Climate and Environment
Climate talks march past deadline
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As leaders gather for crucial climate summit, high expectations collide with uncertain reality

“There is a serious risk that Glasgow will not deliver,” U.N. chief says. “If we want real success — and not just a mirage — we need more ambition and more action.”

World leaders will gather in Glasgow, Scotland, from Oct. 31 to Nov. 12 for the 26th annual United Nations conference on climate change. (Video: Joy Yi/The Washington Post)

This year’s global climate summit in Scotland was supposed to signal a turning point for the planet. A moment when leaders turned unfulfilled promises of the past into concrete action for the future.

“A critical milestone in our efforts to avert climate catastrophe,” United Nations Secretary General António Guterres insisted in February.

“Our best hope of building the future we want to see,” Alok Sharma, the British official serving as president of the upcoming talks, said in May.

“Glasgow is the place, and 2021 is the time,” U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry proclaimed in a speech this summer.

The world, after all, was beginning to emerge from a pandemic that had rattled economies and offered a blunt reminder of humans’ reliance on one another. The United States, the world’s biggest economic engine, had elected a president who vowed to prioritize climate action. A barrage of heat waves, flooding and other extreme weather disasters around the world was underscoring in visceral ways what scientists proclaimed louder than ever: that climate change is a real and urgent threat.

But as the curtain opens on COP26 — widely described as the most important international climate negotiations since the landmark 2015 Paris climate accord — advocates fear that a pivotal chance to slow the Earth’s warming could slip through humanity’s fingers.

What you need to know about the U.N. COP26 climate summit — and why it matters

Energy prices are spiking globally. Major world leaders, including the presidents of China and Russia, are expected to be absent from the talks in Glasgow. Fraught domestic politics hindered President Biden’s ambitious climate aspirations for much of the year — at least until this past week’s apparent legislative deal to invest $555 billion into clean energy and other initiatives — raising questions about the nation’s ability to coax other countries toward similar actions.

Even as two weeks of sprawling negotiations commence, the gathering in Glasgow is almost certain to end without the significant progress organizers once envisioned toward limiting Earth’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels — a target scientists say is a key threshold to avoid catastrophic climate change.

“It’s not going to be the place where the world gets saved,” said Tasneem Essop, executive director of Climate Action Network International.

In reality, achieving major breakthroughs at COP26 was always going to be a challenge, said Christiana Figueres, the Costa Rican diplomat and former executive director of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, who helped finalize the Paris agreement in 2015.

Six years ago, she said, nations had one overarching goal around which to rally — agreeing to limit warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, and ideally no more than 1.5 Celsius. Getting nearly 200 nations to embrace that common objective was an extraordinary accomplishment. Now, that moment of optimism has given way to the thornier task of getting world leaders to map out how they intend to honor the promises they made.

As COP26 begins, countries face ongoing pressure to submit more aggressive emissions-cutting plans, known in the jargon of international climate talks as “nationally determined contributions,” or NDCs. The agenda also includes hammering out a “rule book” for the Paris agreement — including rules for carbon trading systems and how governments count emissions. Developing nations want assurances for more funding to phase out fossil fuels and adapt to worsening climate impacts.

“There’s no negotiation of a single text,” Figueres said in an interview. “This is all about herding everyone in the same direction to what they have already agreed to do. … This is about delivering.”

So far, the world has mostly delivered a collective disappointment.

The updated pledges countries submitted through October put the planet on track to heat roughly 2.7 degrees Celsius (4.9 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century, a recent U.N. assessment found. Dozens of countries have not significantly revised the original climate goals they set in Paris. Others, such as India, have so far failed to submit any updated pledge at all.

The global effort to combat climate change boils down to this: Bending a very stubborn curve.

The U.N. analysis found that the world would need to cut its emissions seven times as fast to hit most lofty climate goals, compared to its current promises.

Meanwhile, some nations have used dubious accounting mechanisms that make pledges seem stronger than they are. Russia, for example, is counting on its forests to absorb several billion tons of carbon dioxide — something scientists say is unrealistic. Saudi Arabia has pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2060, but has not detailed whether it would slow its significant oil and gas exports.

Wealthy countries have acknowledged they will not meet their pledge to generate $100 billion annually to help vulnerable countries until 2023 — three years later than originally promised. Meanwhile, some top emitters are still planning to increase production of coal, oil and gas.

By 2030, the world is on pace to have produced twice as much fossil fuel as humanity can afford to burn if we are to avoid exceeding our “carbon budget.” Scientists estimate the world can unleash less than 500 additional gigatons of carbon dioxide — the equivalent of about 10 years of current global emissions — to have an even chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels.

“I’m going into COP with a feeling of dread,” said Laurie van der Burg, the global public finance campaign manager at Oil Change International. “The NDCs are not adding up to where we need to be. The climate finance pledges are also not adding up. We see governments and heads of states saying all the right things, but not walking the walk.”

To many, the lackluster commitments have underscored the shortcomings of the U.N. negotiating process. The challenge of getting virtually every nation on the same page means agreements are slow to come together and often intentionally vague.

The Paris accord is voluntary and relies mostly on peer pressure and good will, rather than enforcement. Countries come up with their own emissions reduction targets. There is no penalty if they fall short on their goals. That structure has long rankled activists who argue the time for protracted talks has passed.

“Our hopes and dreams drown in their empty words and promises,” Greta Thunberg said at a youth climate gathering in Italy earlier this fall, summing up the skepticism and anger with which many young activists view the lumbering, decades old international effort.

“They’ve now had 30 years of ‘blah blah blah,’ and where has that led us?” she said. “Over 50 percent of all our CO2 emissions have occurred since 1990, and a third since 2005. … If this is what they consider to be climate action, then we don’t want it.”

Meanwhile, the consequences of climate change have only grown more inescapable. Hundreds of people have died this year amid record-shattering heat waves. Torrential rains in New York, Germany and China drowned people and destroyed homes. Prolonged drought has imperiled crops from California to Madagascar to South Sudan. Wildfires incinerated communities and choked entire continents with smoke.

Amid summer of fire and floods, a moment of truth for climate action

In August, the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in an exhaustive assessment that the current pace of warming is unprecedented in the history of human civilization. Guterres called the 4,000-page scientific report “a code red for humanity.”

Recent studies show that failure to curb emissions will mean that today’s children will live through three times as many disasters as their grandparents, and millions of additional people could die as a result of air pollution, extreme heat, hunger, wildfires and storms.

Yet some of those that will be hardest hit by climate impacts will be missing from this year’s negotiations because of the covid-19 pandemic. Some national delegations have struggled to secure full vaccination against the virus, despite the British government’s pledge to provide shots to all attendees who couldn’t get them at home. On the other hand, a few vulnerable countries have closed their borders or banned flights out.

“No one can leave the country,” said Pelenise Alofa, a climate activist in the low-lying Pacific island nation of Kiribati. “It is very challenging because … the issues that will be discussed at COP will be very important to our future as a small island state on the front lines of the climate crisis.”

Alofa has seen rising sea levels swallow homes and destroy farm fields with salt. Water sources in Kiribati are becoming contaminated, she said. Sacred places are washed away. “Loss and damage from climate change is becoming a permanent feature of our lives,” she said. “And rich countries are continuing to burn fossil fuels.”

Despite the system’s well documented defects — not to mention the health and logistical concerns of convening delegations from around the world during a pandemic — multilateral processes like U.N. negotiations are the only real means to solve global problems, Essop said. This is especially true for climate change, which disproportionately impacts small, vulnerable and developing countries that can’t enforce their will through military or economic might.

“It is the important space for those countries who are considered less powerful,” she said. “This is the space for them to have a voice.”

In Paris, she noted, it was small island states that pushed for the U.N. to fully contemplate the consequences of reaching 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. Years later, that figure has been embraced as the central target of global climate action, given the impacts that scientists say will happen with each fraction of warming.

With fewer activists from vulnerable communities present this year, Essop fears, it could be even harder to push for a more ambitious outcome. And low-income countries already struggling to cope with the toll of the pandemic will be less able to make the major investments needed to curb their emissions.

“It all contributes to this overall lack of trust that we’re going to enter this COP with,” she said.

Part of the sense of exasperation — particularly that the world’s largest emitters have not already promised to do more and do more quickly — comes from the heavy expectations that loomed over the Scotland negotiations from the start.

“If you think [the COP] alone is going to save the climate, you are fooling yourself. You are delusional,” said Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development. “You can’t continue the fantasy that somehow these annual meetings are going to solve climate change — it’s a false expectation.”

That doesn’t mean the talks are inconsequential, or that the gathering in Glasgow is destined to be a bust, he said.

“It can create energy and momentum,” Zaelke said. “It’s a strong signaling mechanism to tell the world that climate change is incredibly important, that we need to change faster than we thought yesterday.”

But the story of national governments and their official pledges, while essential, is only one part of the equation. Zaelke said renewable energy is growing fast, dozens of leaders have now pledged to tackle the potent planet-warming gas methane, and pressure has increased for more climate action this decade — a notable shift from the vague, distant promises so common in the past.

“The Paris agreement now goes much beyond what the governments signed on for,” Laurence Tubiana, a French economist and an architect of the Paris agreement, said in an interview. “It’s a reference for the whole system, including more and more, the world trade system.”

She noted that multinational corporations and multilateral banks now talk in terms of aligning their businesses with the goals laid out in the Paris accord. Numerous cities and states have done the same. “In a way, it has ‘invaded’ many other sectors,” she said.

Perhaps the biggest change is the number of nations stopping the flow of public money to fuel production. This spring, the world’s seven largest advanced economies pledged to stop overseas support for coal projects. The U.K. government will launch at COP an initiative seeking to eliminate international finance for all polluting fuels. Meanwhile, Costa Rica and Denmark are seeking to convince countries to cease all extraction of oil and gas.

“For a very long time we’ve tried to tackle demand but not at the same time tried to tackle supply. That is not an effective way to really curb emissions,” said van der Burg, the campaigner for Oil Change International. The phrase “fossil fuels” does not even appear in the text of the Paris agreement, she noted.

Though only a small fraction of funding for fossil fuel projects typically comes from the public sector, withdrawing government support makes these projects riskier for private investors, van der Burg said. It also communicates that polluting activities have become less socially acceptable.

In the absence of broad international agreements, smaller alliances between a few ambitious states can help “raise pressure on those countries that are lagging behind,” she added. “This is going to be an important breakthrough.”

Kerry is aware of the animosity in many quarters over a lack of stronger commitments during this crucial year, one that began with hopes the world would finally muster the will to hit the goals set in Paris. He has seen and heard young activists, demanding that leaders move with more haste.

“I share the anger. I share the frustration,” Kerry said in an interview. We’re doing everything we possibly can to move the process forward as fast as we can. And some countries, I regret to say, have yet to really seize this with all the energy and capacity that they could.”

He has felt that indignation himself, having traveled to 17 foreign countries this year, meeting with ministers and other leaders, urging them to commit to more ambitious goals. Yet, on the eve of COP26, he spoke not of frustration but fortitude.

“I head to Glasgow an optimist,” he said in remarks Thursday at the London School of Economics.

He noted that scores of countries have locked in bolder climate promises, if not yet bold enough. Private companies have embraced goals to rapidly decarbonize. Technology has cut the cost of battery storage and solar panels. The Paris agreement held together in the years when the United States walked away under former president Trump, he said, and the latest pledges put the world on a less disastrous path than only a few years ago.

“I think we will set a better course,” Kerry said of COP26. “I think that there will be a very significant increase in the level of ambition and focus on this decade. … It doesn’t end in Glasgow.”

Selwin Hart, the U.N.'s special adviser on climate change, said in a recent call with reporters that the tenor of the talks, not just the policy details, will matter.

“Is it a moment of unity, collaboration and cooperation?” he asked. “Or will we see geopolitical tensions, divisions and confrontation emerge? I’m hoping it’s the former.”

Guterres, the U.N. chief, exercised a bit of confrontation of his own on Friday at the opening of the Group of 20 summit in Rome.

“Let’s be clear — there is a serious risk that Glasgow will not deliver,” he said. “Several recent climate announcements might leave the impression of a rosier picture. Unfortunately, this is an illusion.”

He added that “serious questions” exist about the credibility of some national pledges. And even if all of the those promises were legitimate and made in good faith, they would still leave global temperatures on track to rise to disastrous levels.

“If we want real success — and not just a mirage — we need more ambition and more action,” he insisted. “That will only be possible with a massive mobilization of political will.”

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