The tragic politics of climate change

The tragic politics of climate change
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What does the United Nations’ COP26 climate conference in Glasgow tell us about the state of global efforts to limit climate change to under 2 degrees (Celsius)? The short answer is that despite a growing sense of trepidation about hastening climate change, the gap between present and future, and between intentions and results, remains wide.

That has been the story of the previous UN climate meetings, the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris climate accords. Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have risen 60 percent since the first climate gathering in 1992. It reflects the vexing nature of the issue.

Addressing climate change is mostly about transitioning to a post-petroleum clean energy system. But, historically, shifts – wood burning to coal, coal to oil and gas, and gas to renewables – are not swift, and the disruptions of the transition politically intimidating.


The difficult politics of seeking disruptive short-term sweeping change for deferred future benefits yields bold pledges to reach net zero CO2 emissions by 2050 with few shared roadmaps on how to get there.

The meeting couldn’t have taken place under worse circumstances: against the backdrop of growing great power competition when greatly increased global cooperation is vital, and amid stark droughts, floods, record heat waves, rising oceans, COVID-19, rising oil and gas prices and a surge in worldwide coal use.

Thus, there was the odd specter of President BidenJoe BidenNew York woman arrested after allegedly spitting on Jewish children Former Sen. Donnelly confirmed as Vatican ambassador Giuliani associate sentenced to a year in prison in campaign finance case MORE seeking to curb U.S. oil and gas production while pleading with OPEC to increase theirs. The leaders of some of largest GHG-emitting states – China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinUkrainian president praises Biden for reaffirming US support The pitfalls of Russia's plan to rewrite history in Ukraine Kazakhstan's crackdown is a frightening formula for authoritarians MORE – didn’t attend.

That said, the meeting has displayed a heightened sense of urgency, as negotiators tried to turn leaders’ commitments into results. To Biden’s credit, 100 nations signed on to a U.S.-led initiative to cut methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030. Methane is 80 times more toxic than CO2 emissions and can yield immediate GHG reductions.

There was progress on global carbon-trading talks — putting a price on carbon is the fastest way to use much less of it. COP26 delegates also committed to end deforestation by 2030. Trees are a major absorber of GHG emissions. A group of 457 financial institutions managing $130 trillion in assets pledged to prioritize green investments, a growing trend. But the devil is in the details: To date, follow-through on such pledges has been abysmal, though there are promising signs this time around.

Hopefully, the $550 billion in Biden’s Build Back Better (BBB) legislation will make good on many U.S. pledges. BBB is a mix of tax credits, investments and regulations to accelerate the electrification of transport, renewable energy R&D and infrastructure (e.g. smart grids and electric vehicle (EV) charging stations), the largest such effort yet.

Unfortunately, efforts by some brave souls in Congress to create a carbon tax, to allow market forces to drive the process, was shot down. Most economists and several ex-secretaries of state have promoted a carbon tax as the most efficient way to decarbonize; but again, politics prevailed. Nonetheless, it all suggests a new seriousness.

Yet the intractable politics of climate change remain. Recent studies suggest it is technically possible to reach Biden’s U.S. goal of reducing net emissions by 50 percent by 2030, and the UN and Paris accord goals of reaching net zero emissions by 2050 and limiting temperature rise to under 2 degrees.

But the path to get there requires extraordinary transformations that are difficult to see being realized. The reality of surging coal use in China and the U.S., the two largest emitters, as U.S. shale oil and gas producers ramp up production highlight the inertia of the present.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has constructed a detailed roadmap of what net zero GHG emissions by 2050 would require. Among the items: Ending new oil and gas projects starting next year and increasing the use of EVs in the U.S. from 3 percent now to 60 percent by 2030.


The list goes on, but you get the point. Thankfully, investments, research and development, and new deployments are ramping up dramatically, and it is technically possible to reach the net-zero goals by 2050. But even with the new momentum, it remains a very ambitious goal.

But there is a rich menu of low-hanging fruit, things that can be done now to reduce emissions which negotiators finalizing COP26 efforts in Glasgow should pursue. For starters, ramp up the methane initiative beyond the 30 percent goal. Studies suggest ending methane emissions could reduce temperature rise up to 0.3 percent. And begin to phase out coal by expanding natural gas, which produces 50 percent fewer emissions than coal. Agreeing on global carbon trading rules would be another good step.

Natural methods are even easier. Trees and soil are huge carbon sinks. To implement the vague deforestation pledge, have the G-20 endorse a plan for nations, in public-private partnerships, to plant one billion trees by 2025. Giving farmers credits for using techniques that allow soil to better capture C02 would make a near-term difference.

A big push on energy efficiency should also be on the menu. Buildings consume about one-third of electricity in the U.S. Retrofitting buildings with net-zero technology and requiring it of all new buildings could yield quick results. Similarly, with appliances. The BBB would install 500,000 charging stations and would make EVs more attractive to consumers. The U.S. could transition government fleets to electric and/or hydrogen power as a priority.

This is just a sampling. As weather gets more extreme, and leaders become more serious about addressing climate change, a carbon tax should be revisited.

Finally, there is innovation. Ramping up R&D for battery storage, renewables, hydrogen and other energy technologies (including modular small nuclear plants) as well as experimenting with geo-engineering techniques to alter warming, could make a difference in the 2040-2050 timeframe. But for the moment, the politics of climate change still impose dangerous limits.

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and its New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council. He was a senior counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs from 2001 to 2004, a member of the U.S. Department of State policy planning staff from 2004 to 2008 and on the National Intelligence Council strategic futures group from 2008 to 2012. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4.