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Can Glasgow Deliver on a Global Climate Deal?

GLASGOW — The international climate summit here has been billed by its chief organizer as the “last, best hope” to save the planet. But as the United Nations conference enters its second week and negotiators from 197 countries knuckle down to finalize a new agreement to tackle global warming, attendees were sharply divided over how much progress is being made.

There’s the optimistic view: Heads of state and titans of industry showed up in force last week with splashy new climate promises, a sign that momentum was building in the right direction.

“I believe what is happening here is far from business as usual,” said John Kerry, President Biden’s special envoy on climate change, who has been attending U.N. climate summits since 1992. “I have never counted as many initiatives and as much real money — real money — being put on the table.”

For example, 105 countries agreed to cut emissions of methane, a potent planet-warming gas, by 30 percent this decade. Another 130 countries vowed to halt deforestation by 2030 and commit billions of dollars toward the effort. India for the first time joined the growing chorus of nations pledging to reach “net zero” emissions, setting a 2070 deadline to stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Then there’s the pessimistic view: All these gauzy promises mean little without concrete plans to follow through. And that’s still lacking. Or, as the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg put it, the conference has mostly consisted of “blah, blah, blah.”

Malik Amin Aslam, an adviser to the prime minister of Pakistan, scoffed at some of the distant net zero goals being announced, including India’s: “With an average age of 60, I don’t think anyone in the negotiating room would live to experience that net zero in 2070,” he said.

On Monday, former President Barack Obama arrived at the summit to rally leaders. “Yes, the process will be messy,” he said. “I guarantee you every victory will be incomplete. Sometimes, we will be forced to settle for imperfect compromises. But at least they advance the ball down the field. If we work hard enough, for long enough, those partial victories add up.”

Critics noted that some of last week’s announcements turned out to be full of caveats. After signing the forest pledge, officials in Indonesia, home to the world’s third-largest rainforest, clarified that ending deforestation in their country by 2030 at the expense of economic development was “obviously inappropriate and unfair.” Another vow by more than 40 countries to phase out coal power featured vague timelines and left out major coal users like China, India and the United States.

“The actual negotiations here are in danger of being drowned out by a blitz of news releases that get great headlines, but are often less than meets the eye,” said Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa, a research institute based in Kenya. “There’s a lot of good talk and less real action.”

Mr. Adow said the summit should be judged on whether all 197 parties can craft a detailed, formal agreement that holds governments accountable for the promises they make. That would mean reaching consensus on wonky but crucial questions like how often nations should strengthen their near-term plans to cut emissions, the amount and type of financial aid that rich countries should give poorer ones to cope with the mounting dangers of climate change, and how to regulate the booming global market in carbon offsets.

Behind closed doors, negotiators are still debating key issues as they seek to expand and update the landmark 2015 Paris climate agreement. By tradition, a final agreement requires every single country to sign on — if any one of them objects, talks can deadlock.

How these disputes get resolved by the time the summit ends on Friday could determine the success of the Glasgow talks.

“The reality is you’ve got two different truths going on,” said Helen Mountford, vice president for climate and economics at the World Resources Institute. “We’ve made much more progress than we ever could’ve imagined a couple years ago. But it’s still nowhere near enough.”

When the conference opened last Monday, the U.N. secretary general, António Guterres, said the top priority must be to limit the rise in global temperatures to just 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, above preindustrial levels. That’s the threshold, scientists have warned, beyond which the risk of calamities like deadly heat waves, water shortages and ecosystem collapse grows immensely. (The world has already warmed 1.1 degrees Celsius.)

Countries are all but certain to leave Glasgow short of achieving that goal. The big question is whether the lofty pledges this week, along with a new formal agreement, can push them further along.

When analysts at the United Nations tallied up all of the formal plans that nations have submitted so far to curb emissions over the next decade, they estimated that the world was on track to heat up roughly 2.7 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by 2100. That’s both an improvement over where things stood a decade ago and also far off-track.

To limit warming to just 1.5 degrees Celsius, the U.N. said, global emissions from fossil fuels need to plummet by roughly half between 2010 and 2030. Instead, emissions are set to rise over that period.

“Recent climate action announcements might give the impression that we are on track to turn things around,” Mr. Guterres said last week. “This is an illusion.”

On Thursday, however, the International Energy Agency offered a more hopeful picture. If you factor in some of the longer term, less-detailed promises that countries have made recently — including pledges to reach net zero emissions by most of the world’s biggest economies, as well as the new agreement to cut methane — then the world could potentially keep warming to as low as 1.8 degrees Celsius by 2100.

“I certainly never thought we’d get to next Friday confidently on track to 1.5 degrees, but if we can break the two-degree barrier, I think psychologically that will be huge and maybe give us more of a collective belief that we can go faster,” said Nigel Topping, chosen by the U.N. as its “high level climate action champion.”

Yet many environmentalists remained skeptical of the International Energy Agency’s projection.

“It’s assuming that countries like Australia and Saudi Arabia will get there by 2050, simply because they’ve said they will,” said Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International. “When in reality they haven’t put in place the funding or policies to make this happen.”

One issue being debated this week is whether countries should have to come back to the United Nations more frequently, perhaps annually, with stronger short-term plans to cut emissions. At the moment, governments aren’t expected to submit new pledges until 2025.

“That’s a bit too late for many countries to strengthen their pledges for this decade, since they’ll have built a lot of fossil-fuel infrastructure by then and will have locked in additional emissions,” said Jennifer Tollmann, an analyst for E3G, a climate research group.

Sabra Ibrahim Noordeen is the climate envoy for the Maldives, an archipelago of low-lying islands in the Indian Ocean that has been inhabited for thousands of years but could be inundated within three generations because of rising seas. She said countries like hers were depending on the summit to get it right.

“Please get us to 1.5,” she said.

Even more contentious is the question of money, which has long been a big sticking point in global climate talks.

A decade ago, the world’s wealthiest nations pledged $100 billion per year by 2020 to help poorer countries transition to cleaner energy and protect themselves against the growing dangers from heat waves, floods, droughts and wildfires as the planet heats up.

So far, those promises have not been met. By one estimate, wealthy countries are still falling short by tens of billions of dollars per year. And critics have said that even this money has been poorly targeted. A large fraction of aid to date has been handed out as loans, which developing countries often struggle to repay. And only a tiny sliver of financing has gone toward efforts to adapt to climate change.

As the dangers from extreme weather rise, vulnerable countries say their financial needs are soaring.

Sonam P. Wangdi, who leads a bloc of 47 nations known as the Least Developed Countries, pointed out that his home country of Bhutan bears little responsibility for global warming, since the nation currently absorbs more carbon dioxide from its vast forests than it emits from its cars and homes. Nonetheless, Bhutan faces severe risks from rising temperatures, with melting glaciers in the Himalayas already creating flash floods and mudslides that have devastated villages.

“We have contributed the least to this problem yet we suffer disproportionately,” Mr. Wangdi said. “There must be increasing support for adapting to impacts.”

At the same time, vulnerable countries are arguing for a separate funding mechanism to help compensate them for disasters that they can’t adapt to, often referred to as “loss and damage.” But that proposal faces opposition from wealthier countries, which fear it could open the door to future compensation claims.

“So far the progress here is disappointing, and in a way frightening,” Mr. Wangdi said. “Our lives depend on decisions made here in Glasgow.”

Others at the summit argued that it was unrealistic to expect a single conference to solve global warming. The Paris agreement was intended to add transparency to countries’ climate plans and ratchet up pressure on world leaders to do more. But ultimately, the real test would be whether policymakers and businesses and activists make that vision a reality back home.

“The day after Glasgow ends, there’s still going to be a lot of work to do,” said Kaveh Guilanpour, a vice president at the Center for Energy and Climate Solutions who has worked as a negotiator for various parties at past summits. “A new agreement could set the foundations for what comes next, but it’s up to all of us to maintain pressure after that. The problem is not going to be fixed in one go.”

“We may not really know how successful Glasgow was,” he added, “until a couple of years down the road.”

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