A climate change report card for the world

(Washington Post illustrations; Yves Herman/Reuters; iStock)

Last year’s United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, had the same optimistic energy as the first day of a new school year. The United States — a truant since the nation withdrew from the Paris agreement under President Donald Trump — was back at the table. The cool kids (Leonardo DiCaprio, Prince William, Greta Thunberg) brushed shoulders with the nerds (everyone else). A parade of presidents and prime ministers pledged renewed climate efforts with all the fervor of students promising their parents that this semester would be different.

But that back-to-school energy never lasts. Some of the splashiest COP26 pledges have been derailed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and upheavals in the global economy. Catastrophic climate disasters hampered countries’ abilities to invest in renewable energy and resilient infrastructure, even as they exposed the urgency of preparing for a warmer world.

There are also some glimmers of hope on the horizon: The United States finally passed significant climate legislation to speed the transition away from fossil fuels. Global renewable energy investments are starting to outpace fossil fuel spending.

But climate change doesn’t grade on a curve.

As leaders head to Egypt for another climate summit, The Washington Post worked with experts to craft a report card for the world. It reveals the areas where nations have made some progress, as well as the ways in which we’re dangerously close to failure.

Updating climate pledges: F

One of the main outcomes of the Glasgow conference was a call for countries to arrive in Egypt this year with stronger emissions-cutting commitments, known in United Nations lingo as “Nationally Determined Contributions,” or NDCs.

But according to the independent research group Climate Action Tracker, only one large emitter — Australia — has submitted a substantially more ambitious NDC this year. Before giving the country too much credit, it’s worth noting that Australia’s climate targets hadn’t previously been updated since the Paris agreement in 2015.

“Australia only did the homework of last year, but not this year’s,” said climate scientist Niklas Höhne, whose NewClimate Institute created the tracker.

India, Brazil and Egypt have also made new proposals, but Climate Action Tracker found that those are no more ambitious than their previous targets.

Countries vowed to ramp up their climate goals for COP27. Very few have.

According to the latest U.N. emissions gap report, the current national commitments put the world on track to warm between 2.4 and 2.6 degrees Celsius (4.3 and 4.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. Scientists say this would lead to a hellish future marked by unbearable heat, escalating disasters and widespread hunger and disease.

Top of the class: No one

According to Climate Action Tracker, not a single major polluter has adopted an NDC compatible with the most ambitious goal of the Paris climate agreement: limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels.

Underachievers: Russia

The world’s fifth-biggest greenhouse-gas emitter has not offered a meaningful update to its NDC since 2015. Climate Action Tracker rates the nation’s pledge as “critically insufficient.”

The missing $100 billion: C-

The Glasgow pact demanded that wealthy nations “make significant progress” to fulfill an overdue promise to provide at least $100 billion per year in financial aid to developing countries as they cope with the devastating effects of climate change. Importantly, these funds are supposed to be “new and additional” to nations’ existing aid budgets — ensuring that support for climate doesn’t take away from education, public health and other development concerns.

Two years after the initial deadline, the industrialized world is still falling short, according to a progress report published by the governments of Germany and Canada. There have been some new funding announcements this year — an additional $2 billion per year from Japan, along with a new climate investment fund from Norway. But the promised $100 billion won’t be delivered before 2023, the report said.

Rich countries have also been criticized for spending too much of their money overseas on curbing emissions, rather than helping vulnerable nations adapt to changes that are already wreaking havoc. Because adaptation measures such as sea walls and drought readiness are potentially less profitable than wind farms and solar panels, they don’t attract as much private investment — making communities especially dependent on public funds. In Glasgow, rich nations committed to double funding for adaptation by 2025.

Some 11 countries and the European Commission have committed to spend at least half of their climate finance on adaptation. President Biden has vowed to significantly increase the United States’ funding for adaptation.

But several major development banks have yet to announce any plans on this topic. And leaders from low-income countries remain concerned that too much finance is coming in the form of loans, rather than grants — leaving them and their descendants to deal with long-term debt as they confront an increasingly dangerous climate that they did little to create.

Top of the class: Norway

According to a June report from the humanitarian agency CARE International, the Scandinavian nation is the largest per capita supplier of climate finance, and one of just three wealthy countries to make good on the promise of providing “new and additional” funds. Norway has committed to doubling the amount of climate finance it provides by 2026.

Underachievers: The United States

Despite being the richest country in the world, the United States has provided less climate finance per capita than any other wealthy nation, according to the CARE report. Congress this year appropriated $1 billion to help developing countries deal with climate change — just a fraction of the $11.4 billion Biden promised at last year’s COP.

Curbing methane: C+

In addition to the main “Glasgow climate pact” — which all 193 countries had to agree on — COP26 produced several side pledges, or voluntary commitments made by smaller groups of countries. The biggest was the Global Methane Pledge, an initiative spearheaded by the United States and the United Kingdom to reduce emissions of the potent greenhouse gas by 30 percent by 2030.

Experts say that tackling methane, which mostly comes from fossil fuel facilities, landfills and livestock, can stave off short-term warming while the world transitions to a cleaner economy.

This year, several countries adopted policies to curb the pollutant. The United States passed its first-ever charge on methane as part of the Inflation Reduction Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to strengthen its proposed rule clamping down on these emissions from oil and gas operations. Signs of progress are also coming from the European Union, Nigeria and Colombia, among other nations, said Antoine Halff, co-founder of the satellite analysis firm Kayrros. And many signatories to the methane pledge are expected to publish their plans for following through at the meeting in Egypt.

At the same time, the International Energy Agency warns that actual methane emissions are 70 percent higher than what countries are reporting. And new research from the World Meteorological Organization shows that atmospheric concentrations of the gas are rising faster than ever. Scientists say the increases bear a chemical fingerprint of coming from biological sources, such as burping cattle or decomposing wetlands. This could be evidence of a “climate feedback” in which rising temperatures cause ecosystems to release more methane, which then fuels even greater temperature rise.

Top of the class: The United States

Halff said the United States’ new charge on methane is the most potentially powerful of the policies announced so far. By 2026, oil and gas companies will be required to pay up to $1,500 for each metric ton of methane they release beyond a certain threshold, and the analysis group Energy Innovation estimates that it will cut the equivalent of 29 million metric tons of carbon dioxide by 2030. However, loopholes in the law mean that won’t be as effective without stronger regulations from the EPA.

Underachievers: China

The world’s largest methane producer has not signed on to the Global Methane Pledge. Nor has China released the “ambitious plan” to cut methane that it promised in a joint announcement with the United States at last year’s climate talks.

Reversing deforestation: D-

More than 100 nations representing over 85 percent of the world’s forests — including Brazil, Canada, Norway, Indonesia and the United States — pledged to halt and reverse deforestation by the end of the decade. Natural ecosystems like forests are critical for sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, but almost a quarter of all greenhouse gas pollution currently comes from farming, forestry and other land uses.

Achieving this goal would require nations to curb deforestation by 10 percent each year — a target the world is nowhere close to meeting. A recent assessment found that global forest losses have exceeded the gains from replanting efforts the last two years. Meanwhile, the first half of this year saw record deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.

The degradation of primary forests — ecosystems that have never been cut down — is especially worrying, said Wayne Walker, carbon program director at the Woodwell Climate Research Center. That’s because existing old-growth forests store huge amounts of carbon, as well as serve as habitat for animals, clean the air and water, prevent erosion and provide medicine and food for people. Protecting these trees will always be the more “climate-smart option,” compared with trying to reforest a degraded landscape.

Top of the class: Indonesia

While other forests see worrying declines, tropical Asia is the only region on track to halt deforestation by the end of the decade. At the head of the pack is Indonesia, which curbed forest loss by 25 percent from 2020 to 2021 and has reduced deforestation each of the past five years.

Underachievers: Brazil

Under outgoing president Jair Bolsonaro, who campaigned for president on promises to open up the Amazon to business, rates of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon have reached record highs. Satellite images reveal the ecosystem has shrunk by about 17 percent, and parts of the forest now emit more carbon dioxide than they absorb.

But the incoming president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has pledged to “fight for zero deforestation.” To the extent that he can boost enforcement and deliver on that promise, Brazil may be able to protect one of the most valuable rainforests on Earth.

Public finance promises: C

Nearly three dozen countries pledged to end public financial support — such as development aid, loans and export subsidies — for fossil fuel projects in other countries. According to the nonprofit Oil Change International, this promise would directly shift $28 billion a year out of oil, gas and other fossil fuels — if countries stick to it.

To some degree, they have. Despite fears that the energy crisis sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would send nations scurrying for additional oil and gas, the majority of signatories have published policies that will end overseas fossil fuel financing by the end of this year, according to Oil Change International.

The latest World Energy Outlook published by the International Energy Agency shows that total investments in renewable energy this year have outstripped global spending on fossil fuels.

Top of the class: The United Kingdom

Britain excludes all finance for both overseas oil and gas projects, setting it apart from other industrialized nations. Only seven of the 17 major financing nations who signed an agreement in Glasgow to end all support for international fossil fuel projects by the end of 2022 have published policies ruling out this kind of financing. In addition to the U.K., that group includes Denmark, Sweden, the European Investment Bank, France, Belgium and Finland.

Underachievers: Canada

Canada ranks as one of the top public funders of international fossil fuel development, according to Oil Change International. Between 2019 and 2021, it provided an average of $8.5 billion annually, the group reports, with most of that money supporting oil and gas projects. Export credit agency Export Development Canada has said that ending “new direct financing to international fossil fuel companies and projects by the end of 2022” will meet the goals of the agreement in Glasgow. But that would still allow the government to give money to its own fossil fuel firms, which finance many of these operations overseas.

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