Despite Signs of Progress, Absences, Politics Impede Climate Summit
As the impacts of climate change are worsening and becoming more visible, both individuals and world governments are increasingly realizing the severity of the threat. World leaders and diplomats representing nearly 200 members of the United Nations attempted to do their part by convening this month in Glasgow, Scotland for the 26th annual summit on climate, known as COP26 (COP stands for Conference of Parties).
World governments have pledged varying levels of action on climate as scientists warn of the dangers of passing the global 1.5 °C warming threshold. Exceeding that warming target will likely set in the most severe and irreversible effects of climate change. UN members set updated goals, negotiated more specific agreements, and made new pledges, but insufficient commitments by the largest emitters and uncooperative nations have the world set to fall short of UN goals.
At the conclusion of COP26, negotiators struck a final deal aimed at staying within reach of the 1.5 °C goal. The new agreement contained language singling out fossil fuels, specifically coal, as the leading cause of climate change. This is a fact that has been known for decades. The agreement compels member nations to update their pledges to limit emissions, but, similar to previous years, largely punts to COP27, which will be held next year in Egypt.
The summit was also hampered by the efforts of large emitters like India. India succeeded in changing the wording on coal use from “phase out” to “phase down.” China joined India in watering down the language. China is the largest greenhouse gas emitter and India is third, both relying heavily on coal and natural gas. Chinese president Xi Jinping was notably absent from the summit, instead sending a special envoy on climate and a diplomatic team. China has even stepped up their coal production in the past year, endangering climate goals. India set a target of 2070 for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, far later than the desired date of 2050.
China, however, struck a surprise deal with the United States to increase climate action. The agreement between the two countries, who have clashed with each other on issues going far beyond climate, would compel them to mutually accelerate decarbonization initiatives and investment.
Other large emitters remain off-track to keep warming below 1.5 °C include Iran and Russia, who have bizarrely made pledges far above what they are projected to emit. Russian leader Vladimir Putin was also absent from the summit and Iran is among only a few nations which have still not ratified the 2015 Paris Agreement.
World leaders also cut several smaller deals at COP26, reaching an agreement to end deforestation over the following decades. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that deforestation accounts for nearly a quarter of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions.The agreement would direct several billion Euros to reduce the clearing of forests and devote funding to reforestation. In addition to leaders of more wealthy countries, presidents Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Joko Widodo of Indonesia, both of whom govern large, heavily forested countries that have been increasingly deforested to expand agricultural production, signed on to the agreement.
Another agreement seeks to reduce the emission of methane, a greenhouse gas that is considerably more potent than carbon dioxide but remains in the atmosphere for only a decade, making it an easier target for nations seeking to cut their emissions. Oil and natural gas, the latter a purportedly “cleaner” energy source, both emit methane. 105 countries signed the Global Methane Pledge, which seeks to reduce methane emissions by at least 30% by the end of the decade. Notably absent from the pledge were China, Russia, Australia, and India. Australia depends heavily on agriculture and livestock, another emitter of methane, and the others are the top three emitters of the gas in the world, due largely to their reliance on coal or natural gas.
Back in the US, regulators and politicians, including President Joe Biden, have prepared plans to cut emissions by 50% from 2005 levels by the end of the decade. The US is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases. After months of negotiations, Congress passed Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure plan, which comprises nearly 600 billion in new spending. The bill includes around$50 billion for responding to and resisting the effects of climate change. It also includes funding for improving electricity transmission, which will help renewable energy efforts, and some money for the construction of electric vehicle charging stations. The REPLANT Act, another addition, removes the cap on revenue for the Reforestation Trust Fund and allows for the planting of 1.2 billion trees over the following decade, which will further the summit’s reforestation goals.
However, greater funding initially present in Biden’s American Jobs Plan was stripped by Republican negotiators reluctant to act on climate change. These climate provisions have been modified and placed in Biden’s reconciliation package, which he has termed Build Back Better. While conservative Democratic Senators like Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ) have whittled the initial package down to $1.75 trillion from $3.5 trillion,$555 billion in clean energy and other decarbonization incentives has largely been preserved. Additionally, a methane emission fee is under negotiation. The reconciliation package has yet to pass, however, now held up primarily by Manchin.
Although more nations are acting to limit emissions and avoid climate catastrophe, the planet remains dangerously off-track to avert 1.5 °C of warming. Environmental activists have decried the summit as a failure that will have little effect on climate change. Youth climate activist Greta Thunberg denounced COP26 as “a P.R. campaign.” She led thousands of protesters in Glasgow against what they see as inaction. Thunberg harshly characterized the summit as a “two-week-long celebration of business as usual and blah, blah, blah.” In the US, Democrats are nearing passage of their reconciliation bill and the climate provisions that come with it. Abroad, nations like China and Iran remain barriers to preventing the worst of climate change.