Phasing out gasoline cars and coal: What the U.N. climate talks have — and haven’t — achieved

Global leaders can see signs of progress at the United Nations Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland. However, the Earth is still heading for dangerously high levels of warming.

The purpose of these talks was to get countries to make ambitious carbon-cutting promises that would keep the world’s temperature from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degree Fahrenheit) beyond preindustrial levels. That didn’t happen. Despite new promises and old promises being repackaged as new, an independent analysis by Climate Action Tracker showed that the world’s temperature is expected to rise by 2.4 degrees Celsius (4.3 degree Fahrenheit) by the end of this century, despite all the short-term promises. This is a far better path than the one that the world took six years ago before the Paris agreement , when scientists had predicted almost 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 Fahrenheit). However, the consequences could still be devastating, with more wildfires, floods, famines and the extinctions of many species.

Negotiations over what countries will do to combat climate change going forward are still ongoing. This is a summary of what has been achieved so far and what remains to be done.

Side deals were the main event this time

This year’s summit was unusual. Typically, the main event is the final agreement, painfully hammered out over two weeks of daily negotiations between representatives from nearly 200 countries. This time, most of the action happened on the sidelines:

  • Nearly 100 countries joined a global pledge to limit emissions of methane, a planet-warming gas more potent as a polluter than carbon dioxide. Still more signed a pact to prevent further deforestation by 2030.

  • A coalition of countries, cities and automakers, including Ford, General Motors, Volvo and Mercedes-Benz, committed to phase out sales of new fossil-fuel vehicles by 2040 and by 2035 in “leading markets.”

  • More than 40 countries pledged to phase out coal by 2030 and stop building coal-fired power plants, helping eliminate the largest source of planet-warming gases globally.

  • In a test of whether industrialized nations are capable of helping developing countries shift to cleaner sources of energy, South Africa reached a deal with the U.S., Britain, France, Germany and the European Union under which it would receive $8.5 billion over the next five years to transition away from coal.

  • The U.S., Denmark and other countries agreed to work toward zeroing out emissions from the shipping industry by 2050 and creating at least six zero-emission shipping routes. These changes could be enforced by governments to require that no emissions-free vessels travel from Shanghai to Los Angeles, for instance.

There are reasons to be skeptical of many of these agreements, environmental advocates said. Brazil and Indonesia, which are destroying their forests, have signed the deforestation promise. Interestingly, some of the largest coal-burning nations in the world, such as Australia, China, and India, did not sign the pledge to eliminate fossil fuels.

But, the summit’s level of deal-making is an “enormous indicator of success,” stated Sarah Ladislaw (a managing director of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado-based independent clean energy research organization). She said that countries, investors, philanthropists, and industry are working together more than ever to make side deals that could have a significant impact. However, it is not enough to judge the conference on the outcome of official negotiations.

Beyond swagger, what went down between the U.S. and China?

Doubts that the U.S. and China, the top emitting countries in the world, were willing to work together on climate hung over the summit from the beginning. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s absence led President Biden to publicly criticize him for skipping the summit — a scolding that prompted the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman to accuse the U.S. of offering only “empty words” instead of concrete climate policies. Despite this rhetoric, American officials and Chinese officials have been working together for many 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 a hyper-politized environment and the fact that this came to the table shows that they are trying to give momentum to the negotiations,” Gallagher stated.

What the U.S. left on the table

“America showed up,” Biden said at the summit, where he touted the U.S.’ participation in the talks and apologized for former President Trump’s exit from the Paris agreement, which the country has since rejoined. He called on other nations to increase their climate goals, saying that “we only have a brief window before us to raise our ambitions.”

But at a couple of key moments, the U.S. was noticeably absent.

The White House didn’t sign the pledge to eliminate coal use in the next decade, despite the fact that coal’s decline in America’s power generation has been dramatic. The U.S. did not sign the agreement to eliminate gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles. This was in line with Japan and China, who also withheld their support for a deal that could have greater impact if supported by all three of the world’s largest car markets.

Experts believe that America’s decision to withdraw from the pledges speaks volumes about its domestic politics and the power of the oil, coal and gas industries. American negotiators might not have wanted to be seen as an adversary to Sen. Joe Manchin III (a centrist Democrat from West Virginia), whose support is crucial if he wants to pass his most ambitious climate policies. Despite its more modest measures, the Democrats’ spending bill will face a difficult battle in Congress.

Youth climate activists made their case in the streets

Thousands of climate activists traveled to Glasgow to demand countries act faster to combat climate change. Many of them were young protestors, including Greta Thunberg from Sweden and Vanessa Nakate, a Ugandan activist, who made international headlines by calling out the world’s leaders for not taking action and failing to address the needs of developing countries.

Summit attendees said that COVID-19 protocols made it much more difficult this year for protesters to confront international leaders in person. The activists were able to express their discontent through side events, panels, and marches, outside of formal negotiations. They may have had an impact on the proceedings’ tone. Although there were some boastful claims about progress, they were often countered by acknowledgements that the numbers don’t add up and that more cuts are needed to limit global warming.

“Let’s emphasize as strong as we can: Job not finished,” John Kerry, the climate change envoy for Biden, stated at a press conference last week. “But this is doable if we follow through.”

What happens next?

The summit inspired a flurry of new climate pledges from governments and industry. However, researchers and government officials will closely monitor the summit’s outcomes to determine if they can be translated into concrete actions in the coming weeks and months.

Biden’s budget bill is in jeopardy. 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. Biden’s path to future emission reductions would be blocked by Republicans if Democrats lose their majority in Congress during the midterm elections. The report by Climate Action Tracker showed that only four countries, namely Britain, Costa Rica and Chile, have detailed plans for achieving zero emissions.

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 likely continue at the upcoming World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January, as well as the next meeting of energy ministers from around the world in Pittsburgh in late 2022.

” We have all the promises. “We’ve got all the promises,” Ladislaw stated. “But now we will see what countries are prepared to do.”

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