The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Leaders made big climate promises. They’re struggling to follow through.

The world is barreling toward 1.5 degrees Celsius, a threshold of temperature rise leaders said they would try not to cross. But the lofty pledges at COP26 in the fall have yet to become policies.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the United Nations' COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2021. (Christopher Furlong/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)
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After world leaders made lofty promises in the fall to move faster to combat climate change, the months since have brought steady reminders of why following through on those pledges is critical — and why it is so difficult.

Crippling heat waves have scorched India and Pakistan this spring, upending millions of lives. And yet, Russia’s devastating war in Ukraine has consumed the attention of numerous heads of state.

Destructive floods have killed hundreds of people in South Africa — a catastrophe that the nation’s president blamed in part on climate change. And yet, the ongoing pandemic has caused staggering numbers of deaths and remains a public health crisis on multiple continents.

Scientists warned in thousands of pages of agonizing detail — once again — how the world is far off target from its climate goals, and that inaction will lead to more deadly and costly disasters. And yet, inflation and other economic problems have dominated headlines in the United States and abroad.

The upheaval unfolding around the world has left many policymakers and environmental advocates worried that immediate crises — among them war, spiking gas prices and an open-ended pandemic — are hindering the ability of leaders to take necessary action on the longer-term threats posed by climate change.

The world is barreling toward a threshold that leaders promised to try not to cross — allowing the Earth to surpass more than 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming above preindustrial levels.

By contrast, progress toward climate action that matches the bold rhetoric at a high-profile fall summit in Scotland, known as COP26, is slow and fitful. With only a handful of months until the next such gathering, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, it remains unclear when, or whether, those promises will result in concrete implementation.

“I fear very much that the world has gotten distracted,” said scientist Friederike Otto, an author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and senior lecturer at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London.

That worry is palpable among those invested in trying to make sure nations move with haste to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, in which the leaders of nearly 200 countries pledged to keep global warming “well below” 2 degrees Celsius and limit it to 1.5 Celsius if possible.

At COP26, nations speed climate action but leave world still headed for dangerous warming

“There is no political will, and nothing has actually changed since Glasgow,” said Nisreen Elsaim, 27, chair of the U.N. secretary general’s youth advisory group on climate change and a junior negotiator on behalf of African nations.

As she roamed the halls of a sprawling conference center in Bonn, Germany, where officials from around the world are trying to lay the groundwork for COP27 in Egypt, she felt one emotion above all: frustration.

In Germany, delegates have undertaken dozens of sessions on how to more quickly cut greenhouse gas emissions; how to structure global carbon markets; and how to ensure vulnerable countries receive promised funds to adapt to worsening climate disasters and shift to cleaner energy sources. But no far-reaching new agreements are expected from the gathering.

“The world is going to have one question in Sharm el-Sheikh: What progress have you made since Glasgow?” Patricia Espinosa, the top climate official at the United Nations, told delegates as meetings commenced this week in Bonn.

“We must move these negotiations along more quickly. The world expects it,” Espinosa said. “It is not acceptable to say that we are in challenging times — they know that climate change is not an agenda we can afford to push back on our global schedule.”

The world remains at risk of blazing past its most ambitious climate target in less than a decade. At the current rate of emissions, a detailed IPCC assessment found in April, the world will burn through its remaining “carbon budget” by 2030 — sabotaging the goal of keeping warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). The world already has warmed roughly 1.2 degrees Celsius.

While it remains technically possible — and even economically viable — for nations to slash carbon pollution on the scale required, according to the IPCC, the authors of the report were unequivocal that such a shift “cannot be achieved through incremental change.”

Global average temperatures could temporarily pass the 1.5 Celsius threshold within the next five years, the World Meteorological Organization said recently. The WMO found there is a 50 percent chance of surpassing that mark by 2026, though the odds of it exceeding it for longer periods are becoming more likely with time.

Briefly crossing the 1.5 Celsius threshold does not mean the world’s climate aspirations are kaput. Nor does it mean there’s not real value in continuing to try to cut carbon emissions and adapt to mounting climate-related challenges. But it does underscore how rapidly and steadily humans have warmed the planet, how profound changes have resulted and how the world has yet to muster the will to quickly alter its trajectory.

2C or 1.5C? How global climate targets are set and what they mean.

Despite the many warning signs from scientists and promises from leaders to move faster, progress on more ambitious policies has “stalled” since COP26 in Glasgow, the independent Climate Action Tracker said in an analysis this week.

While leaders pledged to “revisit and strengthen” their climate goals during 2022 wherever possible, no large nation has enshrined bolder plans this year, and none of the world’s top emitters have committed to doing so. Without increased government action, the group found, humans are headed toward a future closer to 3 degrees Celsius of warming than 1.5 Celsius.

“The world appears to be sleepwalking to disaster,” Bill Hare, chief executive of Climate Analytics, said in a statement detailing the findings. “Governments appear to think taking more action is too hard. What will be more difficult is dealing with a 3 degree [Celsius] world.”

The world is running out of options to hit climate goals, U.N. report shows

As delegates in Bonn try to hammer out a road map this week that will allow the world to meet its climate goals, a smaller and newly formed group convened in Italy to explore how to handle the likelihood that the planet will surpass the Paris accord’s temperature targets.

The 16-member Climate Overshoot Commission includes the former presidents of Niger, Kiribati and Mexico, a former Canadian prime minister, a past director general of World Trade Organization and other national ministers and environmental advocates.

The group, which is set to meet multiple times in the coming year and issue recommendations ahead of a major U.N. climate summit in 2023, will explore a range of possible approaches. Among them: accelerated adaptation to climate disasters, the large-scale removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and the contentious idea of cooling the planet by reflecting incoming sunlight.

“Mitigation remains priority number one,” Pascal Lamy, the group’s chair and president of the Paris Peace Forum, said in an interview. But, he said, given the increasing likelihood that the globe will experience 1.5 Celsius of warming, “I think there’s a larger risk in not considering these issues. … I’m old enough to believe that we should leave no stone unturned.”

Plenty of advocates are holding out hope that the world can find ways to succeed on climate change and overcome the political roadblocks and other crises that have led to more delay and uncertainty.

Elsaim said she has seen more and more activists join the push for climate action, providing “a breath of hope that things might actually be as we wish one day.” But she also wonders whether there is enough time — and enough international leadership — for the world to hit its collective goals.

One question mark is where that leadership will come from. The United States, which under President Biden has been outspoken in favor of aggressive climate action around the world, has struggled to win approval for such policies at home.

“The question becomes, what is the U.S. concretely doing? That’s where things are a bit shakier, to be honest,” David Waskow, director of the World Resources Institute’s International Climate Initiative, told reporters in a call this week about the talks in Bonn. “We have seen a stall in the climate agenda in Congress.”

In part because Africa is projected to suffer some of the most severe consequences of rising temperatures — despite contributing a tiny fraction of overall emissions — the U.N. conference this fall in Egypt is expected to highlight the needs of developing nations as they adapt to climate change and recover from disasters that are underway.

Yet, Otto said, she has seen few signs that the world’s most powerful economies and biggest emitters are committed to providing vulnerable communities with the necessary financial support.

Even as they continue to fall short on their targets to curb their own emissions, wealthy countries have not followed through on an overdue promise to generate $100 billion a year in financing to help low-income nations move away from fossil fuels and cope with climate impacts. A recent U.N. report also found that the world needs to invest five to 10 times as much on adaptation as it currently spends.

“We know what we need to do, but we are not doing it yet,” Otto said.

That reality is what makes the talks in Germany important, despite their relatively low profile and the low expectations for major breakthroughs.

“By the time you get to [COP27], things are almost baked in,” Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh, told reporters this week. “And unless you get some things moving here in Bonn,” he said, it becomes only harder to find compromise under the spotlight of a major U.N. climate summit months down the line.

“It is laying the foundation … for what happens in Sharm el-Sheikh,” Huq said. “A bad foundation means a bad COP. A good foundation means a good COP.”

Sarah Kaplan contributed to this report.

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