450 million trees over the next nine years.
But Kelly Sims Gallagher, director of the Climate Policy Lab at Tuft’s Fletcher School, said that midcentury goals can serve as “a distraction from near-term action.” She also stressed that nations aren’t doing enough to enact domestic policies that provide a credible path to fulfilling their 2030 pledges.
In fact, it’s hard to see how the US will meet its 50% target after a key measure to drive down emissions from the power sector was reportedly removed from the budget bill. An analysis published last week, led by energy researchers at Princeton and Dartmouth, found that if every other climate policy in the pending budget and infrastructure bills passes, the nation will still come up nearly 350 million tons shy.
Such shortfalls will reduce Kerry’s leverage at the upcoming talks, leaving it harder for him to make the case that other nations must step up their climate pledges or policies.
Meanwhile, the 2030 commitments announced in advance of the event still don’t add up to nearly what’s required. The UN Environment Programme report estimates nations will need to eliminate another 28 billion tons of carbon dioxide pollution in the next nine years to hold warming at 1.5 ˚C this century, or 13 billion tons to limit it to 2 ˚C.
“I don’t want to categorically trash the [UN process] and throw the baby out with the bathwater, but it’s time to be realistic about what it can and can’t do,” Green says.
Why isn’t it working?
The fundamental problem is that climate change is an enormously complex and expensive problem to solve. And for the most part, international agreements have failed to address the underlying economic and domestic political challenges, scholars argue.
Combating climate change means overhauling nearly every aspect of how the world generates energy, produces food, manufactures goods, and moves them and people around the world. It requires shutting down or retrofitting trillions of dollars’ worth of plants, factories, machines, and vehicles that would otherwise continue operating profitably for decades.
So despite the declining costs of renewables, batteries, and electric vehicles, rapidly shifting to zero-carbon sources still imposes giant costs on nations and businesses, whatever the eventual returns from creating new industries and reducing the risks of accelerating climate change. And it creates existential risks for powerful emitting industries.
In a recent essay in Foreign Affairs, Yale economist William Nordhaus argues that the decades of international climate negotiations have failed for three key reasons: Most of the world hasn’t put any real cost on climate pollution. We’re not investing enough to drive innovation in cleaner technologies. And UN agreements haven’t solved what’s known as the “free rider” problem. Basically, most nations will reap the same benefits from global action to slash emissions, whether they contribute meaningfully to the effort or not. So why would they bother?
Emissions cuts won’t happen at the speed and scale required until nations, trade pacts, or treaties create incentives, penalties, or mandates that are generous or strict enough to bring them about. And there is little sign that most countries will suddenly agree to meaningful versions of those at Glasgow.
How else can the world accelerate international progress on climate change?
While stressing that the UN conference is “huge deal,” Varun Sivaram, a senior advisor to Kerry, said that the most important role the US can play in driving down emissions beyond its borders is in developing cheaper, better low-carbon technologies.
By heavily funding research and development efforts, the US will make it easier and more politically feasible for other nations to decarbonize, he said during a discussion at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference late last month. That will be particularly true for emerging economies that will account for most of the emissions growth in the coming years.
“The number one tool the US has to speed the energy transition around the world is innovation,” he said.
Others stress the importance and potential spillover effects from local efforts.
In an essay late last year in Boston Review, Charles Sabel of Columbia Law School and David Victor of the University of California, San Diego, highlighted the need for, and early successes of, what they describe as “experimentalist governance.”
In this model, smaller institutions that don’t need to achieve global consensus, like states or sector-specific regulatory agencies, can set strict and binding standards that bring about broader changes in particular polluting industries. They’re also able to adapt their tactics over time based on results.
The hope is that a variety of governments or regulators trying a variety of approaches can provide critical lessons on what does and doesn’t work, and drive a process that makes it cheaper and easier for other areas to enact emissions reduction policies and adopt cleaner technologies.
The article points to California’s strict and evolving rules on vehicle air pollution and carbon emissions. The state’s regulations compelled the auto industry, which doesn’t want to produce different models for different markets, to figure out ways to produce ever more fuel-efficient vehicles. They also helped accelerate the development of electric vehicles, the authors argue.
Another example is Germany’s aggressive renewable-energy policies and investments in research and development, which helped create an early market for solar panels while driving down costs for the rest of the world.
Victor says that the Paris agreement does play a role: it puts some pressure on companies and governments, and provides a compass that’s guiding the world toward “goals that aren’t achievable” but are roughly in the right direction.
But as he and Sabel argued in the piece, its role is a “considerably smaller one” than proponents believe.
“What if … the only practical way to get to a workable global solution is to encourage and piece together partial ones?” they wrote. “What if the best way to build an effective consensus is not to ask who will commit to achieving certain outcomes no matter what, but instead by inviting parties to start by solving problems at many scales?”
There is also a growing belief that smaller groups of governments or institutions need to enact rules or create trading blocs that compel climate action through clear benefits or sharp penalties.
Victor, Nordhaus, and others have argued for the importance of marketplaces, known as “climate clubs,” that are initially small enough to set stricter rules but include incentives that can attract more members and encourage them to commit to increasingly aggressive targets.
This approach could take a variety of forms, including regional carbon markets, trade pacts among a few nations with common emissions commitments, or joint programs to pursue technology innovation in key areas.
One example is the tightening set of climate rules within the European Union. In addition to setting a binding emissions reduction target among member nations, the European Commission is taking steps to increase the cost of carbon pollution, reduce free carbon allowances for industrial sectors like cement and steel, and set up a carbon border tax that would impose fees on goods from countries or companies that are heavier polluters.
Combined with stricter climate policies, R&D funding, and government-backed purchase agreements within certain European nations, these regulations are starting to produce real and relatively rapid shifts in heavy industry in Europe. That progress includes a growing variety of green hydrogen and green steel projects.
A crucial feature of any climate club is that it’s attractive enough to draw in more members over time, Nordhaus said in an email. The major carrot is the potential for other nations and their companies to sell their products within the market on similar terms. That should incentivize other countries or foreign companies to adopt the standards required for admission, whether that means a common carbon price or relatively similar policy ambitions.
There are some obvious challenges involved in this approach.
It is time-consuming: crafting one complex trade pact, much less many, can easily take years, and the world needs to make rapid emissions cuts now. It could produce myriad sets of conflicting rules that prove difficult to mesh together. It means that while some groups of nations are doing a lot, others may not be doing much at all. And it could create increasingly fragmented trade alliances around the world, with blocs of “good” and “bad” climate actors that trade mostly among themselves.
Those pacts could deepen international divisions, and even increase hostilities that might manifest in other potentially dangerous ways.
There are also clear global equity issues in demanding that poor nations—which haven’t emitted nearly as much historically, and can’t afford to decarbonize as rapidly—be held to the same standards as richer ones, or subjected to carbon border taxes that threaten to slow their economic growth.
The University of Toronto’s Green says there's a more basic problem stalling climate progress: obstructionism by deep-pocketed, politically influential industries that profit from polluting the atmosphere. These companies have too much political power, she argues, and little will change until that fact does.
Before nations can increase their international pledges, at least in credible ways, they must surmount these roadblocks by building up big enough coalitions to push through aggressive laws or regulations.
None of this is especially fast, easy, or assured. The hard truth is it’s nearly certain the planet will soar past 1.5 ˚C and very likely 2 ˚C this century, no matter what happens at Glasgow.
But every additional tenth of a degree means ever more devastating effects from climate change. That alone should provide every incentive necessary for those assembling at the conference to push hard for whatever progress they can secure – and for states, nations and other institutions to find other ways to move forward, too.
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