Despite 30 years of United Nations climate change conferences, global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, and the climate crisis continues to worsen. While there has been progress at the Glasgow climate summit — cutting methane, slowing deforestation, clean technology finance, and reducing coal use — far more ambitious measures are urgently needed if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
The Glasgow summit failed to meet this historic moment, for three main reasons.
First, the collective emissions reduction commitments of all nations remain insufficient, just as they were in the 2015 Paris accord. For a chance to save a habitable planet, global emissions must be reduced by 50% by 2030. And we cannot simply trade emissions credits or buy offsets, as fossil fuel interests propose — we need a 50% reduction in actual emissions. Yet the collective commitments of nations remain far from this goal. Current commitments, including those at Glasgow, put the world on track for an apocalyptic 2.5°C temperature increase, far beyond the agreed 1.5°C limit. Holding warming to 1.5°C is no longer possible. Even so, every carbon atom we keep out of the atmosphere now will make the future a little more habitable. A +2°C goal is still within reach.
Second, climate agreements, including those at Glasgow, lack legal force or any enforcement mechanisms. These agreements are essentially just promises, with no consequences for noncompliance. This is often where international agreements fall apart. Governments make promises, but then fail to adopt them in national law when they return home. A 2014 global agreement to cut deforestation by 50% failed this way. Already at Glasgow, the government of Indonesia first agreed to end deforestation by 2030, but after pressure from its home government, retracted this commitment only two days later.
For emissions reductions agreements to work, they have to be sufficient, and legally binding. The international community must establish consequences, sanctions, and penalties for failure to make, or implement, sufficient commitments. This is one reason the 1987 Montreal Protocol on ozone protection has been the most successful environmental agreement in history — it is legally binding, and has consequences for noncompliance.
A similar sanctions-and-penalty regime needs to be established for climate commitments. It is unacceptable that China, India, Russia, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and other recalcitrant nations continue to ignore the need to reduce emissions 50% by 2030. A pledge to reach “net-zero” by 2060 or 2070 is clearly insufficient, and the international community must impose consequences for such reckless disregard for the planet and all its inhabitants. For starters, the world should boycott the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing (Feb. 2022), unless Beijing commits to a legally binding, enforceable time table to phase out its exorbitant use of coal.
Finally, there is a continuing failure of wealthy nations to commit the financing necessary, both domestically and internationally, to reduce emissions. A decade ago, the world’s wealthy nations agreed to a $100 billion per year Green Climate Fund to support the climate adaptation and energy transition needs of developing nations. But less than 1% of this has actually been funded. Further, the world’s most polluting governments have not invested sufficiently in their own transition to a low carbon energy economy. The clean energy spending proposed in President Biden’s Build Back Better bill would be an historic step for the U.S. (assuming it survives Republican opposition), yet even this does not address our obligation to provide our share of international climate aid.
The minimum global investment necessary this decade to save the future of our home planet — a “Living Planet Emergency Fund” — is $4 trillion per year (roughly 5% of world GDP). That’s $2 trillion domestically in the wealthiest 20 nations, and $2 trillion to fund the energy transition and adaptation needs of the other 175 nations. By comparison, the U.S. alone spent more than $8 trillion in just two years in COVID response. The threat from climate change is far more consequential. Either we fully fund the low-carbon energy transition now, or we will lose any chance for a habitable world. This is now squarely the responsibility of the Group of 20.
The Group of 20 is composed of the wealthiest nations on Earth: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Japan, India, Indonesia, Italy, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union. Together, these nations make up 60% of world population, 80% of world GDP, and are responsible for 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, over half of total global emissions come from just five G20 members: China, U.S., E.U., India, and Russia. G20 nations are largely responsible for the climate crisis, and have a moral obligation, and financial and technological capacity, to solve it.
A straightforward source of G20 climate financing is to transfer all fossil fuel subsidies currently paid by these governments to subsidize low carbon energy, and to institute a Global Minimum Carbon Tax. While last month’s G20 meeting in Rome agreed to a 15% Global Minimum Corporate Tax, it entirely ignored the more important carbon tax.
The Glasgow summit failed. But failure is no longer an option on this, and governments cannot simply now go home and say: “well, we tried.” As the G20 is largely responsible for the climate crisis, and has the singular ability to solve it, the G20 must now reconvene in an emergency session in early 2022, focused exclusively on solving the climate crisis once and for all.
At this emergency climate session, G20 governments must adopt a legally binding agreement for all members to reduce emissions 50% by 2030; establish a $4 trillion per year Living Planet Emergency Fund, financed by a carbon tax and subsidy reallocation in each country; and establish an enforcement mechanism and penalties for non-compliance by G20 states. Fossil fuel lobbyists, that dominated the Glasgow summit, must be excluded from this emergency G20 climate session.
If the G20 resolves the three issues above — sufficient emission reduction commitments, enforcement mechanisms for noncompliance, and sufficient finance — it is still possible to hold warming to under 2°C, saving the future of humanity and our living home planet.
Rick Steiner is the founder of Oasis Earth in Anchorage; he was a marine conservation professor with the University of Alaska from 1980-2010. He has worked with the U.N., governments and NGOs on environmental issues.
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