Takeaway from Poland: Climate success requires action by global leaders — including US president

The biggest takeaway from two weeks of climate negotiations in Poland is simple, if breathtaking: climate change is such a massive and existential issue that it can only be effectively dealt with by major nation heads of state, not just a collection of 195 environment ministers.

Yes, the basic rules for accounting, monitoring and verification of emissions were agreed to in Poland. These are important, so that all nations can judge whether other countries are on track to make emissions cuts as they have pledged. Ministers deserve real credit for delivering on this. But getting “the Paris rules” right, while necessary, does not begin the harder work of actually cutting emissions, and so is hardly sufficient progress to address the climate crisis, for two key reasons.

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First, the largest emitting nations are not even close to on track to meet their Paris pledges. In fact, rather than falling, global CO2 emissions grew by 1.6 percent in 2017 and are projected to increase by 2.7 percent this year. The world’s largest emitter, China, saw its CO2 emissions grow by about 5 percent in 2018. And after steadily falling in previous years under President Obama, U.S. emissions are set to rise by 2.5 percent this year under President TrumpDonald John TrumpPompeo changes staff for Russia meeting after concerns raised about top negotiator's ties: report House unravels with rise of 'Les Enfants Terrible' Ben Carson: Trump is not a racist and his comments were not racist MORE. E.U. CO2 output did fall by about 1 percent this year, but rose in 2017 by an equal amount, and Indian emissions rose by more than 6 percent, as did emissions of many other countries.

Second, even if all the Paris emissions pledges were achieved, they would still push global average temperatures up at least 3.5 Celsius, far above even remotely safe levels. In fact, new science is showing us that temperatures that high will be catastrophic, leading to massive sea level rise, agricultural disruptions, more droughts, floods, fires, infectious disease and other extreme impacts.

But that’s not all. Temperatures of more than 2 Celsius themselves are increasingly likely to set off self-reinforcing, uncontrollable, runaway climate impacts, where the climate system itself has warming beget still more warming, leading to a “hothouse planet.” Thus, we currently are on course for temperature increases of at least 4 Celsius, according to a leading peer-review study published in the U.S. National Academy of Sciences journal.

This means that even more ambitious emissions reductions must be agreed to and then actually achieved in just the next decade. Some subset of global leaders will have to meet before the next UN climate talks to put together realistic approaches to achieving far more ambitious outcomes. Otherwise, the reputation of the Paris Agreement will be dragged down by the huge disparity between the existential climate threat and inadequate current actions. Critically, more than half of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from China, the U.S., and the E.U., and 80 percent come from the 20 largest emitting nations, showing that leading nations can effectively deal with the problem.

But history shows us that only heads of state (and those very close to them) can make such huge breakthroughs. 

The three most important climate agreements of the last several decades — the Montreal Protocol in the late 1980s, the Paris Agreement in 2015, and the Kigali Amendment in 2016 — were the result of leaders of the largest economic nations on Earth coming together to get a deal among themselves, which led eventually to agreement by all nations. 

The Montreal Protocol, the world’s most successful environmental treaty, has mitigated more greenhouse gas emissions than any other effort, while also helping to close the ozone hole as originally intended. Perhaps surprisingly, it was gained largely through the leadership of American and British conservatives, specifically those under President Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and implemented through President George H.W. Bush.

The Paris Agreement and the Kigali Agreement on phasing out hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), were gained only after President Obama began negotiations directly with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Indeed, in their first meeting in 2013 in California they discussed two issues — North Korea, and the phase out of super polluting HFCs. The success of those talks laid the groundwork for agreement between the two most powerful heads of state for reductions of other greenhouse gases, especially CO2, in 2015. 

Indeed, there has since been inadequate focus by global leaders on the key non-CO2 greenhouse gas emissions which cause nearly half of warming — including methane, black carbon soot and tropospheric ozone. 

These short-lived super pollutants are being targeted by the UN’s Climate and Clean Air Coalition and its 61 partner countries, which are collectively responsible for more than 50 percent of methane and black carbon emissions. If the coalition’s solutions are adopted worldwide, the super pollutant mitigation by itself can avoid as much 0.6 degrees Celsius warming before 2050 and delay the 2 degrees Celsius threshold for another two decades. Phasing out HFCs under the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol will alone avoid up to 0.5 degrees Celsius of warming before 2100, while collectively the cuts to short-lived climate pollutants will avoid about 1.2 degrees Celsius of warming in that period.

Most global leaders now recognize we have reached the point where only their urgent engagement can address the growing crisis. But each is also busy with other challenges.

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French President Emmanuel Macron has committed to aggressive domestic and global action but is dealing with protests over fuel taxes at home. British Prime Minister Theresa May has been a leading conservative voice for climate protection but her time is being consumed by the Brexit fiasco. Xi is trying to guide the Chinese economy to a soft landing while dealing with U.S. trade threats. Indian Prime Minister Modi has made great strides on renewable energy and energy efficiency in India, and has pledged to bring electricity to tens of millions of his citizens who still lack it. Yet, all of these leaders know their nations and those around the world are already suffering from climate impacts — and climate change action is the ultimate “legacy” issue.

And, of course, the rise of anti-establishment populist nationalism in the U.S., Brazil and other nations represents a serious challenge to gaining international climate cooperation. But when other global leaders begin to act, and gain political credit, and citizens awaken to the true nature of the threat, even these forces will feel tremendous pressure to change their stripes, or be chased out of power.

For now, in the U.S., regional leaders — especially governors —will have to fill the void until a new president is elected. House Democrats now in the majority have pledged to make climate action a key priority, and can play a key role in creating an agenda for a new White House occupant.

Finally, private sector leaders are recognizing that unchecked climate change will undermine their bottom line, and are ready to make great strides, and profits, if only governments will lead the way. 

But ultimately addressing the climate crisis will come down to global heads of state who alone have the influence to make the dynamic economic, regulatory, technological and political strides needed. Macron is hosting the G-7 in France next summer. That would be a great place to start.

Paul Bledsoe is a strategic advisor and energy fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. He served in the Clinton administration as the director of communications for the White House Climate Change Task Force and on the staff of the Senate Finance Committee. Bledsoe attended recent UN climate negotiations in Poland.