Threading the Needle at COP27

Almost nothing – but something real – changed at this year’s climate conference

There is something in the modern radical mind that wants the climate negotiations to fail. Such a failure, after all, would seem to prove that this wretched system cannot be reformed, that only a revolutionary break can re-open the human future.

COP27, the climate conference in Sharm El Sheik in Egypt, was not, however, a failure. I say this despite the fact that my inbox contains, among much else, an alert from an international organization I generally support (and will not name) that tells me that “For the 27th time in its history, COP, the United Nations Convention on Climate Change, has failed. The rapid degradation of our planet by our industrial economy will not be held in check.”

Alas, this email’s date stamp, November 18, places it two days before COP27 ended. During those two days, the rich countries that had blocked the establishment of the Loss and Damage fund folded under immense political pressure, thus allowing COP27 to finally create the fund.

The United States, the greatest of the miscreants, was the last to stand down. By some reports, it only did so after a last-minute threat by European negotiators to abandon the talks. But despite this win, the endless U.S. stalling did immense damage. In particular, it allowed the Egyptian presidency, no friend of humanity and nature, to play out an end-game gambit in which, finally, the core mitigation text—which is far too weak—couldn’t be challenged without putting the new fund at risk.

This was a failure, no doubt about it. But it was not a systemic failure. It wasn’t the fault of “the COP”—as in “COP27 is a COP out,” one of the least inspired of the recent headlines—unless this accusation extends to the UN system itself, which condemns the climate talks to consensus decision-making. This might be fair enough, save for one thing – blaming the UN lets the governments themselves off the hook, and this will not do, because the governments could yet change the rules.

Still, the Loss and Damage fund is a very big deal, or will be if we manage to provision it – to fund it adequately. As Mohamed Adow, the executive director of Power Shift Africa, put it, “What we have is an empty bucket. Now we need to fill it so that support can flow to the most impacted people who are suffering right now at the hands of the climate crisis.”

This is exactly right, and not just because a great deal of loss and damage finance is needed. So too is a great deal of mitigation finance. And adaptation finance. And just transition finance. But after COP27’s loss and damage finance battle, something very large has shifted. Back in the old days, when it was still possible to honestly imagine that mitigation alone would be sufficient, it was also possible to argue that the redirection of private capital flows would more or less suffice. But those days are over. Today, no one honestly believes that a meaningful flow of loss and damage finance will come through private channels, and this realization spills over to the transition portfolio as a whole.

The decision to create the loss and damage fund has thus queued up the real financing battle, in which international public finance takes center stage. Further, it did this even while it pushed the linked battle to phase out fossil fuels to a qualitatively new level. That battle was lost at COP27, but this was just an initial skirmish. Indeed, at COP27, the government of India, which will soon hold the G20 Presidency, came out, again and unambiguously, for the “phase down” (not “out”) of all fossil fuels, not just coal. The politics here are complex and fraught, and they promise to remain so, but this was unambiguously good news. The old days in which all major G77 politicians could be expected to reflexively argue that fossil energy is essential to development are, it seems, over.

Continue reading “Threading the Needle at COP27”

Needs-based Assessment — A Negotiator’s Brief

Just before COP27, the Equity Working Group of the Independent Global Stocktake organized a workshop entitled “Enabling a Needs-Based and Equitable Climate Regime”. It was extremely illuminating, because — as it happens — needs based assessment is fated to be key to any international effort sharing system that is scoped to include more than mitigation alone.

Consider adaptation need, or loss and damage need, or just transition need in general. All countries have such needs, and many countries require support if they are to have any real chance of meeting them, and thus successfully rising to the climate challenge. But how can such support be assessed, relative to the scope and nature of these needs? And how can this be done in any sort of meaningful way?

The challenge here is fundamental to any true global stocktake. For this reason, we distilled the takeaways from the needs-based assessment workshop into this Negotiator’s Brief, which was widely distributed, at COP27, among developing country negotiators. It was, by all accounts, quite helpful.

Fair Shares – Lessons from Practice, Thoughts on Strategy

The climate fair shares idea is no longer novel. But as the planetary crisis deepens, its profile is changing. Humanity is facing a civilizational emergency – a polycrisis with both climate and injustice at its core – and we need big ideas that can help guide us out of it.

This discussion paper, which was prepared by the Climate Equity Reference Project for the Climate Action Network International, is focused on one such idea: climate fair shares. Its purpose is to support analysis and campaigns for equitable climate action, including – quite explicitly – greatly increased international climate finance flows.

Note here a political premise — the equity challenge cannot be set aside while we concentrate on “implementation.” To be absolutely clear — we are in trouble, but a rapid global climate transition can still be achieved. We have (all) the money and (most of) the technology we need. But it is hard to see how any sufficiently rapid transition will be possible unless the benefits and promises and also the unavoidable pain and disruption are shared amongst the people of this world in a way that is widely accepted as being fair, or at least fair enough. We can not follow, yet again, the all too often repeated pattern in which most of the benefits are captured by those who are already wealthy and powerful, while most of the pain and suffering is born by those already marginalized and oppressed. 

Some highlights:

  • Lessons and Thoughts contains a careful executive summary, which is good, because the paper as a whole is pretty long.  By today’s standards. 
  • It contains a tidy chapter on planetary inequality – which is what you get when you have a world of nations, some of them wealthy and some of them not, and all of them internally stratified between rich and poor.
  • It contains a brief history of the equity debate within the international Climate Action Network, which is at this point a global network of more than 1,800 civil society organizations in over 130 countries.
  • It reviews the various fair shares projects that have been done over the past few years — in Norway, Canada, the US, the UK, Quebec, New Zealand, France and South Africa.  The lessons are both varied and interesting.
  • It contains a brief — if somewhat technical — explanation of why, when thinking about national fair shares in an emergency climate mobilization, it might help to lean into the Climate Equity Reference framework.  As opposed to some of the alternatives.
  • It lays out some preliminary — but not entirely preliminary — thoughts about “climate realism”, which is considerably different from the traditional variety.  Given the future we’re looking at, as we shoot far beyond the boundaries of a safe climate system, this conversation needs real attention.
  • It offers some advice on framing the financial costs of stabilizing the climate system, and why these costs – though certainly denominated in trillions – might be far more tractable than they appear.  Particularly given how much money we waste today, on the militaries and, of course, on the rich.
  • Finally, it asks a group of big strategic questions, and invites reflections on difficult equity challenges that go beyond even climate fair shares.

Tom Athanasiou, for the Climate Equity Reference Project.

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.”

“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 . . .

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.”

Equity, mitigation, and the role of the U.S. in the Global Stocktake

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.

More information about the Global Stocktake can be found here and about the iGST 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

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?”

The Fair Shares NDC hits the Media

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