How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
The upcoming 26th UN Conference of the Parties (COP26) almost feels like a wedding. Set in Glasgow, Scotland, COP26 will bring together negotiators from nearly every country on earth to assess progress in the global fight to stop climate change. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is hosting. U.S. President Joe Biden has RSVPed yes, as has Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
But other leaders from some of the world’s largest economies, including Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa have said no. And the most consequential guest of all, Chinese President Xi Jinping, will likely send his regrets. In mid-October, Queen Elizabeth conceded that she “still [doesn’t] know who’s coming,” adding that it is “irritating” when “they talk, but they don’t do.” And that is the essential question regarding the meeting in Glasgow: What will nations do to combat accelerating climate change?
COP26 is widely viewed as a make-or-break moment for arresting global warming. Scientists have warned that time is running short to avoid rampant warming driven by heat-trapping gases emitted by human activity. At COP26, countries will share their promises to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Developing nations, which have had the least to do with creating the climate crisis, have made clear that they also expect richer countries to provide financial aid to help them adapt to climate impacts, such as sea-level rise and deeper droughts, and to invest in clean energy. Even if countries do make the desired commitments, the question remains whether they will deliver once all the guests go home.
COP26 is hardly the first global meeting about climate change. Almost three decades ago, countries gathered in Rio de Janeiro for the first international climate summit. There they launched the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which recognizes that the threat posed by climate change requires “the widest possible cooperation by all countries” to stabilize “greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere.” Almost every year since 1994, countries have gathered at a COP to address climate change. At COP21 in December 2015, in an airplane hangar outside Paris, negotiators joined hands in triumph to announce a new global agreement on climate. The Paris climate accord sets a goal of keeping average global temperature rise within “safe limits”—well below two degrees Celsius more than that of preindustrial times and preferably below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Since the Paris COP, improvements in climate science have revealed that the stakes are even higher than many assumed. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), the group responsible for providing periodic climate assessments to government policymakers, warned that global temperature rise needed to remain below 1.5 degrees Celsius to avoid irreversible human and ecological harm. In August 2021, the IPCC issued its strongest statement yet, concluding that global average temperature rise could reach the 1.5 degrees Celsius mark somewhere between 2030 and 2035. In October, the UN estimated that governments are planning to produce about 110 percent more fossil fuels than would be consistent with keeping the temperature from rising 1.5 degrees. That same month, the International Energy Agency cautioned that “clean energy progress is still far too slow to put global emissions into sustained decline towards net zero.”
COP26 is a make-or-break moment for arresting global warming.
Meanwhile, recent shifts in the geopolitical landscape have erected new barriers to global cooperation. Relations between China and the United States, the two largest polluters, have grown decidedly chilly. The distrust between rich and poor countries has widened as the COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll. Adding to the challenge, energy crises have sprouted in China, India, the United States, the European Union, and elsewhere. With winter just around the corner in many places, energy prices have spiked, putting stiff pressure on governments to increase supplies of fossil fuels.
Given the obstacles, world leaders have begun to tone down their rhetoric. Some of COP’s most ardent champions, including Johnson and U.S. Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry, have expressed doubts about the possible outcomes.
In Glasgow, countries will confirm their commitments under the Paris accord to cut emissions. Alok Sharma, a member of the British Parliament who is serving as president of COP26, has set the consignment of “coal power to history” as a goal, since coal is the most polluting energy source. Essential to that effort are China and India. China, the largest consumer and producer of coal, continues to build coal-powered plants within its borders, although it has promised to end its financing of new coal-fired power plants overseas. In the midst of the current energy crunch, China said it would use “all necessary means” to cut record-high coal prices.
India, which relies on coal for 70 percent of its energy production, has promised to reduce its carbon emissions by 33 to 35 percent by 2030, but it has not committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. Indeed, India’s chief economic adviser has signaled that the country will cut its emissions only on the condition that developed nations honor and increase their commitments to provide climate financing. Meanwhile, the United States, the world’s largest historical emitter and the current second-largest emitter, is mired in a prolonged political fight over climate legislation that would support its ambitious pledge to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52 percent from 2005 levels by 2030.
So far, the math is not adding up. Even if all countries met the emission commitments they have made as of mid-September, emissions would still rise by 16 percent and set the planet on what UN Secretary-General António Guterres called a “catastrophic pathway” toward a temperature increase of 2.7 degrees Celsius by 2100.
In 2009, developed countries pledged to developing ones that they would mobilize $100 billion per year by 2020 to finance efforts to mitigate climate change and adapt to its effects. Thus far, that goal has proven elusive. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has calculated that the developed world has fallen short by a significant margin. Developed countries mustered only $79.6 billion in 2019, a modest increase over the $78.3 billion mobilized in 2018. In September, Biden doubled the amount he had earlier pledged in climate aid for developing nations to $11 billion. That figure, however, requires congressional approval, which remains uncertain. Adding salt to the wound is that the financing has often come in the form of loans, saddling cash-strapped developing countries with even more debt.
The distrust between rich and poor countries has widened during the pandemic.
Another point of contention is that the bulk of the aid has gone to mitigation efforts rather than adaptation, with the OECD estimating that a little over 20 percent of the developed countries’ climate contributions went to adaptation and 70 percent to mitigation in 2018. Adaptation is of particular interest to developing countries since they often lack the protective infrastructure, such as flood barriers, that richer nations have built. A number of African countries have expressed their displeasure with the current state of affairs and called for climate financing to increase to $1.3 trillion by 2030. Meanwhile, just days before the Glasgow meeting opens, the UK COP Presidency issued a plan that projects the developed nations will meet the $100 billion goal by 2023.
The issue of equity has previously emerged as a fault line in climate negotiations. The failure of the developed world to meet its financing goals has not served to close the distance. Moreover, much more financing is needed. According to the world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock, emerging markets could require up to $1 trillion per year to decarbonize their economies. The UN estimates that adaptation costs could range from $140 billion to $300 billion annually by 2030 and rise to $280 billion to $500 billion per year by 2050.
With participants beginning to pack their bags, the outcome of COP26 remains in doubt. Meanwhile, climate change continues its insidious spread with searing heat waves, monstrous wildfires, intense storms, and deadly flooding around the world. A recent study has found that at least 85 percent of the global population already suffers climate impacts.
Queen Elizabeth is right. It is beyond time for countries to “do.” Resounding success at the COP summit depends on developed nations committing to ambitious, near-term targets to bend the emission curve by 2030. The science is unforgiving. In 2019, the UN Development Program warned that global greenhouse gas emissions had to fall by 7.6 percent each year between 2020 and 2030 to stay on track to meet the Paris goal of a temperature rise limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Yet last year, emissions in the atmosphere rose to new record levels. Resounding success also requires clarity as to who will pay what to help developing nations going forward.
If COP26 falls short and international climate diplomacy continues to underdeliver, geopolitical tensions could increase over who is doing their fair share to reduce heating. Countries will need to devote ever-larger portions of their budgets to adaptation efforts as ever-more-extreme weather events batter their populations and economies. As conditions become increasingly inhospitable to human life, some countries could resort to other means to control temperature rise, such as “solar radiation management,” which can involve deploying giant mirrors that can send heat back into space or spraying aerosols into the stratosphere to shade sunlight and cause temporary cooling. Desperate times, after all, will require desperate measures. The task facing the participants in Glasgow is to ward off that desperation.
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