Pandemic, war, politics hamper global push for climate action

‘It is, at the end of the day, up to all countries to deliver on the commitments they’ve made,’ says the British official who oversaw last fall’s U.N. climate summit in Glasgow

The promises arrived at a rapid clip over two weeks in Glasgow last fall. There, along the banks of the River Clyde, leaders from nearly 200 nations vowed to do more — and move faster — to combat climate change.

They forged pacts to halt deforestation and cut emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Rich nations agreed to spend more to help vulnerable countries adapt. And in recognition that the world is still moving too slowly, leaders pledged to “revisit and strengthen” their climate goals within a year if possible — a much tighter timeline than in the past.

But nearly six months later, no large nation has come forward with a bolder climate plan, and none of the world’s top emitters has committed to doing so this year.

“What we have seen so far is very, very little,” said Niklas Höhne, a German climatologist who created the Climate Action Tracker, which monitors the commitments and policies of countries, and has rated virtually all of them insufficient. “I don’t see much movement.”

Neither does John F. Kerry, President Biden’s international climate envoy, who has continued to trek around the globe to drum up support for more fervent action, even as the White House struggles to enact its climate agenda at home.

“I don’t see the evidence yet” that the world’s largest greenhouse gas polluters are gearing up to make new commitments ahead of the next U.N. summit this fall in Egypt, Kerry said in a recent interview with The Washington Post. “I don’t see the evidence that that is happening.”

He also said there are not signs that major countries are beginning to cut emissions significantly enough to shift the world toward less catastrophic levels of warming.

“So I think we have a huge lift,” Kerry said.

It was always going to take time for countries to follow through on the promises from Glasgow, some of which detailed goals as distant as 2070. And new pledges could materialize by the time leaders reconvene near the end of the year in Egypt.

But for the moment, any momentum that emerged in Scotland last fall seems in peril, as other crises — from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, to rising inflation and energy costs, to the war in Ukraine — have demanded the attention of world leaders.

“There is no doubt that a lot of international bandwidth, particularly at the leader level, has been taken up by [Russian President] Vladimir Putin’s illegal and frankly brutal invasion of Ukraine. And that’s completely understandable,” said Alok Sharma, the U.K. official who served as president of the Glasgow summit, known as COP26.

The thorny political and economic realities of recent months have dampened prospects that the planet’s biggest emitters could quickly pursue more climate-friendly policies.

China, by far the world’s largest greenhouse gas polluter, has promised to peak its emissions before 2030 as it shifts toward a greener economy. But amid power shortages and fears of energy insecurity, Chinese officials have detailed plans this year to boost production of coal, the nation’s main energy source.

India, which in Glasgow announced a new goal to build 500 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2030, also has ramped up coal production to meet rising energy demands. Meanwhile, leaders in Europe and the United States have taken short-term measures to lower fuel prices and boost oil and gas supplies that conflict with their lofty, long-term climate aspirations.

But despite such competing priorities, Sharma and others have continued to press countries to find the political will to back up their words with tangible policies.

“It is, at the end of the day, up to all countries to deliver on the commitments they’ve made,” Sharma said. “And that is what we are doing this year, whether I’m going to a developing nation or a developed nation. That is the message that I’m delivering.”

Last spring, the White House hosted more than 40 world leaders for a two-day climate summit in which Biden pressed nations to slash their emissions. The push for stronger climate targets was a central topic at last year’s Group of Seven and Group of 20 meetings, as well as during the U.N. General Assembly, where Secretary General António Guterres implored leaders to embrace “more ambitious and achievable” targets.

“Nothing less will do,” he said, adding, “We really are out of time.”

Guterres has continued to push for climate action — and to call out inaction. He recently accused governments and businesses of “empty pledges that put us firmly on track towards an unlivable world.” Other leaders have continued to highlight the need to more quickly move away from fossil fuels.

But even as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued one startling assessment after another, documenting the worsening climate effects around the globe and detailing the “brief and rapidly closing” window humans have to avoid increasingly catastrophic consequences, other crises have dimmed the international spotlight on the issue compared to a year ago.

“The world has gotten really complicated,” said Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

But she also sees a silver lining. As the war in Ukraine, the pandemic and global economic worries have dominated headlines and demanded the attention of presidents and prime ministers, no nations have disavowed promises they made at COP26.

“I don’t see any massive backsliding,” she said.

In fact, Kyte said, there are positive signs that, at least in some places, climate change remains a key political issue. In France’s recent election, she noted, President Emmanuel Macron “did not tack away from his green credentials,” instead pledging to accelerate the country’s shift toward decarbonization.

Likewise, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen recently proposed that her nation phase out reliance on natural gas by 2030 — a move she said would simultaneously weaken Putin and help tackle climate change.

The biggest question, Kyte said, is whether leaders around the world can translate the promises they made on the global stage in Glasgow into concrete policies at home. “2021 was about ambition. 2022 is about implementation and building confidence that we can do what we say we’re doing,” she said.

That has been the central challenge in the United States, where Biden’s push for far-reaching legislation crumbled last year and where congressional Democrats are struggling to resurrect the climate provisions of their roughly $2 trillion package formerly known as the Build Back Better Act.

Biden’s vow to cut U.S. emissions at least in half by 2030 requires a significant assist from Capitol Hill. If the United States ultimately fails to adopt legislation to boost clean energy and provide billions in annual climate financing to the developing world, “that will be very damaging,” said Laurence Tubiana, head of the European Climate Foundation and an architect of the 2015 Paris agreement.

Kerry shares that concern. He said the Biden administration set a strong 2030 climate target, but it still must demonstrate to the world it can take the steps necessary to fulfill it.

“There’s no debate over the fact that our diplomacy will be affected by what we do or don’t decide to do in that regard,” he said. “And I know the president is very focused on that and cares about it very deeply.”

As the United States and other nations wrestle with internal politics and global crises, Höhne said it is important to remember that for now, the world remains on a disastrous path.

The planet already has warmed more than 1 degree Celsius (1.8 Fahrenheit) since the Industrial Revolution. And while global emissions dropped briefly during the pandemic, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions surged by 6 percent in 2021, their highest-ever level, according to the International Energy Agency.

The Climate Action Tracker estimates that current policies in place around the world would result in roughly 2.7 degrees Celsius (4.9 Fahrenheit) of warming this century.

That is significantly better than the trajectory of only a few years ago, but well beyond the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold leaders insist they do not want to cross. At its current pace, the world would barrel past that limit in the coming decades and set off increasingly deadly and irreversible calamities, scientists say.

“The problem is the current pledges are very insufficient,” Höhne said. “We are not a little bit off. We are totally off still, even with the new pledges that came out of Glasgow.”

The Climate Vulnerable Forum, a coalition of dozens of nations in Africa, Asia and elsewhere that face acute threats from global warming, on Thursday published an analysis of climate pledges countries made five years after the Paris agreement, many of which fell short of the kind of action scientists say is necessary.

The lackluster plans represent “a betrayal of the promises of Paris,” Emmanuel Tachie-Obeng, an official in Ghana’s Environmental Protection Agency, said in a statement announcing the findings. “There is no magic formula to save the world from the climate emergency that we are facing. The stronger the [national commitments], the better our chances to create a more sustainable world.”

Sharma finds optimism in the progress that came at COP26, however insufficient. Despite the messy, imperfect and often incremental process, he said the world has no choice but to forge ahead and avoid every possible fraction of warming.

“I do think as a result of what we did in Glasgow, we kept 1.5 [Celsius] alive. But as I said at the time, its pulse is weak, and the pulse remains weak,” he said. “And the only way you strengthen the pulse of 1.5 is actually to see a delivery on all the commitments that have been made.”

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