Implement new climate commitments — then go beyond to constrain warming

The just-concluded COP26 UN climate conference provides an opportunity to assess humanity’s progress in mitigating and adapting to climate change. The goal from the Paris Agreement of 2015 was reiterated in Glasgow: hold global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius with an aspirational target of 1.5 degrees.

This challenge is daunting, but humanity is facing a profound threat to its well-being caused by its own actions. Effective responses will ultimately require fundamental changes to nearly every facet of how we live.

By some accounts, Glasgow failed to deliver; by other accounts, it produced a landmark agreement. Somewhere in between is likely correct. And there are countervailing concerns and constraints. Today, inexpensive and accessible fossil fuels are key underpinnings to lifting billions of people out of poverty. Moreover, swapping out a system based on fossil fuels for one that does not emit greenhouse gases is not a matter of flipping a switch.    

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Decarbonization will take time. Technologies such solar, wind and (yes) nuclear power exist. In theory, they could be widely deployed to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century. Just like solving the COVID-19 problem has not just been a matter of simple producing vaccines (i.e., technology development) because it also requires getting people vaccinated (technology adoption), the challenge on climate change is how to implement an efficient transition. Economic, cultural and political barriers persist, so posting the markers of success must take account of the requisite degree of patience over time.

The general unwillingness of people to pay higher prices for energy is one significant pitfall. Moving too quickly to change energy systems risks sharply increasing prices and produces inevitable political backlash. Surveys show that widespread support for climate change mitigation drops off when people are asked to pay more for energy. Witness the rapid decrease in President BidenJoe BidenDeputy AG: DOJ investigating fake Trump electors On The Money — Vaccine-or-test mandate for businesses nixed Warner tests positive for breakthrough COVID-19 case MORE’s popularity following recent increases in gasoline prices and the yellow vest uprising in France when higher taxes on gasoline were proposed. Meanwhile, many rulers in developing countries try to keep their populations satisfied by subsidizing fossil fuel prices. Politicians and parties advocating for more rapid decarbonization risk being replaced not just by those who dismiss climate change, but by those who accept climate science but do not want to pay for appropriate action to reduce future harm.

In spite of this, there is still room for being optimistic. It was not long ago that we thought that humanity was on a path to heat the atmosphere by 4 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. Recent research has found that we are on a path to an increase just under 3 degrees of warming. Increased use of solar and wind power has already started bending the curve on greenhouse gas emissions with limited government support. Commitments from Paris are estimated to reduce the temperature trajectory by about 0.5 degrees.  Anticipation of eventual decarbonization policy has, for example, already provided the incentive for many large actors in the global economy to move away from coal in their long-term investments.  And, in Glasgow. commitments were made to reduce methane emissions and stop deforestation.

Taken together, these observations raise the prospect that further progress would get us close to the 2 degrees commitment.  Holding global warming to 2 degrees would be a tremendous feat for humanity that would avoid some of the worst prospective impacts of higher temperatures.

Finally, it is very important to recognize that 1.5 degrees is not a threshold below which it is “safe” and above which it is “dangerous.” On the one hand, more warming is worse than less. On the other, we already endure the damages and loss of life at the current level 1.1 degrees of warming. 

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Thus, we need to limit emissions as much as is feasible, but let’s be honest with ourselves. Let’s recognize that substantial progress has been made. We have to ensure that commitments made to date are implemented — and we must go beyond those commitments to further constrain warming.

Joel B. Smith is an independent climate change consultant, who has worked as a coordinating lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, author on several U.S. National Assessments and has co-edited the Environmental Protection Agency’s report to Congress on climate change impacts on the US.

Gary Yohe, Ph.D., is the Huffington Foundation professor of Economics and Environmental Studies, Emeritus at Wesleyan University.