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COP26 Exposed the Sorry State of Climate Diplomacy

Stewart M. Patrick - World Politics Review

As former U.S. President Barack Obama once mused, there are times in global diplomacy, as in baseball, when “hitting singles” is adequate. This month’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow was not one of those moments. With the fate of the planet on the line, world leaders should have been swinging for the fences. Instead, they played small ball, chalking up only incremental gains rather than the historic breakthrough the occasion demanded. 

Going into the Glasgow summit, the United Nations Environment Program had delivered some blunt news: The world’s emissions reduction pledges before COP26 accounted for only one-seventh of the reduction actually needed to limit the rise in average global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. In fact, emissions were on track to increase by the end of the decade, with global temperatures slated to rise a catastrophic 2.7 degrees Celsius. Given the high stakes, COP26 was, in the words of U.S. climate envoy John Kerry, “the last best hope for the world.” 

Its outcome was disheartening. Some nations announced new commitments, but they often came with caveats and, being nonbinding, were easily discounted. China, which is responsible for 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, promised to stop funding coal-fired power plants abroad, but not at home, and Beijing declined to accelerate its deadline for achieving net-zero emissions, currently set at 2060. The U.S. and China did jointly promise to “enhance” their emissions reduction ambitions, but the main value of this vague commitment was to reassure anxious observers that geopolitical frictions will not derail bilateral climate cooperation.

Meanwhile, other significant emitters like Australia, Brazil and Russia barely budged in their short-term climate plans. India, the world’s fourth-largest emitter, finally set a date for carbon neutrality—but settled on 2070, a half century from now. Its objections also led the assembly to water down the summit’s new pact, the Glasgow Agreement, so that it commits signatories only to “phase down” rather than “phase out” fossil fuels.

The commitments made at Glasgow fall far short of what is needed. According to the research group Climate Tracker, if fully implemented, they would limit the planet’s warming to 2.4 degrees Celsius, only a modest improvement from before COP26. 

The disappointing outcome of COP26 provides insights into the still-sorry state of climate diplomacy nearly 30 years after the Rio Summit.

The Glasgow Agreement itself does include noteworthy provisions. It is the first such pact to explicitly reference and call for reduced reliance on fossil fuels. It calls on wealthy countries to “at least double” their support for climate financing and help developing economies address “loss and damage” from climate change. It also commits all nations to ramp up their ambitions before next year’s COP27 summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt; instructs the U.N.’s climate secretariat to release annual updates of its synthesis report on these “nationally determined contributions”; and establishes new rules for international trade in carbon credits. 

But beyond these specifics, the disappointing outcome of COP26 provides insights into the still-sorry state of climate diplomacy nearly 30 years after the Rio Summit, when nations signed the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. 

First, climate change remains the mother of all collective action problems, rife with buck-passing and free-riding at the multilateral level. It continues to pit developed against developing countries in debates over which group should shoulder the burden of adjustment to a post-carbon world, given the former’s historical responsibilities for the existing stock of greenhouse gases and the latter’s understandable reluctance to shortchange immediate and pressing human development needs. The climate emergency underscores just how hard it is to reconcile an international system comprised of 195 sovereign states with a biosphere that respects no such boundaries.

Second, the main breakthroughs in Scotland were not agreements endorsed by all parties, but bespoke initiatives launched by high-ambition coalitions of the willing. More than 100 countries signed the Global Methane Pledge to reduce emissions of that gas 30 percent from 2020 levels by the end of the decade, and 110 promised to end deforestation by that time. Forty countries announced plans to quit coal, while 20 governments agreed to phase out public funding of fossil fuel projects abroad. This growing reliance on subsets of nations to spearhead international cooperation—a pattern that has emerged in other areas of global governance—reflects both the hurdles to achieving universal consensus and the belief that the climate emergency cannot await unanimity. 

Third, even well-intentioned leaders face massive hurdles in reconciling ambitious climate mitigation commitments with domestic political constraints. U.S. President Joe Biden, for instance, arrived in Glasgow hobbled diplomatically by holdouts in his own party, most notably Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who threatened the credibility of the climate provisions in the administration’s Build Back Better bill. These domestic and international political crosscurrents were also on display when Alok Sharma, the British chair of COP26, tearfully apologized that the final agreement had failed to take a harder line on coal. Barnaby Joyce, Australia’s populist deputy prime minister, mocked Sharma, whom he denounced for seeking to “shut down industries in other people’s countries.” 

Fourth, wealthy nations remain unwilling to help poor ones reduce emissions and adjust to a warming world. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, advanced market countries have delivered only four-fifths of the $100 billion in annual climate financing they promised to developing nations. Meanwhile, the cost of global adaptation is poised to explode from $16.7 billion today to $300 billion per year by 2030. At Glasgow, a coalition of developing nations submitted an eye-popping demand for $1.3 trillion in annual financing to advance renewable energy and adaptation. It fell on deaf ears. Based on past performance, OECD nations will struggle even to double their climate financing by 2025. But without such resources, developing countries will struggle to adopt new green technologies and transition to clean energy sources. The miserliness of advanced economies is even more infuriating in light of their equal determination to cease investing public funds in fossil fuel projects abroad. From the perspective of poor countries, it appears that the rich world is quite willing to use climate change as grounds to deprive lower-income nations of the energy they need to grow and develop. 

Finally, with every passing year, national governments are necessarily placing more and more faith in the private sector and technological innovation to come to the planet’s rescue. Some promising trends are afoot. More than 450 major financial institutions from 45 countries pledged in Glasgow to use their collective capital—valued at about $130 trillion—to support net-zero emissions targets. Their purpose, according to Mark Carney, the former head of the Bank of England and leader of this initiative, is to ensure that “every financial decision takes climate change into account.” In another encouraging development, six major global carmakers joined 40 nations and three U.S. states in announcing plans to phase out production of gas automobiles in the coming two decades. Meanwhile, breakthroughs in renewable energy, as well as carbon capture and storage, are accelerating, powered by a surge in venture capital seeking to cash in on the green-energy gold rush.

The dilemma, of course, comes down to timing. It will take years for new green technologies to grow to scale—years that the world does not have, particularly if national governments continue to resist bold action. To return to the baseball metaphor, we are far behind in the bottom of the ninth. It’s time to start hitting home runs.

Stewart Patrick is the James H. Binger senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling America with the World” (Brookings Press: 2018). His weekly WPR column appears every Monday.

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