November 12, 2021

IntelBrief: Pledges of Vague Progress on Climate Change at COP26

AP Photo/Alastair Grant

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The COP26 Climate Conference concluded this week in Glasgow with a tentative deal between China and the United States, but little firm action.
  • The international talks to address climate change comes as a report shows the world will easily surpass the previous limits set by the Paris accord.
  • There is no realistic hope to prevent global warming of at least 2.5 degrees Celsius, which will have massive repercussions for the planet.
  • Countries continue to see addressing climate change as purely a negative cost, rather than a crucial and urgent opportunity.

As the 26th Conference of Parties (COP26) talks end in Glasgow, Scotland, there have been some encouraging signs of progress. But, as with almost all pledges in climate change, the touted progress is vague and decades into the future. Meanwhile, the situation of accelerating climate change grows worse each year. While activists, politicians, and business leaders gathered to ostensibly make progress on what is now the most pressing existential global issue, a newly published report has demonstrated how decades of pledged progress—without actual progress—has put the modern world in a most perilous position. The annual Global Carbon Budget report indicates only about 11 years to reign in current levels of greenhouse gas pollution to avoid the worst lasting climate change impacts.

The most comprehensive global effort to counter accelerating climate change has been the Paris Climate Accord, which 196 parties signed in 2015. The Trump administration pulled the United States out of the agreement in 2017, whereas, four years later, the Biden administration rejoined it. A key benchmark of the Paris Accord was an agreement to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. This limit would still result in massive changes to ecosystems throughout the world, with the hope that limiting the increase to 1.5 Celsius would avoid persistent catastrophe. But in the five years since the agreement, not nearly enough has been actually done to change the trajectory of accelerating warmth. 

As a result, it is now believed that there is no realistic hope that the world can avoid a 2.5 Celsius increase. This global increase will have massive negative consequences, to include higher sea levels that will disproportionately impact poorer countries with large and vulnerable populations. The World Bank projects that climate change could displace 200 million people from their homes by 2050. The countries that contributed the least to the causes of global warming will be the ones hardest hit initially, while the major industrialized countries whose rapacious appetite for fossil fuels causes carbon emissions, arguably have the most resources to deal with the fallout. This imbalance and the inability of the major contributors of global warming—the U.S., China, Russia, India, and Saudi Arabia—to address this has led to the current dynamic where much is pledged, yet little is done. 

The COP26 continues this trend, with pledges of action made, but timelines measured in decades of half-centuries. However, there have been some positive developments. There was specific mention of ending fossil fuel subsidies and coal use, and of trying to get countries to shorten their timelines for cutting carbon emissions or even achieving “carbon neutrality.” Ending subsidies for dirty non-renewable fuels would be a major achievement. Still, the details are missing and the will to work through the economic transformation required has been heretofore absent among the Global North. 

In one significant development, the U.S. and China announced this week that they had reached an agreement, at least in principle, to work together to address climate change. Any positive dialogue between the world’s two largest economies is welcome, especially on this particular front. China stated it would commit to cutting its methane emissions, noteworthy because Beijing had previously never committed to such a step. Methane is one of the most destructive of the greenhouse gases that are behind much of the sustained and accelerating global warming. Again, there were few details in the surprise announcement, and it remains to be seen how the two rivals will work together or even achieve their own respective climate goals. 

The global threat of climate change must not be underestimated; within decades, climate change will affect every sector and country, due to scarcity and insecurity tied to food and water security, displacement, natural disasters, and economic impacts. The stakes couldn’t be higher, considering the financial costs of natural disasters, the threat to human lives, and the inevitable regional and global stability resulting from droughts, floods, desertification, and famine. The challenge of political will remains prescient, especially given the daunting task of reformulating national economies long dependent upon oil, gas, and coal. More must be done to show and then achieve financial gains through innovation and government regulation, if there is any hope of compelling wealthy countries to act with the urgency and focus that this crisis requires.