We're now one year into the Biden presidency, and theee months removed from COP26. How do things stand today in terms of the climate emergency?
The basic problem is clear and indisputable: in order to avoid warming beyond 1.5 ºC and the ensuing catastrophic results, we have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. That requires reductions of around 50% by 2030. Fossil fuel companies and their political allies have worked assiduously for decades to keep the public misinformed and prevent governments from acting on the growing danger. They’ve largely succeeded, as we’re not close to being on track for the 2050 goal. In fact, current promised reduction targets will get us only 40% of the way. If the numbers don’t improve, we will have global warming of 2.7 ºC.
This much we've known for a few years now. What developments occurred last year?
—The Biden administration took a number of important steps on climage change, but its Build Back Better plan, the key driver for emissions reductions, met with total resistance from Republicans (and at least one crucial Democratic senator). Without a bill in hand, John Kerry and his team had much less negotiating leverage at COP26. Three months later, there is still no bill, but the crucial climate provisions may yet be separated out and approved.
—Anti-science attitudes in the US, while a minority view, seem to be more entrenched than ever, as evidenced by the anti-vax movement. This makes it much harder to build a consensus for climate action. Polling in October showed no reduction in resistance to climate action, despite last summer’s numerous climate disasters. In fact, 45% of all Americans still do not believe climate change is primarily caused by human action, even though there is now a complete scientific consensus on the question.
—Very tense US/China relations threaten cooperation on climate. The two nations contribute 42% of all world emissions, so their ability to work together is essential. US Climate Envoy John Kerry argued pre-COP26 that the climate emergency can not be treated as a “geo-strategic weapon or tool,” and must be separated out from other issues, but Chinese leaders sharply challenged that view. The two countries surprised delegates at Glasgow with a pledge to work together to slow warming, but their announcement included few specifics.
—The hope many of us had in 2020 and early 2021 that banks and private investors would finally “walk the walk” and not just greenwash, has dimmed a great deal in recent months. Some global banks have “turned on the money spigot” for fossil fuels, with Wells Fargo doubling the amount it’s investing. Overall, banks have given almost $4 trillion to fossil fuel companies since the 2015 Paris Accord, and there is no decline in sight.
—In response to cases brought by coal companies and some Republican states, the new right-wing majority on the Supreme Court has signalled that it may vitiate the authority of the EPA to regulate how utilities produce electricity. Several utilities themselves have asked the court to uphold the EPA’s authority.
—Finally, compelling evidence has emerged that shows official emission reduction pledges are often considerably inaccurate. In fact, the gap could be as high as 23% of total human emissions. This means countries are even farther off track from the needed reductions than we thought.
It’s a bleak picture overall, but there was a more hopeful side to the year:
—The remarkable drop in prices for renewables in recent years means that drastic emission reductions are feasible technically and economically, in spite of remaining energy storage problems.
—Internationally, there has been a considerable increase in public concern about climate change in recent years, especially among young people. The rise of a large, angry youth movement in 2019 and its reemergence during COP26, along with the work of determined NGO’s worldwide, offers hope that this time, unlike fifteen or twenty years ago, the political pressure for climate action will force governments to take more vigorous action.
—The fossil fuel divestment movement continued its phenomenal growth. Endowments, portfolios, and pension funds totalling almost $40 trillion are now on board. And the movement has had some direct effect, with oil and gas companies complaining of increased borrowing costs.
What about COP26 itself? What did it accomplish?
—There were significant technical agreements regarding carbon trading rules and transparent reporting of carbon emissions. Hopefully, they will settle questions and disputes that have lingered since the Paris Accord.
—There were major side agreements on deforestation, methane, and on phasing out gas-powered automobile vehicles. Though key emitters were often not involved, and the agreements are all voluntary, it’s hoped that the accords will pressure government and industry leaders to do more.
—New emission reduction promises will bring the expected rise in global warming down to 2.4 ºC from 2.7 ºC, a very modest accomplishment, given the extent of the crisis. Key emitting countries resisted major reductions, with China, Russia, Brazil, Australia, and Saudi Arabia failing to significantly improve on their pledges. India’s “improvement” included a promise to reach net-zero by 2070, far too late for 1.5 ºC.
—Hopes for 1.5 ºC are still alive, but just barely. Essentially, the can was again kicked down the road. But this time, there seems to be a consenus that major steps must be taken soon. To that end, it was agreed that countries will not be allowed to wait three years to submit improved plans but must do so by next year’s conference in Cairo. That should keep the pressure on for greater reductions.
What should we look for next?
If the climate components in the Build Back Better bill do not pass, then it’s very hard to see how we can possibly avoid shooting past 1.5 ºC. The US is too central, politically and economically, for its failure not to resonate in capitals around the world. The next few months will probably be our last chance for legislation, given the looming campaign season. If the Democrats go on to lose the House, then climate legislation won’t pass before 2025, at the earliest.
Some argue that the focus should shift now from Washington to Wall Street, building on the success of the divestment movement. Much more pressure should be put on banks and private lenders, who are susceptible to the protests of activists in a way that many governments, such as China or India, are not.
After four lost years under Trump, with his total rejection of climate science and his determination to increase fossil fuel extraction at all costs, hopes were bright when Biden took over. He and his team have taken a number of crucial steps, but overall it’s been a rough year for the climate, and our prospects seem dimmer just now.
The fierce struggle for the planet’s future will continue, with environmentalists, scientists, and activists on one side, fossil fuel companies and their allies on the other. Some say that the "good guys" are winning, slowly but surely. The problem, however, is time. We are rapidly running out of time.
The Climate Emergency Today -- an
An emotional, disappointed Alok Sharma, COP26 president, at the closing session.
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