I’ve recently found time to read COP26: Delivering the Paris Agreement: A Five-Point Plan for Solidarity, Fairness and Prosperity, and I urge you to do the same. If you’ve been wondering what to expect from, and what to demand of, the upcoming climate talks in Glasgow, this is an excellent place to begin.
The title here – Delivering the Paris Agreement – sets the frame. Nearly 100 developing countries have endorsed this five-point plan for winning success in Glasgow, which is written in the belief that COP26 is “a time of both maximum need and maximum opportunity.”
The North’s activists are often quick to dismiss the climate summits as empty talk shops, but the South’s negotiators cannot afford to be so glib. Thus, the focus of this plan is the possibility of substantive wins, now and in the next ten years, wins that are absolutely necessary if the Paris Agreement’s temperature goals are to remain within reach.
The plan’s authors, many of whom have spent long and bitter years worrying the climate talks, could easily itemize the compromises and limits that define the Paris Agreement, but they call instead for its full and immediate implementation. This is a realism that centers the interests of the poor and the vulnerable, which happen to overlap considerably with the interests of humanity as a whole.
The goal here is to empower the developing countries, and in particular the poorest among them, to effectively do their part in a proper planetary mobilization. Which is why the plan prominently features core finance provisions designed to accelerate emissions cuts around the world, even as it also increases funding for adaptation and disaster management in vulnerable nations.
Mohamed Adow, the director of Power Shift Africa, is one of the plan’s driving forces, and having worked with him for years, I can testify to the focus of his intention. The same focus is visible throughout this plan, which demands a spotlight on vulnerable nations’ “assessed needs rather than an arbitrary political pledge by rich countries”. The details follow from this approach, as do the asks, and though they’ll seem exorbitant if viewed from the perspective of, say, Washington DC, they are in fact extremely minimal. Indeed, they are explicitly framed as “the bare minimum”.
This plan, even if fully implemented, wouldn’t deliver the grand transformation needed to stabilize the climate system. But it would help a great deal, which is why The Least Developed Countries group, the Alliance of Small Island States and the African Group of Negotiators have all backed it.
But be clear. This plan does not capture the limits of the South’s aspirations. And as the next round of climate talks begin, southern negotiators will certainly step forward to go further. Some already have. In any case, the many kind words that “fair share accounting” receives in these few pages are a clear signs of an underlying vision that goes far beyond the bounds of realism-as-usual.
Still, the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, or in this case with five. Here they are:
- “Cutting emissions: despite welcome recent progress, the sum total of climate policies in place across the world will not keep global warming within the limits that governments agreed in Paris; an acceleration that is consistent with the 1.5 degree Celsius temperature limit is urgently needed, led by those with the biggest responsibility and capacity
- Adaptation: with climate impacts increasing, provisions to help the most vulnerable adapt, including through increased financial support, need to be strengthened
- Loss and Damage: the consequences of the developed world’s historical failure to cut their emissions adequately are already resulting in losses and damage for the most vulnerable. Responsibilities have to be acknowledged and promised measures delivered
- Finance: The promises made in Copenhagen in 2009 and again in the Paris Agreement are unequivocal and must be delivered: at least $100bn per year by 2020, up to 2024, with a concrete delivery plan, with at least half going to adaptation, with increased annual sums from 2025. The debt consequences of Covid-19 mean that action outside the UN climate process is also essential
- Implementation: After several summits of stalling, governments must by COP26 finalize rules on transparency, carbon trading and common timeframes for accelerating action, in a way that safeguards development and nature.”
I was recently invited to write a short opinion piece on the need for a public climate finance breakthrough for Yale Climate Connections. You can find the result as Equity and fair shares in a net-zero world, though I implore you to ignore the rather distracting graphic. (What year is this? Who’s the woman in the sharkskin suit? What’s the deal with Al Gore’s boots?)
After publishing the piece, I received an email from a friend with a nice picture of a flying pig. I see the point, but I don’t take it. My explicit goal, after all, is to redefine realism for this the time of climate emergency—which is why I’m arguing that the US should move to animate the global climate talks by offering $27 billion a year in international public climate finance.
Not that this would be the US’s fair share. But, when combined with a major domestic effort, it would be a respectable opening move, as is clearly argued in the US Fair Shares NDC, which an ad hoc group of us recently drafted “as if” we were speaking for the U.S.
I’ve long said we only need two things to save ourselves and our civilization — a thorough-going green technology revolution and a “high cooperation world”. I see now that I’ve been too abstract. We actually need three things, and if the green tech revolution is the first, the climate justice movement is absolutely the second. We haven’t a hope without it.
As for the third, I don’t quite know how to characterize it, save to say that it has to do with the ruling elites, who had better wake up soon, and ask themselves some hard questions.
Because it’s their move.
In late May 2021, a small subset of members of the independent Global Stocktake (iGST) gathered for a conversation prompted by the recently released United States Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) and its potential impact on global climate equity, emissions reductions, and the upcoming Global Stocktake.
The dialogue elicited insights on the increasing level of political support for climate action by states, cities, businesses, and other subnational actors that enabled the ambition of the U.S. NDC to be ratcheted up. Participants discussed how the U.S. might support equity within the Global Stocktake (GST), the formal process for assessing implementation of the Paris Agreement. They also considered the ways in which the official GST, negotiated and conducted within the bounds of the UNFCCC, may be constrained and the ways in which the independent community can increase climate action by subnational and national actors alike.
The dialogue, edited for brevity and clarity, in here.
Participants: Casey Cronin, ClimateWorks Foundation; Jason Anderson, ClimateWorks Foundation; Leon Clarke, University of Maryland Center for Global Sustainability; Nathan Hultman, University of Maryland Center for Global Sustainability; Sivan Kartha, Stockholm Environment Institute; Tom Athanasiou, EcoEquity
A fair shares approach could help save the “net zero 2050” strategy
Originally published in Foreign Policy in Focus
Was Joe Biden’s climate summit a success? The answer has to be “compared to what?”
If Trumpism is our point of comparison, then Biden’s agenda imagines an amazing reboot. Its centerpiece, after all, is a pledge to reduce U.S. domestic emissions by at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, and while it’s easy to say this isn’t enough—I will do so myself, just below—it’s also easy to say that, in today’s America, cutting emissions in half in nine years would be an astonishing accomplishment.
Cuts of this magnitude are certainly possible. They would almost be easy, if we had a stable and well-functioning government, especially now that the renewable energy revolution is finally hitting its inflection point. But though green electricity will soon be too cheap to meter, the path forward is still strewn with obstacles, and the fossil-energy cartel fully intends to play out a long endgame. We can hope to cut it short, but we’ll need a coherent, fairness-forward industrial and social policy (including a Green New Deal), and a global breakthrough in the bargain. Winning either is going to be quite a challenge in today’s America, harrowed as it is by a lunatic right.
If, however, science is our point of comparison, matters look different. Witness the IPCC’s 2018 special report on Global warming of 1.5°C, which after decades of denial and delay somehow managed to tell us, in a way we could actually hear, that we have to act at a speed and on a scale that have “no documented historic precedent.” Its rather dry declaration—“In model pathways with no or limited overshoot of 1.5°C, global net anthropogenic CO2 emissions decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 (40–60% interquartile range), reaching net zero around 2050 (2045–2055 interquartile range)”—was widely read as a call to arms.
You wouldn’t have expected such words to define a major international pivot, but they did. They inspired the “net zero 2050” and the “50 percent cuts by 2030” targets, which are now everywhere and have even reshaped the international negotiations. Virtually all countries are being asked to strengthen their short-term pledges of climate action (also known as “nationally determined contributions”, or NDCs) so they plausibly align with net zero 2050. More than 30 have done so, with mid-century net zero targets set or proposed in law and policy, and many, many others are actively discussing such targets. All of which is to say that, even though the activist community hates the “net” word, “net zero 2050” has gone mainstream and taken on an almost normative air. You’re nobody in the climate world if you haven’t at least gestured at a net zero 2050 pledge.
Which is not the problem. The problem is rather that, while the IPCC asserted net zero 2050 and 50 percent by 2030 as global benchmarks, they are being taken as national benchmarks. In fact, they are being conflated—by national leaders everywhere and even by U.N. Secretary General António Guterres—with basic, good-faith earnestness, as if achieving net zero 2050 was “an important yardstick by which climate pledges by major economies are to be judged,” as if, that is, it defined fair national pledges. Here I’m quoting an important statement by Navroz Dubash, Harald Winkler and Lavanya Rajamani—three widely respected developing world climate policy analysts—who warn that net zero 2050 targets do “not account for considerations of justice across countries, important differences in national climate politics, or the credibility of pledges.”
Well, the launch of the U.S. Fair Shares Nationally Determined Contribution went pretty well. (Not the real one, though that launch was also pretty successful). The first major pickup was from Bill McKibben, who featured the FSNDC in his New Yorker climate column, here, in this nice pithy paragraph.
“I’ve written before about the important work of EcoEquity in figuring out the responsibility that different countries should bear for the climate crisis and how they should respond. Building on this work, a group of N.G.O.s last week called on the U.S. to cut emissions by a hundred and ninety-five per cent from 2005 levels by 2030. This can be achieved by cutting our own carbon output by seventy per cent, and providing technology and funding to developing countries to help them achieve the equivalent of the remaining hundred-and-twenty-five-per-cent reduction. Meanwhile, the Times reports that dozens of countries need debt relief because climate crises (and COVID-19) are decimating their budgets. Increasingly, according to Somini Sengupta, lenders such as the International Monetary Fund are studying proposals under which “rich countries and private creditors offer debt relief, so countries can use those funds to transition away from fossil fuels, adapt to the effects of climate change, or obtain financial reward for the natural assets they already protect, like forests and wetlands.”
Then, as we approached Earth Day and President Biden’s Climate Leaders Summit, things picked up. Brad Plumer and Nadja Popovich published a nice piece called The U.S. Has a New Climate Goal. How Does It Stack Up Globally? which included this balanced segment, and a nice quote from Climate Equity Reference Project co-director Sivan Kartha:
“If every country were to meet its stated climate goals, America’s per capita emissions would decline and converge with China’s by 2030, the Rhodium Group estimated. But both countries’ per capita emissions would still be twice that of Europe’s and nearly four times that of India’s.
Partly for that reason, some environmentalists have argued that the United States should have picked an even more ambitious target for reducing emissions. Doing so would not only make up for decades of being by far the world’s largest emitter, they argue, but would also give lower-income countries like India more time to transition off fossil fuels. One recent report by a range of civil society groups urged the United States to commit to a 70 percent cut by 2030, along with vast new funding for clean-energy projects in the developing world.
“If you’re asking whether the U.S. target is fair and ambitious, the right yardstick isn’t what will pass muster with the Senate,” said Sivan Kartha, a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute and a co-author of the report. “The question is what should the United States do given its capacity to act and its historical responsibility for causing the problem?”
That was great, but we had expected it. But then we discovered that Kate Aronoff, a staff writer at The New Republic whose new book on the climate crisis Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet–And How We Fight Back–can I say that it’s hot off the press?–immediately joined the short list of essential climate-political titles, had just featured the Fair Shares NDC in in the opinion section, with a fine piece called Biden Is All About Zero Emissions, but Who Do You Think Has Been Fueling Them?, wherein she embeds this para . . .
“But accounting for the United States’ outsize responsibility for the climate crisis requires much bolder action, according to a recent recommendation from several groups, including Friends of the Earth U.S. and ActionAid USA: “a reduction of at least 195 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions” compared with 2005 levels by 2030 — 70 percent cuts within U.S. borders and “the equivalent of a further 125 percent reduction” by providing support for emissions reductions abroad.”
. . . into a longer argument that centers the sprawling landscape of geopolitical, geoeconomic, and ideological challenges the are the subject of her book. I must read for sure.
The day ended, at least for me, with an invitation to speak on BBC TV, which I of course accepted, though I am a bit out of practice. You can watch it here.
Not too bad for one day
You remember the Paris Agreement, right? As a good thing, right?
There are two reasons why you should. The first is that Paris actually exists, and really could serve as a keystone of planetary climate mobilization. The second is that its “ambition mechanisms” (its “ambition ratchet”) are intended to strengthen the national pledges of action (official known as “nationally determined contributions” or NDCs) over and over again, as time goes by. Such that, when the history of the climate reckoning is finally written, the Paris ratchet will be a crucial part of the story. If it has worked, then all the Agreement’s shortcomings will be forgiven. If it hasn’t, we’ll have to admit, for whatever cold comfort it brings us, that the cynics in our ranks were right, and that Paris was just another false promise.
This isn’t a piece on the ambition ratchet, though I plan to write one. Rather, it’s a quick note to announce the “Fair Shares NDC” that was recently released by a rather ad-hoc coalition of people and groups from the U.S. climate left, for the explicit purpose of modeling the actions we believe the U.S. should actually be pledging, in this the pivotal first year of what promises to be a pivotal decade. We don’t claim the Fair Shares NDC is perfect—this is a work in progress—but we do claim that its asks, “unrealistic” or “utopian” though you may judge them to be, should not be casually set aside, not if we intend to achieve the Paris temperature goals. Rather, at a minimum, take the Fair Shares NDC as a standard against which to measure the Biden Administration’s more official offering.
One key bit of context—the climate mobilization has now begun in earnest, and it wasn’t Paris that set the spark. Paris didn’t hurt, but if you look back for the single best marker, the one that most clearly illuminates the end of the denialist interregnum and the beginning of today’s struggle towards seriousness, you’d be better off choosing the IPCC’s special report on Global warming of 1.5°C, which somehow managed to shift the frame. You can see this in the shape of the current negotiations, in which countries around the world are being asked to announce commitments to reduce their emissions to “net zero” by 2050. This figure comes directly from the IPCC report, which told us, among much else, that we had best do our damnedest to hold the warming to 1.5°C, and that this means global reductions of about 50% by 2030. [i]
There’s a lot to say about these numbers, but the point here is only that they’ve gone viral, and mainstream, and indeed have taken on an almost normative air. You’re nobody, these days, if you haven’t made a net zero 2050 pledge. Which is not the problem. The problem is rather that ours is a world in which some countries are fantastically rich, while others are not, in which some countries have emitted huge amounts of greenhouse gases, while others have not, and yet the international pressure to achieve a universal push for unconditional national net zero 2050 pledges takes very little account of these defining facts. To the point where now, with 2030 pledges high on the agenda, even rich countries like the US can get away with adopting the global average figure—a 50% by 2030 reduction target—and expect it to be widely accepted as being, well, fair enough.
The problem is that the 50% number—which the IPCC asserted as a global 2030 reduction target—is not in any way a proper guide to national fair shares, nor will it ever be. There is no future in which the 2030 US fair share, and the 2030 fair share of, say, Sierra Leone, are going to be the same. Which brings us to the question at the heart of the Fair Shares NDC—what should the U.S. pledge in its new NDC? Or, more precisely, what would it pledge if it was actually proposing to do its fair share, relative to the demands of the 1.5°C global temperature goal, and in the light of its outsized national wealth and responsibility?
Remember Copenhagen? Where Hillary Clinton, on behalf of the “developed countries,” pledged $100 billion in annual climate finance? What followed, of course, was an almost perfect proof that rich world promises were not to be believed.
It’s a long and depressing story, not least because it can be explained by incompetence just as easily as by venality, but Timmons Roberts and a group of collaborators have just summarized it well, in an short, excellent, and entirely trustworthy piece in Nature Climate Change called Rebooting a failed promise of climate finance. It’s not even behind a paywall.
I only have one wee complaint. The concluding paragraph, the one that–as per the conventions of professional political commentary–makes helpful suggestions about the way forward, is a bit too measured for my taste. It reads as follows:
“The 2015 Paris Agreement specified that a new collective, quantified goal for climate finance is to be agreed prior to 2025, with US$100 billion per year as the minimum. Now is the time to begin that effort with ambition and accountability to build enduring trust and resilience. Future climate finance pledges and targets should be based on realistic assessments of developing countries’ needs. Then real plans must be built and implemented to meet those funding targets; for example, through innovative finance, like levies on international airline passengers and bunker fuels. To meet the promise of ‘adequate and predictable’ financing made back in Copenhagen, new global financing mechanisms have to be implemented, since annually decided ‘contributions’ from national treasuries are not delivering on the promise. First though, clear rules for what counts as climate finance need to be agreed.
My problem? Not that future climate finance pledges should be based on proper needs assessments. Or that we’re going to have to rely on “innovative finance” to meet those needs. Only that we should give up on demanding contributions from national treasuries–which are indeed “not delivering on the promise”–while we wait for an innovative finance breakthrough to show up.
It almost seems that Timmons et. al. actually expect a near-term breakthrough on that front. I for one will believe it when I see it. In the meanwhile, I’m going to continue to work to establish the fair shares frame. It seems to me that it can only help.
The Indian Express recently featured a joint editorial by three of my favorite Indian analysts, Ambuj Sagar, Lavanya Rajamani, and Navroz Dubash, in which the three, all influential in their own right, team up to deliver a common message — India needs to mobilize, but both it and the world may be better off if it concentrates on its existing development first agenda rather than jumping on the “net zero” bandwagon.
I don’t entirely agree with this take. I would have preferred a much stronger emphasis on the emergency, more consideration of the need for rapidly scaled up international support, and more emphasis on adaptation and loss & damage finance. But “the three” have good reasons for their take, which you can imagine pretty easily if you read between the lines, and in particular if you recall the grim nature of the Modi regime.
“Telling the Truth,” as per Extinction Rebellion’s first rule, turns out to be a bit complicated. It’s easy to tell the “We’re probably fucked” part of the story. The hard part is imagining a way forward.
Back in January, a group of 17 ecologists and environmental scientists — prominently including Paul Ehrlich — published Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future in Frontiers in Conservation Science.
It’s a must read, and a grim one. And can’t hope to improve on the summary ecologist Carl Safina gave in Yale Environment 360 when he said that it reads “reads less as an argument than as a rain of asteroids encountered in the course of flying blind on a lethal trajectory,” or his summary of its findings, which only begin with biodiversity loss. Here (minus the links) is a sample:
“Major changes in the biosphere are directly linked to the growth of human systems. While the rapid loss of species and populations differs regionally in intensity, and most species have not been adequately assessed for extinction risk, certain global trends are obvious. Since the start of agriculture around 11,000 years ago, the biomass of terrestrial vegetation has been halved , with a corresponding loss of >20% of its original biodiversity, together denoting that >70% of the Earth’s land surface has been altered by Homo sapiens . There have been >700 documented vertebrate and ~600 plant species extinctions over the past 500 years, with many more species clearly having gone extinct unrecorded . Population sizes of vertebrate species that have been monitored across years have declined by an average of 68% over the last five decades, with certain population clusters in extreme decline , thus presaging the imminent extinction of their species . Overall, perhaps 1 million species are threatened with extinction in the near future out of an estimated 7–10 million eukaryotic species on the planet, with around 40% of plants alone considered endangered . Today, the global biomass of wild mammals is <25% of that estimated for the Late Pleistocene , while insects are also disappearing rapidly in many regions.”
But I’m not writing to ask you to read the “ghastly” paper. I’m writing to ask you to read it, and then to read Safina’s review of it, and then to read Notes from a 1.2C world, a response the emerging critic Laurie Laybourn-Langton wrote of it, and my own response, below, though with the stipulation that is an it’s an “insider” document I wrote to the folks at The Omega Network after attending the webinar they organized to discuss it. And I’m asking you, after doing all this reading, to up your game.
What’s the problem? That this paper, brilliant though it is in describing the deterioration of our planetary home, it is not equally brilliant when it comes to helping us work out how to respond. Which was to be expected back in the old days, but this is 2021 — the eye of the storm — and the second wind is approaching, and what matters now is what we’re going to do.
Not that Ghastly’s description of the problem is bad . . .