Carbon Critical

Oct 28, 2021

The Case for Climate Optimism

Efforts to mitigate climate damage are not going well ahead of COP26. But they could also be going much worse.

A graph showing the cummulative mount of CO2 emitted by country
Attribution CC BY

COP26 is two things at once. Stand close to it and it looks like a conference, where speeches, connections, and pledges are made. Take a few steps back and you’ll see it is also a milestone on the long journey to a net-zero planet—the first COP took place in Berlin in 1995. In a world of relentlessly depressing climate news, the distant view offers some reason to be more optimistic. 

COP26 the Conference

The conference itself faces some challenges. Some Glasgow transport workers are threatening to strike, which could create logistical chaos. Delegates from poorer countries may not be able to attend during a global pandemic—while the British hosts have sent vaccines to delegations from poorer countries and relaxed some travel restrictions, some representatives from Least Developed Countries will have trouble attending and want the conference postponed. Meanwhile, major emitters China and India failed to submit updated climate plans (known as Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs) by an October 12 deadline. Perhaps not the ideal atmosphere for an event being billed as “a turning point for the world” (British Prime Minister Boris Johnson) or humanity’s “last best hope” (US Climate Envoy John Kerry).

In the technical talks, negotiators will take on the difficult task of finalizing the rules needed to implement the Paris Agreement. A key topic is international carbon markets: Article 6 of the 2015 Paris deal described in broad strokes how these should work: in simple terms, one country can pay another to cut emissions elsewhere and count the results toward its own progress. But now negotiators have to agree on the details; they must ensure that one emissions reduction is not counted toward multiple countries’ NDCs (double counting) and that these markets do not merely support, say, wind farms that would have been built anyway. One sticking point is whether to allow the use of credits generated under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol; a compromise there is reportedly in sight. Finally, other thorny issues include the timeframes for submitting new climate plans and the transparency rules for how countries report their progress.

Developing countries are hoping Glasgow will bring new commitments from rich countries on financing climate action—not only more money, but more grants (as opposed to loans) and more cash earmarked for adaptation. They also want the most vulnerable to be compensated for climate-related “loss and damage” and for big emitters like the US to further increase their targets to take into account their historical responsibility for the climate crisis (see graph). But they are likely to be disappointed as rich countries once again fail to open up their wallets. Developed countries promised in 2009 to mobilize $100 billion a year in climate finance for developing countries by 2020, but they will not meet that promise until 2023, by which time much more will be needed.

The Glasgow Declaration to be released at the end of COP26 won’t solve the climate crisis. Nor will the many side-deals that will be formally launched or fleshed out over the next two weeks, like the EU-US methane pledge or the First Movers Coalition of companies committing to buy low-carbon products.

COP26 the Milestone

However, from the second perspective—the one that sees COP26 as a chance to take stock of progress toward net zero—things are going rather better. Admittedly, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, pandemic recovery spending has been less “green” than advertised, with the bulk of energy investment going to fossil fuels, and the latest UN Emissions Gap report reminds us that “G20 members as a group do not have policies in place to achieve even the NDCs, much less net zero.” (I could go on; most climate news is bad news.) But the signatories to the Paris Agreement are now at least promising to take something like the required action.

Take the projections of warming by 2100. Although the world has already warmed by 1.1 degrees Celsius since preindustrial times, it is on a much better path than it was before the Paris Agreement. In 2012 the World Bank and IPCC sounded the alarm that without action the world was on track to warm by around 4 degrees Celsius (compared with the pre-industrial era).

Today, 4 degrees looks less and less likely. On October 25 the UN analyzed NDCs and concluded the world was on track to warm by 2.7 degrees Celsius by 2100 if pledges were upheld—still dangerous warming but a sign of progress. A few days earlier, taking into account not only official NDCs but also longer-term targets like China’s net-zero goal, the International Energy Agency (IEA) had projected the world would warm by 2.1 degrees if pledges were upheld. That number will be even lower in next year’s IEA World Energy Outlook because even laggards like Russia, Turkey, the UAE, Australia, and Saudi Arabia promised in October 2021 to cut their emissions to net zero by 2050 or 2060. Crucially, some countries have started to back up their pledges with details and policy programs—see China’s so-called 1+N plan, the UK’s net-zero strategy, or the EU’s Fit for 55 package. The UNEP Emissions Gap report released on October 26 projects the world will warm by 2.6 degrees under current policy. This is progress.

Yes, 2-plus degrees of warming is still far, far too much. It would subject humans to deadly heatwaves and crop failures and much more—there’s a reason that the COP26 organizers are desperately trying to get countries to raise their ambition and “keep 1.5 alive.” But it’s better than living in a hellscape of 4 degrees warming.

A New Phase of Climate Diplomacy

There are certainly good reasons to doubt climate pledges, which rarely take priority over profits or winning the next election. The Saudi promise does not cover the emissions caused by the oil and gas it sells; Saudi Arabia now belongs to the large group of countries that sign climate deals with one hand and count money from fossil fuel sales with the other, as the 2021 Production Gap report details. Australia’s net-zero pledge is especially two-faced: rather than raise its weak short-term targets, which would force near-term action, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government has merely tweaked some variables in its projections to make it appear as if Australian emissions will fall faster. Meanwhile, the Democrats who made the new US climate commitment have so far failed to pass any meaningful climate legislation and could easily lose their slim majority next year to a Republican party that rejects the entire COP process. So yes, there will be more disappointments, more climate disasters, more broken promises.

But if you think pledges are worthless, you shouldn’t hope for much from an international conference—especially one that is part of a bottom-up process with no enforcement mechanisms. The achievement of Paris was to get every country on board with the objective of mitigating global warming, after previous COPs had ended in stillborn deals (Kyoto 1997) or acrimonious failure (Copenhagen 2009). The drafters of the Paris Agreement intentionally avoided dictating which countries should reduce emissions by how much. So, in the eyes of national governments, Paris was a vague assurance to other countries that they would join a global effort.

The achievement of the last six years has been to get governments to make promises to their own citizens, in some cases through national legislation. (Private companies are also making similar net-zero promises to their shareholders.) This gives the Paris deal real staying power. The first country to declare a national net-zero target, in 2015, was Bhutan, a small non-industrialized country that gets its electricity from clean hydropower and has huge forests to soak up carbon; it was a big deal at the time. Six years later, conditions have changed to the extent that many take the dozens and dozens of net-zero targets for granted.

For all the sleight-of-hand, the “greenwashing,” and the unmet goals, COP26 in Glasgow reflects a growing resolve not to meekly let the world burn. A low bar, admittedly, but at this stage climate policy is primarily about damage limitation. Climate negotiators can build on these pledges and, with the right efforts, the world could still avoid the worst climate impacts. Better a disingenuous promise to do good, coupled with a readiness to talk, than a middle finger.

Noah J. Gordon is INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY’s climate columnist.

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