Every few years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the United Nations body for climate science – produces a major report on the state of the climate crisis. Whichever way you slice it up, the latest IPCC report told the world what it already knows – and added even greater urgency.
Like the last two in 2014 and 2018, the recent IPCC report doesn’t say it directly in the text, but you can clearly infer from the numbers that to have something like a decent chance of limiting warming to 1.5 ° C – the 2015 Paris Agreement target: global emissions must peak around 2025, then plunge rapidly to zero. We have had 11 years to reach this peak and overthrow it. Now we have four.
The report presents five different paths that emissions could take in the coming decades, with different “climate futures” attached to them. The trajectory in which emissions decrease as quickly as possible gives us a little less than a 50% chance of limiting warming to 1.5 ° C. In this scenario, the world must limit total greenhouse gas emissions over time to the equivalent of about 500 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (CO₂).
The report shows that the world is currently emitting around 40 gigatons per year (and growing). This leaves about 12.5 years of emission at current levels. So if the world reaches zero emissions by 2050, each year until then emissions should not exceed 40% of 2021 emissions on average.
Getting emissions to peak and then starting a downtrend is pretty straightforward in theory. Several major changes can be made in sectors such as electricity, construction and transport, where many emissions come from and where there are readily available alternatives. These include:
Achieving all of this in ten years is technically possible. But there are important obstacles which are fundamentally political.
What is the hold-up?
Fossil fuel companies continue to struggle to prevent actions that threaten their bottom line, pressuring governments to weaken legislation and protect their subsidies. They have enough support in enough countries – think Australia, Poland, Russia and Saudi Arabia – and enough countries with competing interests – Canada, the Netherlands, the United States and Norway. – to block action in a series of forums, such as at the last G20 summit. . Even in countries with relatively strong climate policies, the might of the fossil fuel industry generates various contradictions, such as in the UK’s continued support for North Sea oil and gas.
Global inequalities in emissions also remain an important issue to address. There are rapidly growing emissions in developing countries, but stable or slightly declining emissions in most industrialized countries. Reaching a peak in emissions globally means curbing emissions growth in China and other countries, with much faster declines in the US, UK and Germany than the global average. The politics of this are delicate and complicated.
The question then arises of how to finance this rapid change. This involves mobilizing investments in renewable energies, carrying out huge amounts of building renovations for energy efficiency and electrification, and accelerating the construction of electric vehicle infrastructure. It also involves significant global funding for these transitions in developing countries. But how to mobilize this money?
The neoliberal consensus of the past four decades favors private finance. But leaving this effort to the free market risks being insufficient. Fossil fuels are often even more profitable than renewables, despite the latter’s cost competitiveness. Revitalizing public finance concepts to generate sufficient investments in low carbon sectors may be necessary. There has been some evolution towards this approach with the emergence of new green agreements in different countries, but a much greater effort in this direction is needed.
And of course, the world remains distracted by other crises. The most obvious of these is COVID-19, which has disrupted climate action in most countries, delaying further political announcements, drawing attention to both the pandemic and the economic recovery. The level of investment needed to overcome COVID-19 has presented some opportunities, but evidence so far seems to suggest that the global economy is rebounding towards high-carbon growth.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 has reduced pressure on political leaders to act on climate change. It has been much more difficult to organize the protest movements – the school strikes, Extinction Rebellion – which were in full swing before the blockades around the world took effect.
The importance of COP26
The IPCC report will be used to inform discussions by world leaders at the United Nations climate talks, also known as COP26, which are due to be held in Glasgow in November 2021. But if there is so much going on that prevent emissions from being put on a downward trajectory, what can the world expect from this two-week meeting?
It is clear that he can do certain things. It is the key site for negotiating global inequalities, such as how richer countries should compensate poorer ones for bearing the brunt of a crisis largely not of their own making. Such issues have stymied the UN climate process since negotiations began in 1991. This is where national governments are expected to make new commitments, known as Nationally Determined Contributions, to achieve the goal. global temperature limit proposed by the Paris Agreement.
Some of these pledges have already been released, but the signs that they significantly bolster global action are not good. So far, and despite US President Joe Biden’s summit in April, there is no sense that major states are persuading each other to improve on their commitments, generating the kind of momentum in 2015 that led to the Paris Agreement.
To expect a lot from COP26 itself is to miss out on the main sites of action involved in the peak and fall in emissions. In the Paris Agreement, it is national governments. And most conflicts preventing action occur within countries.
This is where people need to focus much of their attention, to override the influence of fossil fuel companies, find new ways to finance decarbonization, and steer the economic recovery from COVID-19 towards a low-carbon future.