The Equity Landscape (and the Global Stocktake)

I’ll not assume, dear reader, that you are up to speed with the Global Stocktake — which is beginning in earnest this year — but I will say that there’s absolutely no chance of achieving anything like rapid climate stabilization without assessment, review, and stocktake processes that (a crucial proviso, this) are strongly linked to ambition ratcheting mechanisms that kick in when we find ourselves falling short.

I will add that Article 14 of the Paris Agreement, which creates the Global Stocktake, was hard won. In particular, its mandate that the climate regime’s formal stocktake be done “in the light of equity” only exists because the African Negotiating Group and the “like minded” countries battled the rich countries to insist that equity play a key part in the Agreement’s final text.

Thus, I’m pleased to announce that, after a long gestation period, the very international Equity Working Group of the Independent Global Stocktake — a civil society shadow organization that would obviously not exist without the stocktake itself — has issued its initial report, which is called The Equity Landscape.

This report does not focus on the nuts and bolts of the formal global stocktake, but rather surveys the equity and ambition problem as a whole, within the highly constrained formal processes that define the stocktake and, blessedly, within “the real world” as well. It’s a substantial piece of work, and it wasn’t easy to produce, but if you’re following the equity thread in the negotiations, it’s required reading. Here’s a bit of the introduction:

“The Global Stocktake, which is to be conducted “in the light of equity,” could substantively advance global climate negotiations. But the GST is constrained by the same realities as the larger negotiations. The Independent Global Stocktake (iGST) is similarly constrained, though its independence allows it to look past the formal process to the larger world, which is after all the real source of the paralysis that now threatens us all. This brief paper takes advantage of this independence to do just that. It does not pretend to map the overall position in anything like a comprehensive manner, but it is, we hope, a helpful reflection. Its goal is not to paint the equity challenge in strokes so broad that practical steps seem useless and insignificant, but rather to inform such steps, that they might actually move us forward.”

Points of Comparison — Can we Afford a Fair Global Climate Transition?

 

“Anything we can actually do, we can afford”.

John Maynard Keynes

How to create the political backing for the international effort necessary to achieve a fair and rapid global climate transition, even though that support would be properly denominated not in billions of dollars but rather in trillions, or even as percentages of Gross World Product?

One eye-opening approach is to proceed by way of comparison – to show that the likely costs of the climate transition, great though they may be, are small when considered against the alternatives, and entirely affordable when considered against other, even larger expenditures, which we routinely accept as inevitable, even though they are often ill-conceived and sometimes criminally frivolous, and tend increasingly to be self-destructive on a monumental scale.

In a way, we all already know this, for we never tire of pointing out that the damage costs of inaction will far exceed the costs of any plausible mobilization. But other comparisons are also helpful, comparisons against the sums mobilized for other purposes, and also against the trillions that are wasted, on every front, when luxury consumption sets the terms by which expense is justified.

The good news here is that such comparisons are now routinely being made. Since the 2009 global financial crisis, and especially since the COVID pandemic, large governmental and inter-governmental financial interventions have, in the face of cascading emergencies, become almost routine. In both cases, very large numbers of people, and even significant fractions among the political elites, have been jolted into understanding that major mobilizations of public finance are sometimes absolutely, indisputably, necessary.

However, it’s still not possible to talk honestly and openly about the scale of the climate finance that’s actually necessary, or to keep the formal climate finance conversation from devolving into one in which private investment gets all the airtime. To be sure, there are many people who believe that transformational levels of public finance will be necessary to stabilize the climate system. But many of them also accommodate themselves to a policy world in which, so the thinking goes, the challenges of public finance can be safely set aside. In fact, public finance, and public planning and coordination more generally, will be absolutely necessary to the economy-wide transformations the climate crisis requires. Major debates remain before this point is so clearly established that it can no longer be reasonably contested, but at the same time, the conversation has clearly shifted. “Trillion is the new billion,” and this helps a great deal.

The key point here is that money is not the real problem. Keynes’ declaration made during World War II, “anything we can actually do, we can afford”, applies here as well. That said, the institutional and political challenges of providing the public finance and technology support necessary to achieve 1.5°C would be immense. The issues here sprawl, but I think it’s fair to say that Keynes would also have considered them to be entirely solvable. 

For the moment, here are a few useful points of comparison:

Environmentally destructive subsidies. Every day, governments spend massive amounts of money to subsidize the destruction of our world. How much money? If you count not only fossil subsidies but a variety of subsidies for environmentally destructive activities, across a range of sectors including agriculture, forestry, water management, and fisheries, activities leading not only to climate destabilization but also biodiversity loss, land degradation and global inequality, the latest expert estimate appears to lie north of $1.8 trillion a year, or about 2% of Gross World Product (GWP), all of which goes into directly supporting unsustainable production and consumption.

Of this $1.8 trillion, about $640 billion comes as explicit subsidies to the global fossil industry. Actual cash. But there’s more to this story, as far as fossil fuel subsidies are concerned, in part because some of it comes as consumption subsides designed to protect the poor (a fact the fossil cartel takes full advantage of, in its endless claims to be a great benefactor of humanity) and in part because there is another, truer way, to estimate fossil subsidies. This time it’s the IMF that has run the numbers, and despite criticism, stuck to its insistence that hidden damage costs must be counted as subsidies, and in 2020 calculated the real fossil subsidy was about $5.9 trillion, almost 7% of global GDP. Which comes to about $11 million a minute.

COVID Recovery spending. According to the International Energy Agency, pandemic recovery spending, as of October of 2021, had reached $16.9 trillion. Of that, about $2.3 trillion went into long-term investments, of which only about $470 billion was for clean energy and sustainable recovery – about 3% of the total. Much of this was a one-time outlay that will not be repeated, so it’s notable that fossil energy subsidies significantly outpaced clean energy subsidies. It’s also notable that the overall economic recovery was fantastically inequitable. According to the World Inequality Lab, the richest 1% of the global population have, since the beginning of the pandemic, captured 19 times more of global wealth growth than the whole of the bottom 50%. The extremity here is frankly amazing – Oxfam, in its Inequality Kills report, notes that “The increase in Bezos’ fortune alone during the pandemic could pay for everyone on earth to be safely vaccinated”.

Military spending. Military spending is the gold standard of wasted economic potential, so it’s notable that, in early 2021, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimated the world military spending had risen to almost $2 trillion in 2020. And this figure is growing fast. The US military budget is the largest in the world (it recently came to about 40% of the global total) and“ according to a projection by the Congressional Budget Office, Congress is projected to spend about $8.5 trillion for the military over the next decade – about half a trillion more than is budgeted for all nonmilitary discretionary programs combined (a category that includes federal spending on education, public health, scientific research, infrastructure, national parks and forests, environmental protection, law enforcement, courts, tax collection, foreign aid, homeland security and health care for veterans)”. But rapid growth is also taking place in China, where the military budget is about $229 billion and “modernization” programs are driving its growth up by an estimated 7.1 percent per year, and of course in Europe, where the Ukraine war has led a new prioritization for all things military.

Odious Debt. The poor are in all ways disadvantaged, and this of course means adequate climate action is often beyond their grasp, as is sustainable development itself. For some key current details, see the 2022 Financing for Sustainable Development Report, which begins not with the COVID pandemic but with the “legacy of inequality” that already hung over the poor countries when it arrived, a legacy that only deepened as the COVID crisis cascaded into broader economic instability (supply chains, inflation, higher interest rates) and then into the instabilities and economic dislocations of the Ukraine war. The chief point here, to be undiplomatic, is the billions in debt interest that the developing countries must every year pay to their creditors in the wealthy world, a burden that is sometimes so odious that the term “debt slavery”  seems more a simple honest description than any kind of hyperbole.

How large is the developing world’s external debt? Estimates vary, as does the legitimacy of the debt – how valid was it, really, to transfer South Africa’s apartheid debt to its inheritors, most of whom never had any part in negotiating it, or benefiting from it?  What is clear is that the total external debt of the developing countries reached $10.6 trillion in the wake of the pandemic, and that the servicing of this debt consumes resources that are now desperately needed for both development and the climate transition. In the low-income countries alone, external debt sharply increased during that pandemic, reaching $860 billion in 2020. No wonder a new wave of defaults has begin, and that widespread debt distress appears to be on the horizon.

Dynastic wealth. This brief list would not be complete without a mention of dynastic wealth, which is passed down from generation to generation within families, and of course within castes and classes. The numbers vary tremendously from country to country, but the US figures alone are boggling enough. Wealth managers estimate that “nearly 45 million U.S. households will transfer a total of $68.4 trillion in wealth to heirs and charity over the course of the next 25 years”. And of course, much of these transfers will be protected from taxation – according to one keystone study, “these wealthy families will avoid as much as $8.4 trillion in estate and generation-skipping taxes between now and 2024, by using dynasty trusts and other currently legal loopholes”.

Tax Avoidance. Speaking of the rich, we should mention hidden wealth, which is shielded by tax havens and secrecy laws, and has now been estimated to be about 8% of the world’s household financial wealth, or 10% of GWP . In 2007, this came to about $5.7 trillion. More generally, and this is probably the best bottom-line figure for this brief summary, taxing the world’s richest could raise about $2.52 trillion a year. It’s not enough to support all the ongoing social services associated with a just and sustainable global society, but it would definitely help. It would certainly cover the core of the climate transition. And if we may add a country specific data point, note that the wealth of the US billionaire class increased by an estimated $1.7 trillion since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, and that, under current laws, almost none of this new wealth will ever be taxed.

Blood Fossils. Finally, given Russia’s war on Ukraine, it seems appropriate to note that a good fraction of the untold billions that are spent on fossil fuels are diverted, sometimes immediately, to support the worst kinds of infamy. The exact figure varies with the price of gas and oil, but as of this writing, good estimates held that “Europe’s ongoing energy purchases send as much as $850 million each day into Russia’s coffers” (estimates vary, but see the citation to the Bruegal think tank’s numbers here). This, of course, is clear evidence of an intolerable dependence, and voices everywhere have risen to denounce it. What is not clear is how many of them will denounce the larger dependence, which hems us in on every side, with anything like equal vigour. Russian oil and gas, after all, is only the tip of the fossil iceberg.

 

 

The Climate Fair Shares approach as a foundation of Emergency Global Climate Mobilization

Given the shout out that Bill McKibben just gave our work in the New Yorker, I’d thought I’d quickly post a brief direction finder — this post — for people who’ve come here looking for more information.

Here’s the shout out:

Tom Athanasiou’s Berkeley-based organization EcoEquity, as part of the Climate Equity Reference Project, has done the most detailed analyses of who owes what in the climate fight. He found that the U.S. would have to cut its emissions a hundred and seventy-five per cent to make up for the damage it’s already caused—a statistical impossibility. Therefore, the only way it can meet that burden is to help the rest of the world transition to clean energy, and to help bear the costs that global warming has already produced. As Athanasiou put it, “The pressing work of decarbonization is only going to be embraced by the people of the Global South if it comes as part of a package that includes adaptation aid and disaster relief.”

First, I want to stress that EcoEquity does not do this work alone, but rather as part of the Climate Equity Reference Project, or CERP. Further, CERP itself does not work alone, but rather as part of a large and expanding set of networks and collaboratives, in the US and around the world.

Second, if you want the details — some of them quite technical — on how the Climate Equity Reference framework works, it’s the Climate Equity Reference Project site you should rummage around on. See in particular the Climate Equity Reference Calculator, which is totally worth a bit of your time.

Third, if you’re interested in the specific details behind the United States’ fair share in a global emergency climate transition, you should check out the US Climate Fair Share site. The fair share position reflected herein is that of the US Climate Action Network — which chose the “equity settings” — which is itself kind of a big deal.

If you’re just coming to the climate fair shares idea, keep in mind that the exact numbers are not the point. The point is rather that national fair shares are calculated relative to three high level equity principles: historical responsibility, national capacity and, well, need. Which just so happen to be the equity principles behind the UN’S Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The nuances here are many and interesting, but the essential takeaway — at least for a high-capacity, high-responsibility country like the US — is that a nation’s climate fair share can be a lot higher than 100%. The US, bluntly, has to do a lot more than just reduce its emissions to zero if it wants to do its fair share in a global mobilization that is actually scaled to achieve the temperature goals laid down in the Paris Agreement. To read some details on this, and in particular on the equity choices USCAN chose when making its calculations, see this briefing.

Also note that the fair shares idea is extremely relevant to the challenge of rapidly phasing out fossil energy. On this front, check out to the Civil Society Equity Review, which has been putting out fair-shares inflected annual reports since the Paris meeting in 2015, reports with hundreds of organizational supports from around the world. Note especially the 2021 report, which is called A Fair-Shares Phase Out. It has to be counted as a foundational contribution to the nascent debate about how to approach the huge, though barely acknowledged, equity challenges of a very rapid and equitable transition away from fossil fuels.

To close, I’ll just ask you one of my favorite questions — what kind of a climate transition would be fair enough to actually work?

“Equity Working Group” submission to the Global Stocktake

Let’s imagine, just for a second, that things get back on track, or at least back to normal. That we avoid a larger war, stabilize liberal democracy, and even — as an essential part of the climate mobilization — get the negotiations into gear. In this case, the so-called “Global Stocktake” will suddenly transform into what international climate policy activists have long hoped it wold be — a crucible in which the equity agenda is reshaped into a pathway of true international ambition.

The Global Stocktake, in case you missed it, was a hard-fought victory that represents the strongest “equity hook” in the Paris Agreement. Its kernel, as expressed in Article 14 of the Agreement, calls for the collective ambition of the world’s countries to be assessed every five years, in the light of “the best available science” and — this was the hard part — “in the light of equity.”

A long story, all this, but here’s the part to remember. The world’s nations could not agree on even a vague and toothless assessment of individual national pledges of climate action. Which meant that civil society activists and research organizations had to step forward and try, as best they could, to fill that gap. One of the new actors in this space is the Independent Global Stocktake, which has a number of working groups, one of them being the Equity Working Group, which I am pleased to help coordinate.

The EWG is a pretty interesting crew — climate equity experts from around the world. And some of its collective views are contained in the iGST’s first official submission to the formal UN stocktake. I’m particularly proud of this bit, from the abstract, which will, perhaps, get a bit of attention as the negotiations grind forward:

“To conduct the GST “in light of equity” it will be essential to set its scope appropriately. In addition to finding ways of including all of mitigation, adaptation, loss and damage, finance and support, and capacity building, the GST will need to find ways of accommodating the dynamic nature of global goals for adaptation and loss and damage as these are dependent on global achievements across mitigation, finance and support, and capacity building.

The GST must open into high-quality assessments in the light of equity. This means that, though the GST outcomes are themselves mandated to be collective, the GST will need to create a context within which the global community can move towards a shared understanding of the principles and benchmarks appropriate to assessing the equity, and inequity, of individual national pledges and individual national actions. The challenge of just differentiation, after all, has not gone away.”

Here’s the submission . . .

A Fair Shares Fossil Phase Out

The Civil Society Equity Review – a loose international federation of civil society activists from social movements, environmental and development NGOs, trade unions and faith groups – has since 2015, the year of the Paris Agreement, been issuing annual reports at the UN climate negotiations. These reports have had a gradually increasing political salience, which isn’t too surprising, given that the decisive nature of the equity challenge has itself become too obvious to deny. But this year’s report takes the project to a whole another level.

It’s called A Fair Shares Phase Out: A Civil Society Equity Review of an Equitable Global Phase Out of Fossil Fuels, and it’s the first real attempt to meld the fair shares perspective with the challenge of “supply side equity,” and with the campaign for a very rapid fossil energy phaseout.  As per the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. The resulting report is, as one battle-scared climate journalist told me, “useful,” the highest praise that, at this point, any climate report can hope to earn. 

A Fair Shares Phase Out features thirteen country profiles, which together demonstrate the diversity of real world challenges and opportunities we’re now facing, as we confront the necessity of very rapidly eliminating fossil energy production and use, in both a variety of national contexts and at the international level.  In part because of these country profiles, the report is quite long, but don’t let this length dissuade you. The Executive Summary is not a mere afterthought — it got a lot of attention from the drafting team, and its only six pages long. You really should read them. 

The Upcoming UN Climate Talks in Glasgow Are a Make-or-Break Moment

Failure to halt greenhouse gas emissions is not an option—though it’s frighteningly likely

Originally published in Sierra Magazine, here.

In early November, government leaders from around the world will meet in Glasgow, Scotland, for the latest round of United Nations–sponsored climate change negotiations. This year’s climate summit—COP26, in UN-speak—will be the most important since the 2015 talks in Paris, and this will be true however the meeting unfolds. If Glasgow is a “success,” this will be taken as a sign that our faltering international institutions might actually, if just barely, be able to spur the planetary mobilization we now desperately need. If it’s a “failure,” well, no such luck—it will become even more difficult to imagine cooperative planetary action, at scale and in time to avoid a truly catastrophic shift in the climate system.

How will we tell if Glasgow is a success? This is a tough question, one that involves judgments about both the geophysical realities of a destabilized Earth and the “realities” of our political systems, which are clearly not up to the challenge. The storms and the firestorms are looming large, and so too is the catastrophe of “vaccine apartheid,” which under Boris Johnson’s government has queued up a summit that does not promise to be either safe or inclusive. Even in the best case, the Glasgow COP is not going to yield anything like a world historic breakthrough. Given that a breakthrough is exactly what we need, how can we ever hope to judge the UN talks as even a measured success? By attending to key details. Keep in mind that, six years after Paris, plenty of people in the climate movement still can’t say “Paris” without saying “failure,” and this despite the obvious fact that, had the Paris Agreement not been completed before Donald Trump’s election, we would now be in even more terrifying straits.

But what if, when we say “Glasgow success,” we mean not a historic breakthrough but just a proper reboot of the climate negotiations? Such a reboot would include meaningful new pledges of national action, some sort of significant leap forward on international climate finance, and a negotiations plan that explicitly sets the stage for further progress at COP27, the African COP that will take place in 2022, and the “Global Stocktake” that will follow in 2023. 

Such a reboot could actually happen. The Chinese government has already announced an end to international coal financing, and other large announcements could drop soon. It’s not impossible to imagine a future in which “Glasgow” comes to connote a new seriousness and a pivot to a new round of international negotiations that can actually be taken seriously. 

Is such a new seriousness possible? It is, and though this may sound odd, this may be because these last few years have been so challenging. In them we have seen the rise, almost everywhere, of anti-democratic movements of sometimes astonishing venality—and we’ve also seen illusions falling away. We have experienced the pandemic and also the catastrophically botched vaccine rollout, but also the widespread realization that international cooperation is becoming an existential imperative. We have seen the new IPCC report, which told us exactly what time it is. And all of this has crystalized the awareness, now clear and widespread, that despite all the possibilities of the renewables revolution, renewables alone won’t save us, not unless they are joined with a well-planned, justice-forward push for a global transformation that, as the IPCC clearly told us back in 2018, would have “no historical precedent.” 

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To know if Glasgow is even a measured success, start with the realization that there is virtually no functioning global governance on this planet. The startlingly inadequacy of the Paris Agreement reflects this dismal reality. But the Paris Agreement wasn’t crafted by fools. It was designed to be adopted, and it was. It was also designed to be strengthened, and strengthened again, in periodic five-year intervals defined by endless, dispiriting political maneuvers, citizen-movement outrage, weary cynicism, exhausted cooperation, and, always, hope. The reason COP26 is a “make or break” moment is that it’s time now to attend to the strengthening. It’s time to turn the ambition ratchet. 

Here’s what that means: 

We need much stronger national pledges of action, and they will have to be honest ones. 

I’ve long thought that, when it finally became obvious we’re not going to avoid overshooting a 2.7°F rise in global temperatures (or 1.5°C), there would be a political crisis. We’ll find out soon enough. The IPCC says that “in almost all” its emissions scenarios we’re going to cross the 1.5°C line “in the early 2030s.” Only in the very best case—50 percent cuts in global emissions by 2030, then on to what I call “honest net zero” by the 2050s—will the warming then come to a relatively rapid halt. 

The good news, such as it is, is that if and when we reach honest net zero, the warming will actually plateau. This is a pretty amazing fact, and while it’s gotten a bit of press, it deserves much more. There may indeed be “tipping cascades” on the horizon, but it’s still physically possible to eddy out before we reach them. The question is if it’s also politically possible. 

The opening round of national pledges, tabled in Paris in 2015, don’t take us anywhere near 50 percent cuts by 2050. In fact, they imply a planetary warming of about 5.4°F (or 3°C) by the end of this century, which would be entirely catastrophic. According to the UN’s September “synthesis report,” the current pledges have us on a trajectory that’s only marginally better: a global temperature increase of 4.9°F (or 2.7°C) by 2100. This is why it’s crucial that the Glasgow pledges be strong enough to support an honest net zero 2050 emissions pathway, and that those pledges be believable.  

John Kerry, America’s international climate envoy, was absolutely right to say that the stakes are “unfathomable,” and equally right to say that success cannot come without real action from China, Russia, India, South Africa, Brazil, and “a host of countries.” Alas, such success also demands far more international climate finance, and here the US has not stepped so eagerly to the plate. To be fair, President Biden has vowed to increase the US climate finance pledge to $11.4 billion annually, but this number was calculated within the cramped equations of American domestic politics and has no relation whatsoever with either the global need or the US fair share. The new pledge from the Philippines well exemplifies the problem. The Philippines aims to sharply reduce national emissions, but only about 3 percent of this reduction is “unconditional.” The rest—in sectors from farming to energy to industry to transport—will require financial support from wealthier countries. 

There’s still time to avoid an unmanageable future. This won’t be true forever, but it’s still true today, and this counts for a great deal. So keep your eyes open. Attend to the finance pledges of the rich countries and the “conditional” pledges of the poor ones. Attend, in particular, to the implied collective ambition—what will global emissions be in 2030? Focus, too, on the claims countries make for the fairness of their pledges. They all know, at this point, that they have to say something about fairness, though most countries are still trying to avoid honest reckonings with their fair shares

There is no path to climate stabilization without international public climate finance, and lots of it. 

Climate stabilization has everything to do with economic justice. Why? Because the majority of the world’s emissions now come from the so-called Global South, and thus, by definition, most of the work of planetary decarbonization must happen there as well. The problem is that, in sharp contrast to its emissions, most of the world’s wealth is still in the Global North. This is the key thing, and it means that the great decarbonization is simply not going to happen in time unless the rich world helps the poor one along by providing a great deal of financial and technological support. 

This is going to be a long story, one that will extend far beyond the $100 billion in annual climate transition support that was first promised back in Copenhagen in 2009. But its simplest takeaway is that wealthy countries like the United States cannot do their fair share solely within their own borders. Rather, their domestic actions must be supplemented by support for even more action in poorer countries. Unless that happens, the net zero 2050 push is doomed

This isn’t exactly a secret. The elites know full well that a great deal of capital will have to be reallocated if the climate is to be stabilized, but for the most part, they plan to attack the problem by redirecting private capital flows—as opposed to government monies. Within the negotiations, this comes down as a tension between the partisans of Paris’s Article 9.3 (in which developing countries “take the lead in mobilizing climate finance from a wide variety of sources, instruments, and channels”) and Article 2.1(c) (in which the spotlight is on “making financial flows consistent” with the demands of the larger transition).

That’s all very technical. The plain English issue here is international public “climate finance,” and how much of it will be provided, and by whom, and how. Not that redirecting private “financial flows” isn’t also going to be fundamental. We live within capitalism, after all. But we have to stop pretending that public finance deserves only a small, secondary role. Especially today in 2021, the need here should be obvious, given the vast public funds that had to be mobilized to stabilize our COVID-shattered economy. 

We have to face the Loss and Damage challenge that lies beyond the limits of “adaptation.”

In the beginning—meaning, oh, a scant 30 years ago—there was the dream of easy “mitigation”: If only we could get the prices right, technological revolution would bring down greenhouse gas emissions and solve the climate problem. Then came the recognition that “adaptation”—building sea walls, embracing agroecology, abandoning consumerism—would be necessary as well. Today, it’s generally agreed that half of all public climate finance—like that disbursed by the UN’s Green Climate Fund—should go to adaptation. 

But what happens when your whole island goes under? Or if, year upon year, the encroaching sand from desertification takes your crops? What happens when you and your family can no longer survive at home and are compelled, with hope or without, to set out across the borders? The issue here, officially known as “Loss and Damage,” is the one you face when adaptation is no longer possible. Loss and Damage puts a name to an almost boundless challenge (huge regions of the planet will at some point be virtually uninhabitable) and poses questions of liability and compensation that point far beyond the capacities of governance as usual

This, too, is a long story. The United States, in particular, lobbied hard to include a Loss and Damage liability waiver in the Paris decision text, though this hardly settled the matter. A long and deeply committed campaign led by the Global South (both diplomats and activists) managed to keep Loss and Damage on the UN negotiating agenda, and indeed to establish it as a defining issue, crucial to the legitimacy of the entire negotiating process. 

The real issue here is life and death. This is true in America, a rich country that is being harrowed by climate-amplified disasters, but it is even more true in poor and relatively innocent parts of the world, where such disasters threaten to overwhelm and destroy entire societies. It’s no surprise, then, to find that action on Loss and Damage has become a planetary litmus test, one that clearly identifies the people who are willing to face the moral realities of the coming world and to struggle with their consequences.  

Obviously, I don’t know how this story ends. I do know that, without robust and sustained international cooperation, it will not be possible to stabilize the climate system. Such cooperation will not be possible unless we face the Loss and Damage challenge, and I would like to believe that we will. 

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With the American West on fire, the East being battered by new kinds of storms, and the expanses of our country being torn asunder by the new Right, it would be insane to argue that the international crisis should, or even could, trump the domestic one. Still. International solidarity is a non-negotiable presupposition of any realist path forward, and when it comes time to discuss the climate negotiations, it can no longer be set aside for later consideration. It’s far too late to think solely in national terms. 

As for these three issues, I don’t pretend that they capture the entire Glasgow agenda. When taken together, however, they spotlight the equity challenge that is and has always been at the heart of the international climate reckoning. The pandemic, perhaps oddly, has made this easier to understand. Climate mobilization means effort sharing and technology cooperation on an unprecedented scale, but so does international public health in the face of a deadly, rapidly mutating viral adversary. 

Many of the diplomats now fighting to animate the climate negotiations are fully aware of the stakes. António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, called the IPCC’s new assessment report “Code Red for mankind.” This was not empty rhetoric. Nor is it a surprise. Our conditions of existence are now well known. The question is what are we going to do about them.  

COP26: The Developing Countries have a Plan!

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.”

Fair Shares in a Net Zero World

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.

Biden’s Climate Policy — What’s Missing?

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.

After Denialism

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.”

Continue reading “Biden’s Climate Policy — What’s Missing?”