A new UN climate architecture is emerging focused on need for speed
The opening bell of the 76th session of the UN General Assembly started Tuesday with a warning from Secretary-General António Guterres, “I am here to sound the alarm: The world must wake up. We are on the edge of an abyss — and moving in the wrong direction.” He explained that “the climate alarm bells are also ringing at fever pitch. The recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was a code red for humanity. We see the warning signs in every continent and region.”
And he is not wrong. In the U.S., this summer was the hottest in 126 years of records, tied with the Dust Bowl summer of 1936. Nearly one in three Americans experienced a weather disaster this summer. Climate change is accelerating and every additional increment of climate pollution is causing irreversible harm.
U.S. President Joe Biden followed, noting that “Scientists and experts are telling us that we’re fast approaching a ‘point of no return,’— literally.” Biden explained that climate scientists tell us it is not too late to keep alive the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal of the Paris Agreement. But the window is rapidly closing. We must get serious. And we must act fast. The president also announced that he would more than quadruple the U.S. contribution to $11.4 billion a year by 2024 towards the $100 billion a year in climate support promised developing countries.
This new commitment builds on the president’s fast start in April when he hosted his first meeting of the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate on Earth Day with heads of State. As he promised then, the president followed up last week by hosting his second Major Economies Forum, this time focusing on fast mitigation by cutting the super climate pollutant methane. This included announcing that the U.S. and the EU were developing a Global Methane Pledge to cut methane by at least 30 percent by 2030, which can avoid twice as much warming by 2050 as can the fastest decarbonization of the energy sector.
Ghana, Iraq, Argentina, Indonesia, Italy, Mexico, the UK, along with the EU and U.S., declared their intention to join the Global Methane Pledge. These early supporters of the pledge include six of the top 15 methane emitters globally and together account for over one-fifth of global methane emissions and nearly half of the global economy.
The pattern that is emerging from Biden and his climate envoy John Kerry shows how they are changing climate politics by emphasizing the need to stay within the 1.5 degrees Celsius guardrail: by focusing on 2030 rather than the more distant 2050, by declaring that this decade must be the decade of fast action to bend the warming curve and by positioning the climate emergency at the head of state level where it belong. At home, the president’s ambitious goal under the Paris Agreement is to reduce U.S. climate emissions by 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
An additional part of the architecture that Biden and Kerry are building is the strategic elevation of the importance of cutting short-lived climate pollutants, particularly methane, which can provide the single biggest and fastest way to slow warming in the next two decades, which gives us the best and probably only chance of keeping the 1.5 degrees Celsius goal in sight. The Global Methane Pledge will be formally launched at COP26 in November in Glasgow, the 26th meeting of the Parties to the UN climate treaty.
The Methane Pledge is important in its own right as a forceful catalyst for immediate action to cut methane. It’s also an important step toward a global methane agreement. Done right, the process going forward will produce more than just methane mitigation. It also will help revitalize the lackluster climate governance system by continuing to shift the focus to heads of state, to the 1.5 degrees Celsius temperature guardrail, and to taking fast action this decade to 2030 by cutting the short-lived climate pollutants to slow feedbacks and avoid tipping points.
We need to move with lightning speed to develop our capabilities to fight climate change and rally all countries of the world to make immediate and drastic commitments to fast climate action. Guterres made the powerful point that developed countries should share some of their allocation of the $650 billion in Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) recently issues by the International Monetary Fund. These SDRs are critical for strengthening the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and to building back better. Ring-fencing a portion of the SDR’s for fast mitigation of methane and other short-lived climate pollutants would help ensure that building back better helps solve the climate emergency.
It’s early in Climate Week and more positive news is surely on the way. In the meantime, we should all heed Guterres’ message, “Don’t wait for others to make the first move. Do your part.”
Durwood Zaelke is president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development (IGSD) in Washington, D.C. and Paris, as well as adjunct professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is co-author of “Cut Super Climate Pollutants Now!: The Ozone Treaty’s Urgent Lessons for Speeding Up Climate Action” (2021).