Young climate protesters in Milan, Sept. 28.
Glasgow Conference Likely Our Last Chance for 1.5C
President Biden announced ambitious climate plans in the first months of his administration, promising that the US would reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2030. To accomplish that, he proposed a detailed infrastructure plan with climate warming reduction an integral component. On Earth Day, in late April, he led a climate summit of the major greenhouse gas emitting nations, urging them to follow the US lead and increase their Paris Agreement emission reduction commitments. Since then the climate emergency has continued to dominate the news, but some of the hopefulness has dimmed.
The world endured another devastating summer, with extreme heat waves in the Pacific Northwest, enormous fires in California, Siberia, Greece and Turkey, and major flooding in China, Belgium and Germany. Unlike earlier years, wealthy, developed countries were not spared, with the flooding in Germany especially surprising. In the midst of this, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its latest comprehensive assessment, its first in eight years. Calling it a “code red for humanity,” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said, “The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse‑gas emissions from fossil-fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk. Global heating is affecting every region on Earth.”
For those who follow climate news closely, the IPCC report was not particularly surprising. Nonetheless, its message was clear and blunt: We’ve warmed the atmosphere by 1.1C since the start of the Industrial Revolution, and further warming up to at least 1.5C is now inevitable. To avoid going beyond that we need to reduce GHG emissions by 45% in the next ten years (and to zero by 2050). Unfortunately, we’re nowhere near that target. In fact, with the current Paris Agreement national commitments, we’ll increase emissions by 16% by 2030, possibly shooting past 1.5C at the same time. By 2100 we’ll heat the atmosphere by 2.7C. Since even going past 1.5 takes us into catastrophic territory, anything more has to be avoided at all costs.
Given this very tight timeline, the UN Climate Change Conference, starting Nov. 1 in Glasgow, Scotland, probably represents our last chance to hold global heating to 1.5C. For it to succeed, the major emitting countries—China, the US, India, the European Union, Russia, and others—need to sharply increase their Paris commitments. After four lost years under Trump, the Biden administration is poised to lead, but Congress has yet to approve Biden’s infrastructure plans. If the climate provisions in the “reconciliation” bill are seriously watered down, then the US will lose a great deal of credibility and influence. The EU aside, it’s hard to see key emitting countries doing their share without a clear sign of American commitment. Unfortunately, even with a strong infrastructure bill and persuasive American leadership, prospects are not looking good.
China poses particular problems, given its huge population and the enormous pressure on its government to maintain growth (and keep the lights on, given recent energy shortages). It continues to expand its production of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, and now accounts for a startling 85% of the world’s new coal plant proposals. Unless China changes course, there is no way to hold global warming to 1.5C, since it emits around 28% of world CO2 emissions today, far ahead of America’s 14%. In a positive sign, President Xi Jinping announced in late September that China would cease to fund overseas coal plant projects, but the key issue is their domestic expansion.
Other countries are also very worrisome, especially Russia, Brazil, and Australia, which at times show a contempt and indifference to the climate emergency. In fact, it’s been estimated that if every country in the world had energy policies similar to China and these three nations, it would lead to 5C increases in global heating. Somehow, all four have to change their plans, especially China, or all the efforts of the US and EU will be for naught.
It’s a dire, critical moment. As Secretary-General Guterres noted, “We are weeks away from the UN Climate Conference in Glasgow, but seemingly light years away from reaching our targets. We must get serious. And we must act fast.”
However gloomy things appear, we must remain hopeful. And, in fact, US Climate Envoy John Kerry has been very upbeat in recent days, saying “enormous progress” can be made in November and suggesting that key countries are ready to make fresh commitments. He seems to be anticipating some pivotal announcements in advance of the conference. For the sake of the planet, may his optimism prevail!
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