How We Make Real Progress on Climate Change

The upcoming UN Summit threatens to devolve into recriminations and finger-pointing if we are not realistic.

This week, diplomats from around the world will arrive in Glasgow for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP), the annual UN-hosted climate negotiations many are counting on to drive climate progress this century. It’s probably the most hotly anticipated COP since 2015, when political and business leaders crafted the international accord on climate change known as the Paris Agreement

If nations use the COP to incrementally build upon the realistic emissions reduction commitments they made at Paris, while strengthening global cooperation on technology, climate adaptation, and economic development, then these annual meetings could be worthwhile. By contrast, if the COP meeting is captured by the global climate commentariat and activist class that is demanding sweeping action to avoid a looming catastrophe, it is virtually guaranteed to descend into finger-pointing and posturing by rich and poor nations over who has the right to pollute the atmosphere. Ultimately, COP26 leaders should embrace the art of the possible, which will mean deemphasizing abstract temperature and emissions targets in favor of practical commitments from nations to deploy clean technology and infrastructure.

To understand how we got here, a basic overview of the past 30 years of climate negotiations is necessary. Since the early 1990s, the international community has treated climate change as a problem akin to ozone pollution and nuclear weapons, two major global hazards that have been effectively redressed by international treaties. But climate change is a far more difficult problem to solve because reducing dependence on fossil fuels and attendant carbon emissions requires that the world remake the entire global energy economy. 

Making matters more complicated, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which took force in 1994, has from the beginning distinguished between wealthy “Annex I” nations and less-developed “non-Annex” parties. Under that framework, rich nations that were responsible for the vast majority of historic emissions were expected to cut emissions before poor nations would be asked to take action. 

But as deindustrialization and outsourcing gathered steam across the West, the notion that developed countries would undertake deep and costly emissions cuts, while their rising economic competitors would not, became politically untenable. This led to calls from the late 1990s onwards for non-Annex nations, and especially China, to make binding emissions reduction commitments as well. Developing countries understandably rejected these demands, seeing them, correctly, as commitments that would significantly hinder their efforts to catch up to levels of wealth and development enjoyed in the rich world. 

For twenty years, international efforts to address climate change foundered on these problems. But in Paris in 2015, the COP delivered a diplomatic breakthrough. Emissions reduction plans would not come from top-down temperature targets set by the United Nations itself, but from bottom-up technological and infrastructure plans set by individual countries known as “intended nationally determined contributions,” or INDCs. Though the INDCs proposed at Paris fell far short of what would be necessary to keep warming below the long-standing international goal of 2°C  above pre-industrial levels, it succeeded in at least getting the world moving towards some form of climate action—something that 25 years of negotiations had largely failed to do. It did so by basing global climate action on commitments that nations were actually prepared to make, rather than on wishful thinking that is reverse-engineered from abstract and ultimately arbitrary temperature targets.

And despite its limitations, the new bottom-up approach appears to be working. In the six years since Paris, nations have steadily ratcheted up their climate commitments. Most major economies have made ambitious climate commitments over the last two years. China, now the world’s largest emitter, has committed to net-zero emissions by 2060. India, much poorer and faster growing than China, has also made ambitious commitments to scale up clean energy and reduce emissions. Where commitments made in Paris put the world on a trajectory for as much as 3.5°C of warming, new modeling from the International Energy Agency suggests that subsequent commitments might result in the world stabilizing temperatures not much above the longstanding 2°C target. 

Long-term commitments of this sort, of course, are not necessarily worth the paper they are written on. Policy-makers today have no ability to constrain the actions of future policy-makers, and all manner of economic, geopolitical, and technological obstacles may prove difficult to overcome. But national programs to deploy clean energy, agricultural, and transportation technologies are the stuff that climate action is made of and the fact that policy-makers today are prepared to make ambitious climate commitments reflects growing confidence in their ability to meet them. 

Unfortunately, decoupling national emissions reduction commitments from top-down temperature targets had an unintended side effect. Untethered from any legally binding framework that would tie global targets to national policies, delegates at Paris effectively moved the goalposts from 2°C above industrial levels to 1.5°C. This is an unrealistic benchmark, given that global average temperatures are already 1.1°C above pre-industrial levels; that most of the planet still remains poor compared with Western living standards; and that technological alternatives to many emissions-intensive activities remain, at best, nascent and uneconomic, if they exist at all. Nonetheless, the 1.5-degree goal has dominated the global climate discourse, and political leaders across the West increasingly pledge obeisance to it.

As global leaders head to Glasgow, the new demands to stabilize temperatures at 1.5°C have reproduced the conflict and paralysis between developing and developed nations that the Paris Agreement was designed to alleviate. Both China and India have resisted the 1.5°C target. At a G20 meeting in July, the two nations declined to sign onto common commitments that were seen as decisive ahead of Glasgow. India conspicuously failed to attend key climate negotiations that same month. Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to skip the upcoming COP altogether. 

The preference among activists, journalists, and many politicians for dramatic posturing over incremental action has had significant consequences as world leaders get ready to meet in Glasgow. Last week, a group of major emerging economies including China and India called demands by western leaders for all nations to achieve net-zero commitments by 2050 “anti-equity and against climate justice.” On the eve of the COP meeting, the proceedings appear on the verge of descending into disorder and recriminations.

By contrast, the slow but steady ratcheting of ambition put in motion after Paris creates a virtuous cycle where success can breed success, nations can learn from each other's achievements, and falling technological costs and shared commitments to technology and development increasingly replace zero-sum geopolitical calculations. 

That approach won’t inspire climate activists and certainly won’t result in emissions trajectories compatible with a 1.5°C target. But ultimately, climate change is a matter of degrees, not thresholds. Just as every tenth of a degree in increased warming represents a greater risk to human and non-human well-being, every tenth of a degree of avoided warming represents progress to be celebrated. In Paris in 2015, it appeared our climate negotiators finally understood that essential truth. Today, it is clear they have regressed. It is unlikely at this point that the looming diplomatic calamity at Glasgow can be averted. But in the years and decades to come, policy-makers, environmentalists, and climate advocates would be wise to return to a more pragmatic and promising approach to climate negotiations and, ultimately, climate action.

Alex Trembath is deputy director and Ted Nordhaus is executive director of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental research center in Oakland, California.