This Might Be the Biggest Win for Upcoming Global Climate Talks
It’s less than 40 days before the start of the high-stakes United Nations climate summit COP26. There are five big things on the agenda and there seemed to be little progress on any of them—until last week.
Here are the main issues delegates have to make progress on if they want to keep the goals of the landmark Paris Agreement alive:
- Every five years, countries have to submit revised plans to cut emissions, which would ideally be aligned with what scientists say is needed. Many haven’t provided new commitments yet, and some large polluters haven’t raised their green ambitions.
- Countries need to agree on rules for carbon markets that will be governed by the UN. Those negotiations failed to deliver an outcome at the last summit in Madrid in 2019 and they are bound to be tricky in Glasgow this year.
- Rich countries have yet to deliver on the annual $100 billion in climate finance they promised to raise to help poor countries. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has downplayed the chances of the money materializing, though U.S. climate envoy John Kerry is more optimistic.
- COP26 President Alok Sharma wants to “consign coal to history” by getting a deal from governments to stop building new infrastructure for the dirtiest fossil fuel. Convincing the biggest producers, like Australia and Russia, and consumers such as China and India is proving extremely difficult.
- The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest science report injected urgency into the race to cut methane emissions, the second-largest contributor to warming after carbon dioxide. There had been no global commitment to do so.
Then, on Friday, the U.S. and European Union launched the Global Methane Pledge that targets a voluntary 30% reduction by the end of the decade, relative to 2020 levels. Several countries declared their intention to join the pact that will be officially launched in Glasgow. The White House says so far six of the world’s top 15 polluters, covering about a fifth of global methane emissions, are on board. The full list includes Argentina, Ghana, Indonesia, Iraq, Italy, Mexico and the U.K.
“The starting gun just went off,” said Sarah Smith, program director at Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit that advocates for methane reductions. “We are optimistic that many more countries will join ahead of COP26.”
It’s no small feat. Methane is a super-warming gas that traps as much as 80 times the heat of carbon dioxide in the first two decades. But that also means cutting methane emissions can deliver the quickest climate win and give the world the kind of breathing room it needs to stave off the worst impacts of climate change.
The U.S. and EU estimate that if all countries cut methane emissions in line with their pledge over the next decade, it could reduce warming by at least 0.2 degrees Celsius by 2050. That’s a sizeable decrease given the planet has already heated up 1.1°C and the goal is to try to keep long-term warming below 1.5°C. The pledge covers all major methane sources: oil and gas, coal, agriculture, and waste management.
Some argue the pledge doesn’t go far enough. The quickest methane cuts could be in the oil and gas sector, said Cat Abreu, founder of a new group called Destination Zero. For her, the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance that Denmark and Costa Rica announced last month is a clearer solution. The countries have committed to phasing out the extraction of oil and gas by 2050 and are calling on other countries to do the same.
This patchwork of alliances targeting one sector or one greenhouse gas is a far cry from the systematic, globally coordinated approach needed to deliver an orderly green transition. Yet climate diplomacy is complex, says Abreu, and these parallel voluntary agreements with narrow targets will probably be how we piece together the puzzle of decarbonization.
Akshat Rathi writes the Net Zero newsletter, which examines the world’s race to cut emissions through the lens of business, science, and technology. You can email him with feedback.
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