The Glasgow climate talks will fall short. Here are other ways to accelerate progress.

In MIT Technology Review, Kelly Sims Gallagher questions whether the COP26 summit will be successful in advancing the global fight against climate change, stating that plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are often a distraction from short-term goals.
MIT Technology Review

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.”

Limited progress

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.

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