By Sue Landau
Four years ago, almost every country in the world signed up to the Paris Climate Accord, a commitment to cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions enough to limit global warming to no more than 2°C above pre-industrial times by 2050.
But they pledged to do more, keeping warming closer to 1.5°C, better for averting the worst climate catastrophes.
That was at the 21st United Nations annual climate conference (COP 21) in December 2015. This week, with a UN study showing the world is on course for an average temperature rise of 3°C to 4°C by mid-century and disappointment with progress, hosts Spain and Chile are pushing for more ambition at COP 25 in Madrid.
To see how these conferences work, read our decoder.
What difference can UN conferences make?
- The Paris conference marked a turning point by informing more humans than ever before of the dangers of climate change. That is true even if the United States pulls out of the Paris accord and Brazil continues to let the Amazon forest burn. The world is far more aware of the dangers and risks than in the past.
- The sum of individual actions by ordinary people can provide at best some 10% of the cuts in carbon emissions we need. The rest requires local and national governments, supra-national bodies and international agreements to pull in this direction. The COP meetings represent the pinnacle of this effort.
- These conferences keep the issue on the international stage and in the open. Over past decades, responsibility for managing climate change was left to experts and politicians. But politicians did not listen to the experts, so hardly anyone was any the wiser. Meanwhile, corporate lobbyists tried to discredit the science.
- But their role is limited to keeping “enough alignment” among those trying to achieve a net-zero carbon economy, argued Tom Burke, head of environmental think-tank E3G, in an article on Climate Home News as COP 25 got underway. “If we expect it to do more than it can, it will fail,” Burke wrote.
What can be done for climate? Why isn’t it being done?
Technology and industry
If we developed and rolled out enough renewable energy and clean means of transport, swore off fossil fuels and used a green industrial feed stock like hydrogen, we could leave the carbon age behind.
That would improve living standards in poor and less-developed countries, while sacrifices in lifestyles would not be too drastic in rich and fast-developing countries.
But much of that is still on the drawing board despite impressive advances, especially in renewable energy and electric vehicles (see links below).
Nature could be our ally. We could use it to absorb carbon, planting many millions of trees. We could adapt agriculture to boost biodiversity and use non-polluting methods to keep food production high enough.
It turns out that such a way forward is more complicated than initially thought. The farming system is in crisis, trapped in a cycle of debt and declining yields, and vulnerable to drought and flooding.
Vested interests are increasingly wielding their power (read: fossil fuel companies and ranching organizations are pouring financing into lobbies and politics).
Coal, oil and gas companies have long tried to discredit climate science. Renewable energies are now becoming highly competitive, which threatens these firms. Neither they nor their work forces will readily cooperate with the phasing out of their industry.
Politics explains why, despite our knowledge of the dangers of climate change, political will is still seriously lacking. A UN study found governments are planning to use far more fossil fuel up to 2030 than is compatible with the Paris goals.
No wonder frustrated youth have taken to the streets massively. They and many others thought that when the world signed onto the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, things would change.
“Current economic and energy trends suggest that industrial emissions will be at least as high in 2019 as they were for the record emissions observed in 2018,” said a report by the Global Carbon Project in September.
“The International Monetary Fund projects Global Gross Domestic Product to grow by 3.2% in 2019, and if the global economy de-carbonized at the same rate as in the last 10 years, that would still lead to an increase in global emissions”, it said.
But there are reasons for optimism. And it’s important to remember that the world is just at the beginning of the shift away from carbon — which admittedly should have begun 20 years ago, or even 40 years ago.
Industrial shifts take time and involve major dislocations. It’s hard to make them popular. But at an institutional level, there are some interesting changes afoot:
- The European Investment Bank (EIB) is proposing to end investments in fossil fuel projects from 2020.
- Incoming EIB president Christine Lagarde is pushing for the bank to make climate change a key part of its mission.
- China, often portrayed as the bad guy for its role in building and exporting coal power, is planning 50 zero-carbon zones by 2050, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute. “RMI has been working with Ningbo, a leading city in China, to develop a near-zero emission zone while achieving four times growth in GDP by 2030,” the institute said.
- Clean electrification should be possible from 2030 given the pace of investment in batteries and lower prices for manufacturing them, the Rocky Mountain Institute reports.
“I want to emphasize that the situation is far from hopeless,” New York Times columnist David Leonhardt wrote in a summary of what the clean energy transition looks like.
“In the last few years, some places have begun to show what a transition to a clean-energy economy would look like. The main message from those places: We can do this.”
Sue Landau is a retired journalist and translator based in Paris, France. Her editing and reporting career was mainly in financial and business journalism at the International Herald Tribune, Reuters and the Investor’s Chronicle. Among other topics, she covered energy, new technologies, media and advertising, corporate and industry issues, wealth management and investment, and regional development. She now contributes articles on climate change issues to News Decoder. For a profile of Landau, click here.