Can Glasgow deliver a global climate deal?
GLASGOW – The international climate summit here has been touted by its chief organizer as the “last and best hope” to save the planet. But as the United Nations conference enters its second week and negotiators from 197 countries scramble to finalize a new deal to tackle global warming, participants were sharply divided over the progress made.
There’s the optimistic point of view: Heads of state and industry titans came out in full force last week with shiny new climate promises, a sign that momentum was building in the right direction.
“I think what’s going on here is far from business as usual,” said John Kerry, President Biden’s special envoy on climate change, who has attended UN climate summits since 1992. ” I have never counted so many initiatives and so much real money – real money – put on the table. “
For example, 105 countries have agreed to cut emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, by 30% this decade. Another 130 countries have pledged to stop deforestation by 2030 and commit billions of dollars to the effort. India has for the first time joined the growing chorus of nations pledging to reach ‘net zero’, setting a deadline of 2070 to stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
Then there’s the pessimistic point of view: all those vapid promises don’t mean much without concrete plans to implement. And it’s still missing. Or, as Swedish activist Greta Thunberg put it, the conference was mostly ‘blah, blah, blah’.
Malik Amin Aslam, adviser to the Pakistani prime minister, scoffed at some of the far-reaching net zero targets announced, including India’s: âWith an average age of 60, I don’t think anyone in the negotiating room would live to live this net zero in 2070, âhe declared.
On Monday, former President Barack Obama arrived at the summit to rally the leaders. âYes, the process will be complicated,â he said. âI guarantee you that every victory will be incomplete. Sometimes we will be forced to settle for imperfect compromises. But at least they get the ball rolling on the pitch. If we work hard enough, long enough, these partial wins add up.
Critics noted that some of the announcements last week turned out to be full of caveats. After signing the forestry pledge, Indonesian officials, home to the world’s third largest rainforest, clarified that ending deforestation in their country by 2030 at the expense of economic development was “patently inappropriate and unfair” . Another wish by more than 40 countries to phase out coal-fired power had vague timelines and excluded major coal users like China, India and the United States.
“The actual negotiations here risk being drowned out by a blitz of news releases that grab the headlines, but are often less than they appear,” said Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa, a Kenya-based research institute. “There is a lot of good talk and less real action.”
Mr Adow said the summit should be judged on whether the 197 parties can craft a detailed formal agreement that holds governments accountable for the promises they make. This would mean reaching consensus on far-fetched but crucial questions such as how often nations should step up their short-term plans to cut emissions, and how much and what kind of financial aid rich countries should give to the poorest. to deal with the growing dangers of climate change, and how to regulate the booming global market for carbon offsets.
Behind closed doors, negotiators are still debating key issues as they seek to expand and update the landmark 2015 Paris climate agreement. Traditionally, a final deal requires every country to sign – if the one of them opposes it, the talks may end in an impasse.
How those differences are resolved at the end of the summit on Friday could determine the success of the Glasgow talks.
âThe reality is you have two different truths going on,â said Helen Mountford, vice president for climate and economics at the World Resources Institute. âWe have made a lot more progress than we could ever have imagined a few years ago. But it is still far from sufficient.
At the opening of the conference last Monday, UN Secretary-General AntÃ³nio Guterres said the top priority must be to limit the rise in global temperatures to just 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, above pre-industrial levels. This is the threshold, scientists have warned, beyond which the risk of calamities such as deadly heat waves, water shortages and ecosystem collapse increases dramatically. (The world has already warmed by 1.1 degrees Celsius.)
Countries are almost certain to leave Glasgow before reaching this target. The big question is whether this week’s lofty promises, along with a formal new deal, can push them further.
When United Nations analysts compiled all of the official plans countries have submitted so far to reduce emissions over the next decade, they estimated the world was on track to warm by about 2.7 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100. This is both an improvement over ten years ago and also off the beaten track.
To limit warming to just 1.5 degrees Celsius, the UN said, global fossil fuel emissions must fall by about half between 2010 and 2030. Instead, emissions are expected to rise during this period. .
“The recent announcements of climate action could give the impression that we are on the right track to change things,” Guterres said last week. “It’s an illusion.”
On Thursday, however, the International Energy Agency offered a more optimistic picture. If you factor in some of the longer-term, less detailed promises countries have made recently – including promises to achieve net zero emissions by most of the world’s largest economies, as well as the new agreement to reduce the methane – then the world could potentially continue to heat up to 1.8 degrees Celsius by 2100.
“I certainly never thought that we would get to next Friday confidently on track to 1.5 degrees, but if we can break the two-degree barrier, I think psychologically it will be huge and maybe give us more collective conviction that we can go faster, âsaid Nigel Topping, chosen by the UN as itsâ high level climate action champion â.
Yet many environmentalists remained skeptical of the International Energy Agency’s projection.
“This assumes that countries like Australia and Saudi Arabia will get there by 2050, just because they said they will,” said Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International. âWhen in reality, they haven’t put the funding or the policies in place to make this happen. “
One question debated this week is whether countries should return to the United Nations more frequently, perhaps every year, with stronger short-term plans to reduce emissions. For now, governments are not expected to submit new commitments until 2025.
“It is a bit too late for many countries to step up their commitments for this decade, because by then they will have built a lot of fossil fuel infrastructure and blocked additional emissions,” said Jennifer Tollmann, analyst for E3G, a group climate research.
Sabra Ibrahim Noordeen is the climate emissary of the Maldives, an archipelago of low-lying Indian Ocean islands that has been inhabited for thousands of years but could be inundated within three generations due to rising sea levels . She said countries like hers depend on the summit to get it right.
âPlease take us to 1.5,â she said.
Even more controversial is the issue of money, which has long been a big sticking point in global climate talks.
Ten years ago, the richest countries in the world pledged $ 100 billion a year by 2020 to help the poorest countries switch to cleaner energy and protect themselves from the growing dangers of heavy waves. heat, floods, droughts and forest fires as the planet warms.
So far, these promises have not been kept. According to one estimate, rich countries are still short of tens of billions of dollars a year. And critics have said that even that money has been mis-targeted. Much of the aid to date has been distributed in the form of loans, which developing countries often struggle to repay. And only a tiny fraction of the funding has gone to efforts to adapt to climate change.
As the dangers of extreme weather increase, vulnerable countries report their financial needs skyrocket.
Sonam P. Wangdi, who heads a bloc of 47 countries known as the least developed countries, stressed that his home country Bhutan has little responsibility for global warming as the country absorbs currently more carbon dioxide from its vast forests than it emits from its cars and homes. Nonetheless, Bhutan faces serious risks from rising temperatures, with melting Himalayan glaciers already creating flash floods and mudslides that have devastated villages.
âWe have contributed the least to this problem, but we are suffering disproportionately,â Wangdi said. âThere has to be growing support to adapt to the impacts. “
At the same time, vulnerable countries are arguing for a separate funding mechanism to help them compensate for disasters to which they cannot adapt, often referred to as âloss and damageâ. But the proposal faces opposition from the richest countries, who fear it could open the door to future compensation claims.
âThe progress so far has been disappointing and in a way frightening,â Wangdi said. “Our lives depend on the decisions made here in Glasgow.”
Others at the top argued that it was unrealistic to expect a single conference to solve global warming. The Paris agreement aimed to increase the transparency of countries’ climate plans and increase pressure on world leaders to do more. But in the end, the real test would be whether policymakers, businesses and activists are making this vision a reality in their country.
“The day after Glasgow is over there will still be a lot of work to do,” said Kaveh Guilanpour, vice-president of the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions who has worked as a negotiator for various parties at previous summits. âA new deal could lay the groundwork for the sequel, but it’s up to all of us to keep the pressure on after that. The problem will not be solved all at once.
“We may not really know how far Glasgow has done,” he added, “for a few years”.