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.  

A model US “Fair Shares” Pledge

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?

Continue reading “A model US “Fair Shares” Pledge”

A conversation cum debate between Rupert Read and Tom Athanasiou

Back in March, I debated Rupert Reed at the Center for European Studies at Berkeley. Rupert is a British Green politician and philosopher (a Wittgenstein expert, actually) who has recently emerged as a spokesman for the Extinction Rebellion. The debate is not uninteresting. In fact, it got quite rather testy at several points, as for example when I felt compelled to defend the IPCC against Rupert’s rather apocalyptic take on radicalism. Here’s the video. . .

Saudi version of climate justice rejected by developing countries

The drama was high in Katowice when a rotten bloc of four countries (the Saudis, of course, and also the U.S., the Russians and the Kuwaitis) refused to welcome the IPCC report.  But it wasn’t the drama that made the fight an important one.  It was that the Saudi’s argument. . .

“Saudi Arabia’s lead negotiator Ayman Shasly said the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report – released in October – ‘shows that [halting warming at 1.5C] is achievable, it’s doable, let’s all do it together, which is not fair. What is the equity in this? Where is history in this?’ ”

. . . has definitely passed its use by date.  Read more here.

After Paris: Inequality, Fair Shares, and the Climate Emergency

And here is something new!  A report that evaluates the current national pledges of action in the light of the IPCC’s bracing new report — Global Warming of 1.5°C — and in the context of an analysis that takes inequality within countries just as seriously as it takes inequality between countries.

The report is titled After Paris: Inequality, Fair Shares, and the Climate Emergency, and it has an extremely impressive list of organizational endorsers, from all over the world.  Which is not surprising, as it was produced under the aegis of the Civil Society Equity Review coalition, which has built quite a bit of momentum at this point.  EcoEquity, as one of the partners in the Climate Equity Reference Project, is one of the principle authors.

One of our partners even call this report “elegant,” which is something for this sort of a report.  Take a look!

Fair Shares: A Civil Society Equity Review of INDCs

Cover image - smallerAn unprecedentedly broad and diverse coalition of global civil society organizations and social movements (see the list here) has just released a joint assessment of the national pledges of action (called “INDCs” in UN lingo) that are being submitted in the global climate negotiations.

This assessment was done with eyes towards both adequacy and equity.  Fundamentally, it asks what the INDCs add up to in relation to a 1.5°C / 2°C degree goal, and if each country is pledging to do its fair share of the necessary mitigation action, based on its historical emissions and its capacity to act.  When it comes to public mitigation finance, adaptation, and loss & damage, the assessment restricts itself to estimating total global needs.

Technically, the Civil Society Review draws upon the analysis and modeling of the Climate Equity Reference Project, which is, of course, strongly associated with this site. However, it is done with respect to specific range of equity settings, one which defined the agreement within the coalition and, notably, one which is narrower than the range of settings supported by the Climate Equity Reference Calculator.  On the adequacy side, it is referenced to a challenging global mitigation pathway that represent a widely used distillation of the most stringent category of pathways in the IPCC scenario database.

There are many details, most of which are explained in the report.  The key point however, and please keep this in mind, is that the review does not argue that countries should only do their fair shares.   Rather, it seeks to identify which countries are offering to do their fair share, which need to do more to meet their fair share, and which must be supported to do even more — sometimes much more — than their fair share if the world is to reach a below 2°C or even 1.5°C pathway.

The full report, the summary report, and the list of supporting organizations can all be found at http://civilsocietyreview.org.  This site also contains a form by which your organization can add its name to the list of supporters, if it wishes to do so.

The 2C warming limit — a "defense line," not a "guard rail"

Just in case you were wondering, a key “Structured Expert Dialogue” between IPCC scientists and UNFCCC negotiators has just released its technical summary.  And, happily, it has been digested by the Climate Analytics team into this short, clear overview.

This SED is news because it essentially confirms the arguments that the Small Island Developing States and the Least Developed Countries have been making for years, that 2°C warming limit is too high.  And that it must not be crossed.  To wit:

“We are therefore of the view that Parties would profit from restating the long-term global goal as a ‘defence line’ or ‘buffer zone’, instead of a ‘guardrail’ up to which all would be safe. This new understanding would then probably favor emission pathways that will limit warming to a range of temperatures below 2 °C. In the very near term, such aspirations would keep open as long as possible the option of a warming limit of 1.5°C, and would avoid embarking on a pathway that unnecessarily excludes a warming limit below 2°C.”

This clear statement is hugely relevant to the ongoing negotiations, which are stretching towards a possible breakthrough in Paris later this year.  The problem is that, while Paris is likely to be an official success, it’s not at all clear that it’s going to set us up for the extremely challenging transition that will be necessary if we’re going to successfully “defend” the 2°C line. The good news is that the assembled experts also concluded that the stricter 1.5°C temperature goal is still within reach, just.  It’s going to take everything to reach it.

Climate Crossroads: Toward a Just Deal in Paris

This essay was first published by the Great Transition Initiative.  See the original here.

The 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit was a failure, but it did serve as a wake-up call. The global governance system currently in place has not been capable of making the momentous “top-down” decisions that are necessary to limit aggregate emissions, let alone doing so in an acceptably fair manner. As we approach the critically important 2015 Paris Summit, negotiations are taking a more realist course, with national pledges of action understood as the best foundation for international mobilization. Making this work will take a “pledge and review” agreement with an extremely robust review in which national commitments are evaluated collectively for compatibility with climate science and comparatively for compatibility with concerns of justice. Equity reference frameworks can help achieve the crucial task of justice, which now threatens to fall through the cracks. Such frameworks have already been developed to address distributional justice both within and between nations and to identify both leaders and laggards. They offer a way forward consonant with the core equity principles embodied in the United Nations climate convention. Paris can propel this agenda, but will it?
Continue reading “Climate Crossroads: Toward a Just Deal in Paris”

National Fair Shares: The Mitigation Gap – Domestic Action and International Support

Well, we finally finished it.

The National Fair Shares report is designed to show what it means to take the analysis in the Climate Equity Reference Calculator seriously. It’s worth reading even if you think that we’re doomed, because it very carefully works out what it would mean to hold to the IPCC’s carbon budgets, in the context of an international climate accord that might actually work. Which is to say a climate accord that works for everyone, even the developing countries, one designed to preserve “equitable access to sustainable development” even as it drives a rapid global phase out of all carbon emitting technologies.

We don’t actually think we’re doomed, of course. If we did, we could never have written anything like this. We think humanity is going to rally. Or at least that it could.

What’s in the National Fair Shares report? Here’s a paragraph from the abstract:

“In this report, we systematically apply a generalized and transparent equity reference framework. . .  with the goal of quantitatively examining the problem of national fair shares in a global effort to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This framework is based upon an effort-sharing approach, uses flexibly-defined national “responsibility and capacity indicators,” and is explicitly designed to reflect the UNFCCC’s core equity principles. It can be applied using a range of possible assumptions, and whatever values are chosen, they are applied to all countries, in a dynamic fashion that reflects the changing global economy.”

What’s the point? Only that the world’s national are probably — and finally — going to negotiate a global climate treaty in Paris in late 2015.  But even assuming that they do, it’s going to be far too weak, and Paris will mark the beginning of the really hard work: raising ambition in the context of a truly global accord.  Assuming this happy day arrives, we’re going to need an “equity reference framework” to help us figure out which countries are going their “fair shares” and which ones are free riding on the work of others.

Which is where this paper comes in. You can find it here.  For a short summary (6 pages) see here.