What the U.N. summit achieved — and didn’t
The point of these talks was for countries to announce ambitious carbon-cutting pledges that would prevent the world from warming more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels.
That did not happen. Despite some new promises, and old promises repackaged as new ones, an analysis by the independent group Climate Action Tracker found that with all the short-term pledges added together, the world is likely to heat up by 2.4 degrees Celsius (4.3 degrees Fahrenheit) this century.
That’s better than the path the world was on before the Paris agreement six years ago, when scientists predicted nearly 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming. But the consequences would still be catastrophic, resulting in deadlier wildfires and floods, famine and the extinction of more species.
Here’s a look at what the negotiators accomplished — and what remains unresolved.
There are reasons to be skeptical of many of these agreements, environmental advocates said. Brazil and Indonesia, countries that are destroying their forests, joined the deforestation pledge. And some of the world’s largest coal-burning countries, including China, Australia and India, didn’t sign the pledge to phase out the fossil fuel.
But the level of deal-making at the summit is an “enormous sign of success,” said Sarah Ladislaw, a managing director at the Rocky Mountain Institute, an independent clean energy research organization based in Colorado. More than ever before, she said, countries, industry, investors and philanthropists are working together to reach side deals that could have a huge effect, adding that the conference should not be judged solely on whether “something very big and new” came out of the official negotiating process.
Biden’s spending bill faces an uncertain future. A new Supreme Court case brought by West Virginia and other coal states could block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating carbon pollution from power plants. And if Democrats lose their majorities in Congress in the midterm election, Biden would probably find his path to future emissions reductions blocked by Republicans.
The report by Climate Action Tracker found that of all the pledges countries have made to get to zero emissions, only four governments — Britain, Costa Rica, Chile and the EU — have detailed plans to achieve that.
What’s more, many of the major challenges that presented themselves at the beginning of the summit remain unresolved, including whether wealthy countries will come up with the $100 billion a year they previously promised to developing nations by 2020 to help them transition to cleaner sources of energy.
Negotiations will probably continue at the upcoming World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January, as well as at the next meeting of energy ministers from around the world in Pittsburgh in late 2022.
“We’ve got all these promises. We’ve got all these pledges,” Ladislaw said. “But now we will see what countries are prepared to do.”
Despite the rhetoric, American and Chinese officials had been working together for months. The countries unveiled a statement Wednesday in which they pledged to put aside their differences and “raise ambition in the 2020s” to address climate change.
The deal itself mostly restated previous pledges, but the fact that the envoys of the two countries that together produce about 40% of global emissions could agree to even a vague goal was “confidence building,” said Kelly Sims Gallagher, professor of energy and environmental policy at the Fletcher School at Tufts University.
“We’re all in this really hyper-politicized environment, and the fact that this came together shows that they’re trying to inject some momentum into the negotiations,” Gallagher said.
But at a couple of key moments, the United States was noticeably absent.
The White House did not join the pledge to phase out coal in the coming decades, even though coal’s decline as a source of power in America has accelerated significantly. Nor did the U.S. sign the agreement to phase out gas- and diesel-powered cars, joining China and Japan in withholding support from a deal that could have a greater influence if all three — some of the largest car markets in the world — had backed it.
Experts said the decision to abstain from these pledges spoke volumes about America’s domestic politics and the influence of the coal, oil and gas industries. The American negotiators may also have been reluctant to antagonize Sen. Joe Manchin III, a centrist Democrat from the coal state of West Virginia, whose support the president will need if his biggest climate policies are to win approval. The Democrats’ spending bill faces an uphill battle in Congress, despite its pared-down measures.
Summit attendees said that COVID-19 protocols made it much more difficult this year for protesters to confront international leaders in person. But outside of the formal negotiations, there were side events, panels and marches, offering the activists a platform to make their displeasure known.
They may have affected the proceedings’ tone. There were boastful claims of progress, but these were often tempered by acknowledgments that the math doesn’t add up and more cuts will have to be made to keep global warming in check.
“Let me emphasize as strongly as I can: Job not done,” John F. Kerry, Biden’s climate change envoy, said at a news conference earlier this month. “But this is doable if we follow through.”